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Is Marvel’s Video Game Takeover Inevitable?

With upcoming titles such as ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ ‘Midnight Suns,’ ‘Spider-Man 2,’ and ‘Wolverine,’ Marvel is aiming to improve upon its spotty track record in video games. But will gaming ever become a cornerstone of the MCU?

Marvel/Ringer illustration

Between God of War: Ragnarok getting its first trailer and the revelation that a Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic remake is in the works, last Thursday’s PlayStation Showcase brought big news to the world of the PS5. But no revelation shocked fans more than Sony-owned studio Insomniac Games unveiling two new titles based on Marvel characters: Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Marvel’s Wolverine. With two other would-be Marvel-branded blockbuster games, Guardians of the Galaxy and Midnight Suns, previously publicized and scheduled for release within the next six months, Insomniac’s announcements confirmed what was already becoming apparent: After conquering film and television, Marvel now has its sights set on consoles and PCs.

Gaming isn’t a new medium for Marvel. The company has been licensing its characters to video game developers since the early Atari systems, with sporadic success. If you’ve spent any time on YouTube in the past few years, you’ve probably been forced to watch a pre-roll ad for Marvel’s expansive mobile game slate, which includes fighting game Marvel Contest of Champions (2014), turn-based role-playing game Marvel Strike Force (2018), and the recently released (and largely well received) MMO Marvel Future Revolution. And Marvel-based properties have produced some Triple-A console smashes, most notably 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, which was originally released on PS4.

Developed by Insomniac and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, Marvel’s Spider-Man was a critical and popular hit, becoming the fastest-selling PlayStation exclusive and the fastest-selling superhero game ever (which may have helped seal Sony’s decision to acquire Insomniac last year). Praised for its story, gameplay, and graphics—which got even better when the game was released in remastered form for PS5—Spider-Man swung away with a few Game of the Year awards and soon inspired a spinoff, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a treat for the debut of the PlayStation 5 that also arrived simultaneously on Sony’s last-gen hardware. By preserving the traversal and combat systems that made Spider-Man a success and pairing them with a new protagonist and an engaging (albeit shorter) story, Insomniac delivered again for Spider-Man admirers, MCU fans, and gamers alike—not to mention Sony, which profited from several million more copies sold.

However, Marvel’s magic touch doesn’t extend to all of its titles. (Remember Inhumans?) Marvel’s Avengers, the big-budget action RPG released last September, became a costly misstep, despite its impressive pedigree. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, celebrated steward of the Tomb Raider, Legacy of Kain, and Gex franchises, and published by role-playing powerhouse Square Enix, Marvel’s Avengers had been hyped for years. Some people—no need to name names—were extremely excited for it.

Alas, Marvel’s version of Destiny fell far short of expectations. The game was buggy at launch, and its core gameplay loop was extremely repetitive, requiring enough grinding to make even the most seasoned of World of Warcraft players wary. Even a large roster of recognizable, playable heroes and an intriguing original story centered on Kamala Khan couldn’t redeem the dull, disappointing experience. Crystal Dynamics has done its best to salvage the product, pumping out Kate Bishop, Clint Barton, and Black Panther DLCs and briefly drumming up interest with a free-to-play period, but even with Spidey DLC on the way (for PlayStation owners), some critics are calling for the game to be put out to pasture. With content for days but relatively little to do that was fun or fulfilling, Marvel’s Avengers is a cautionary example of the perils of attempting to translate Marvel’s successful storytelling formula to an arena where gameplay trumps all else. It’s also a lesson in how a seemingly can’t-miss confluence of developer, publisher, and IP can still leave players with an empty feeling.

Yet rather than reconsidering its investment in video games and limiting itself to the lucrative realm of scripted, non-interactive releases, the comic-book titan is only ramping up its assault on the last bastion of entertainment to elude its dominance. So what does Marvel hope to achieve by trying to take over the video game space?

For one thing, the heroes that Marvel is choosing to build its big games around scream “synergy.” Spider-Man has long been a popular character across multiple media, but with Spider-Man: No Way Home due out in December and the sequel to one of the greatest animated films of all time in Into the Spider-Verse set to drop next October, the buzz about the wall crawler only seems to be building. Sliding in Venom as Spider-Man 2’s antagonist also lines up the sequel to amplify interest in Sony’s Venom franchise, which means that Marvel is poised to make a game that intersects with its live-action films almost perfectly.

Marvel’s Wolverine, the first game to star the adamantium man since 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, could end up being the heat check to end all heat checks. Considering that the screen rights to the X-Men reverted to Marvel Studios after Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, though, it makes perfect sense that Marvel is attempting to catapult the most prominent member of the X-Men back to the top of gamers’ minds. Because Insomniac is making both Spider-Man 2 and Wolverine, the games could take place in a shared universe, which would very likely lead to a re-creation of a famous Peter Parker–Logan exchange. However, aspiring players will have to wait a while: Spider-Man 2 is slated for a 2023 debut, and Wolverine’s ETA is still unknown.

Gamers will have to wait only weeks to play the action-adventure game Guardians of the Galaxy, which is ticketed for release on all platforms on October 26. It’s a sign of the MCU’s power that the once-obscure Peter Quill and Co. are getting a second game, this one developed by Eidos-Montréal (the studio behind the Deus Ex series, the Thief reboot, and 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, all previously established series that it inherited and handled with care). Guardians of the Galaxy was a completely unknown property to all but the most diehard of comic-book fans when the first film was announced in 2012, but with two movies released and a third one (plus an additional Christmas special) on the way, Marvel is keen to keep the ragtag group of cosmic heroes in the limelight.

