WARNING: SPOILERS FOR “MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN” FOR THE PS4
I’ve wanted to play the Spider-Man game for the PS4 basically since it came out. “It’s so pretty! And it looks so fun!” but I wavered over the price, and my fear that it would go the way of Assassins Creed 3 (me failing to perform the particular sneak/acrobatic trick that was needed enough times in a row I said “fuckit” and made someone come over and do it for me, and then never kept playing because that was not a super workable solution.) When I finally found it on sale I bought it. And it. Was. Glorious. It is my favorite adaptation of the original Peter Parker story, and is very close to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse for my favorite Spider-man adaptation, ever. It’s so good. It leaves core story elements as they are while updating aspects in a fun and interesting way (J Jonah Jameson is an Alex Jones’ Infowars style radio host and it is so perfect I almost cried). It starts after Uncle Ben dies (all Spider-Man adaptations should start after Uncle Ben dies). It lets you change powers independently of costumes, so you don’t have to give up looking cool just so that you could use the best powers. I could literally spend an hour just swinging around New York City. Even though the collectables element of the game is slightly maddening it is also really thoughtful, with tons of Easter eggs. It handles pretty much all of the characters with depth, and gives the bad guys pathos without forgiving them for their actions. But do you know what the game did to really, truly, win me over forever?
It killed Aunt May.
….kind of a record scratch moment coming from me, right? Let me explain.
Occasionally when I’m arguing with people about the Women in Refrigerators trope, a disingenuous MRA will say something like, “What, are female characters not allowed to have bad things happen to them or be killed?” (Click here if you’re not familiar with the trope.) In their view, anyone who complains about “fridging” just never wants any female characters to have anything bad happen to them. And that’s not what I mean—I just want those bad things to mean something, especially to the character that it is happening to. I want the female character to be well-rounded and fully presented, and for their death or injury to have meaning beyond “the inspiration to make the hero go kick some ass.”
Aunt May’s death in this game has so. Much. Meaning.
Well first of all, Aunt May herself has so much meaning. Aunt May, in this game, has a fully realized life outside of Peter. Quick, what do any of the Aunt Mays in any of the recent adaptations do for a living? Is she retired? Does she garden? Does she volunteer for anything? Basically only the Aunt May in the most recent film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, seems to have any life outside of her nephew. The Aunt May in the game is fully fleshed out, and has a life and motivations of her own. Aunt May is a volunteer/staff member at a homeless shelter, one that she has obviously gotten Peter to spend a lot of time at as well since some of the residents know his name. She distributes supplies, talks to residents, and handles situations. She obviously loves Peter and watches over him, while allowing him to be the adult that he is in this game.
In the latter half of the game, a bio-engineered illness is sweeping the city at the same time Rikers’ entire population has been released. Even as civilization seems to be crumbling, with people too ill to do their jobs, hospitals overcrowded, and looting going amok (one of the game’s only failures is it seems to think that all people in prison are actually stereotypical baddies who will immediately start taking over neighborhoods and harassing people, and not like, going home because they’ve been in prison for 10 years for an ounce of weed), Aunt May focuses on keeping the shelter above water, making it a safe haven in the chaos. She cares for the sick who are in the shelter, and makes sure they have supplies and medicine.
And then Aunt May gets sick.
Like pretty much every battlefield nurse, she eventually succumbs to the illness she was helping to treat in others. She powers on, coughing up blood and taking a moment to realize what is happening, before steeling her spine and going back to work.
She is critically ill as Spider-Man goes into his final battle, with the aim to retrieve the antidote to the illness. Eventually he succeeds, but the stakes are high. He only has one vial of the cure; enough to cure one person, or to be used as the basis for a synthesis of enough cure for the whole city. But not both. And Aunt May doesn’t have long enough to live to later receive the synthesized cure.
Spider-Man walks into Aunt May’s room, clutching the cure. He is obviously choked up when he tells her, “You’re going to be okay, ma’am. I’ve got the cure right here.” She replies, “Take off your mask. I want to see my nephew,” revealing that she has known all along that he is Spider-Man. He tells her that he never wanted her to worry—she lets him know that she did worry, but that she is proud of him, and that Uncle Ben would be, too. (I’m not crying, you’re crying.) Obviously distraught, Peter tells her, “I don’t know what to do.” With the bemused smile of every parental figure who has figured something out before their child, she tells him, “Yes, you do.” She starts coughing, and Peter moves to put the cure into her IV line, working himself up to make the selfish but loving choice in the face of his aunt’s pain. He doesn’t. He sets the antidote aside, and the angle moves so that we can see May’s now-unconscious form, Peter kneeling at her bedside, clutching her hand and sobbing. The sound of her EKG gets louder and louder. The scene fades to black, and her EKG flatlines. And I’m crying.
(I am legit crying AGAIN from just writing this and re-watching the scene on YouTube.)
May’s death is poignant, and heartbreaking, and not fridging. Because May’s death is about May, not Peter. A villain didn’t pick on May because of Peter—May got sick doing what she was passionate about, taking care of people at the shelter. May’s sickness didn’t drive Peter to heroism or revenge—Peter was already in search of the antidote before he even knew that May was sick. May’s death wasn’t something to motivate Peter—he was already a hero, and already saving the day. The closest May’s death gets to being “about” Peter is that it serves as something as a test for Peter; but as May points out, Peter already knew the right thing to do.
Even though the game is focused on Peter, May’s character has a full, fleshed-out arc over the course of the game. Her life and her death have meaning to the character and to the audience.
This is what Avengers: End Game thought it was doing when it killed the Black Widow. (Spoilers, it was not.)
Bad things can happen to female characters in media. In fact, if we want equal representation in media, bad things are bound to happen to female characters, because bad things happen to people, and women are half of all people. But those bad things should be purposeful. They should be doing something for the character and for the story. Women shouldn’t just be sexually assaulted to show how evil the bad guy is. Women shouldn’t just be kidnapped or murdered to inspire their boyfriends or fathers to go on killing sprees. Women should have lives, and character arcs, and meaning unto themselves. Like Aunt May.
Signed: Feminist Fury
Featured image is a play on Margitte’s “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe” painting, depicting a refrigerator with the caption “Ceci N’est Pas Un Refrigerateur.”