Culture

Marvel's 'Spider-Man' has a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of homelessness

The webslinger does whatever a spider can to help tackle the issue in the new video game

Spider-Man hero

The new Spider-Man video game swung on to PlayStation consoles last week, picking up critical plaudits and becoming the fastest-selling release of the year.

The wallcrawler does everything a spider can – swinging through a virtual New York, punching over-the-top bad guys and juggling his double life as Peter Parker. Developer Insomniac Games has brought the city of life in exacting detail with Marvel favourites like Avengers Tower and the Wakanda Embassy of Black Panther fame sprinkled in with the Empire State Buildings and Madison Square Gardens of this world.

In doing so, they have not shirked one of the realities of the Big Apple – it’s homelessness crisis.

With Manhattan rents that are higher than the skyscrapers and a cost of living to match, the city’s homelessness statistics make grim reading. Around 77,000 people are living on the streets or in the city’s municipal shelters, making it the largest homeless population in any US city. And Marvel’s Spider-Man does not shy away from it.

**MILD STORY SPOILERS FOR SPIDER-MAN BELOW**

In fact, one of the main ‘hubs’ of the game – an area Peter returns to regularly to explore and advance the story – is one of those shelters, given the slightly cringeworthy acronym of F.E.A.S.T. It serves as the base for this universe’s version of Aunt May, who works at the centre, while the game also hints that Peter himself helps out when he is not fighting crime. Take a walk around the shelter and Peter will interact with some of the shelter’s residents. And the game ignores the booze and drugs trope that colours many portrayals of homelessness in mainstream media for a more nuanced take.

You’ll hear about how Peter helped some rough sleepers with job applications as they thank him for helping them back into work or how Cam was a trucker who lost his job while his chess opponent Eileen became homeless after losing her husband. Peter can examine a notice board and comment that homelessness among veterans is down but there is more to be done to tackle the problem or how local businesses are providing more training to help get people into work and off the streets.

The game also illustrates that homelessness can strike for anyone, even a superhero. Peter loses his own job working as a scientific assistant in a lab and finds himself evicted from his apartment. The situation is initially played for laughs, as Spider-Man is forced to search the city to find his dumped belongings, before the ramifications of his situation become clear and he ponders where to spend the night.

After rejecting begging for a spot on on-and-off flame Mary Jane’s sofa, he eventually settles for one in Aunt May’s office at F.E.A.S.T, joining the ranks of New York’s hidden homeless for one night at least. Peter can tell Gloria, a rough sleeper he can help during the game as Spider-Man, that he feels bad taking up resources meant for rough sleepers – the reply is that, at that moment, they are resources meant for him.

**SPOILERS END**

In too many games, particularly open-world games like Spider-Man, rough sleepers are used as caricatures to pad out a world. Spider-Man is a step forward, offering a peak into the complex issues around homelessness. But over its 30-hour-or-so running time, it is still just a snapshot and there is room for improvement. Hopefully this can be an unlikely game to swing portrayal of the issue forward in this developing medium.

Images: Sony/Marvel/Insomniac Games

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