There’s still some uncertainty about what role (if any) Marvel’s upcoming games will play in the larger MCU ecosystem. Marvel Studios’ streaming TV series—including WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and the upcoming Hawkeye—angled the spotlight toward characters who hadn’t received dedicated movies, telling semi-self-contained stories while also setting up future film installments of the MCU. Thus far, it doesn’t seem as if the games, which will be made by a multitude of creators who aren’t directly under Kevin Feige’s control, will supplement or supplant the cinematic universe like the Disney+ shows do (though we should never say never about cameos in Into the Spider-Verse). Perhaps that’s the next phase (so to speak) of Marvel’s small-screen expansion: If Marvel engineers a string of hits on consoles and PCs, its games could become essential components of a true transmedia narrative, in which the events of the games are considered canon and core characters could be introduced or killed off via video games (à la Morpheus meeting his end in The Matrix Online). Someday, Disney+ could even follow Netflix’s lead and provide video games alongside its suite of streaming movies and shows.

In the meantime, Marvel’s flashy lineup of impending prestige games will ensure that the company’s content tap never turns off. By spreading out the films, TV series, and games and using the games to burnish the brands of its heroic headliners, Marvel can close the shrinking gaps between its releases and deepen players’ attachments to its properties. Hungry for new Groot content between Guardians films, and don’t want to wait for the forthcoming animated shorts? A Marvel video game has you covered. And like the Marvel movies, Marvel video games are embracing a wider variety of tones and gameplay types, with Midnight Suns and Wolverine (like Logan) catering to mature audiences. In all likelihood, the latter, at least, will lengthen a short list of M-rated Marvel video games.

Although the influence of Marvel movies on Marvel games is more obvious than the reverse, past games have prefigured events on the big screen. Avengers: Endgame officially brought the leading lights of the film franchise together, but older games such as Marvel Ultimate Alliance (2006) and Marvel Heroes (2013) were mixing characters and universes well before the big-screen Avengers assembled for their box-office-record-setting send-off. Even the most complacent Marvel executive knows that fans won’t be fully content until the X-Men and the Avengers share screen time, so Marvel’s first console release of 2022, Midnight Suns, may be the perfect encapsulation of what the future of the MCU holds.

Midnight Suns will be much different from Guardians of the Galaxy or the Insomniac games. It’s a tactical, turn-based RPG from Firaxis Games, a studio well versed in that genre thanks to its credentials as the creators of the storied reboot of the XCOM series. Midnight Suns is Marvel Games’ first attempt since the Fox-Disney merger to combine characters from different teams into a single story line, possibly signaling an effort to integrate all parts of the comics canon in Marvel’s overarching playbook. Taking heroes who have no immediate links—including, in this case, Iron Man, Captain America, and Doctor Strange from the Avengers; Wolverine and Magik from the X-Men; and Nico Minoru from Runaways—and putting them together in dire situations against great evils is a move that the movies may emulate.

Historically speaking, great Marvel console games have been far and few between, but the tide appears to be turning. In more traditional media, Marvel might have tried to address its shortcomings in content by bringing everything under the Marvel Studios umbrella and making the content itself. However, while Marvel Games has lent its logo to hundreds of titles dating back to the 1980s, Marvel has never made its own games. The company continues to outsource its video game projects, but by pivoting to partnerships with respected developers like Insomniac, Firaxis, and Eidos-Montréal, Marvel Games is finally prioritizing quality (while still supplying quantity). Gone are the days of Marvel’s video game output consisting almost solely of movie-tie-in cash grabs and Fortnite guest appearances. With Guardians of the Galaxy, Midnight Suns, Spider-Man 2, and Wolverine poised to capitalize on past triumphs and (hopefully) learn from mistakes such as Marvel’s Avengers, Marvel is taking (and, just maybe, making) higher-percentage shots.

Opinions may vary on whether it’s worth celebrating Marvel’s latest bid to burrow further into our collective cultural consciousness. For the most devoted fans of Marvel’s content, it probably can’t be a bad thing that there won’t be a day ending in y that doesn’t deliver a new and different type of Marvel entertainment. Others may struggle to keep pace with the accelerating superhero assembly line, or fear that saturation and overexposure will detract from what makes Marvel special.

Of course, this is what mega-conglomerates do: They grow even more mega. The only truly surprising aspect of Marvel’s intensified focus on video games is that it didn’t start sooner. As the company’s massive film empire enlarges like Alioth and it gains a firmer foothold in TV, it’s only natural that the powers behind the biggest moneymaker in all of entertainment would train their attention on the only big blank spot left on the multimedia bingo card—a pandemic-proof industry whose revenue dwarfs that of movies even in normal years. Also unsurprising: Marvel’s new approach to interactive entertainment is one manifestation of a more sweeping strategic reorientation by corporate parent Disney. The Mouse’s history in video games is just as hit-or-miss as Marvel’s, but it’s recently recommitted to green-lighting more polished, inventive titles based on franchises such as Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, and Indiana Jones.

It’s not inevitable that Marvel will extend its entertainment hegemony to video games: As multiple tech giants have discovered the hard way, making games is complicated. Marvel can’t simply snap its fingers and make its legacy of lousy games go away, let alone conjure classics at will. If we go forward in time to view alternate futures, though, every possible outcome of the coming conflict over gamers’ time and money has something in common: many more Marvel games. And in at least some of those futures, a higher percentage of those Marvel games are good.