Spider-Man launched to critical acclaim and commercial success, and earned its position as one of the biggest games of 2018. However, despite all of the things it does well, there are some things that it does terribly. The worst part of Spider-Man by a distance, though, is the fact that MJ is an awful character.
At the beginning of the game, MJ seems great. The characters aren’t high school students, and Peter’s been doing the whole Spidey thing for eight years. MJ, on the other hand, has landed a career as an investigative journalist at the Daily Bugle. Unlike Sam Raimi’s damsel in distress, this MJ is her own person, which is absolutely fantastic—until it isn’t.
MJ’s position in the narrative may cause people to think that she is independent and plays an important role in the story, but her mechanics—or lack thereof—prove the exact opposite to be true. Her stealth missions are so boring and so outdated that the player can’t help but groan every time they realize they have to play through yet another MJ mission.
All MJ can do initially is move. She has no abilities. Her missions consist of hiding until a guard turns around, and then progressing to the next obstacle to hide behind, over and over again. It’s also as if the writing team behind her missions was made up of an entirely different staff to the ones who wrote Peter’s lines, as all of the guards boast mundane dialogue, which is exhaustive and is set to a loop. In contrast to the brilliant banter between Peter and Yuri, MJ’s scenes are oppressively bland to the extent that I had no desire to continue playing during them.
Eventually, MJ gets a new ability—the ability to throw lures. First of all, the nature of this ability is ridiculous. Why not throw any small object? Despite the fact that the lures flash, emit a beeping sound, and heavily resemble Spider-Man‘s aesthetic, the guards have no idea what they are, or even where they are—even when they’re literally under their noses. A rock, or anything else for that matter, would be far less conspicuous, and hazard a more thorough investigation. However, it wouldn’t be MJ if she didn’t have to rely on Peter, though, would it? Surely they couldn’t make her intuitive enough to figure out how to distract the guards all by herself, despite her ascension to a high-ranking journalistic role in her mid-twenties.
Because that’s what happens. MJ’s one mechanic, the one that could have potentially redeemed her, was something that she only obtained because of Peter. Miles, who is also playable and only has stealth missions, distracts guards by using an app he designed to hack nearby electronic devices. He uses his own intuition and innovation to progress, and he is therefore independent. Not MJ, though. You can’t allow her to throw anything unless it’s a red and blue gadget devised by Spider-Man.
So, at this point, it’s clear that she’s indirectly indebted to Spider-Man. The degree to which she is dependent upon Peter is accentuated even further, though, when she quite literally presses square on guards that are separated from a group by using lures. Yep, she throws Peter’s overly conspicuous lure to make a guard turn around, and then presses a button to have Spider-Man drop down and incapacitate the guard. Now she’s directly dependent on Spider-Man, as her second mechanic also has absolutely nothing to do with her independent ability.
MJ is not a super hero. This isn’t an argument for why she can’t run up walls or dodge bullets. It’s an argument against why she was made playable when she was going to be handicapped by mechanics dependent on the superhero you bought the game to play. At the start of the game, there is genuine potential for this portrayal of MJ to depict her as a strong and independent character, who has been successful without Peter’s help. Instead of making her playable, they could have made her a fantastic NPC who is invaluable to the plot. Her investigative journalism helps Peter immeasurably throughout the story, and he would have failed to protect New York if it weren’t for her. However, she is instead made a mechanically-limited, dependent, boring character, who was unanimously received with the response of “but like, why am I not playing as Spider-Man right now?”
By the end of the game, MJ is nothing like the MJ from the start of the game. She is not independent, strong, or interesting. She’s a character you hated to play as, and who relies on Peter to an annoying extent. Insomniac’s game began with huge potential for MJ, but ensured that by the end she was nothing more than a bland love interest who had a few shitty missions. The reason that she has been received badly is not because she was badly written; it’s because it was mandatory to play through PS2 era stealth missions as her, and because the one potential thing that could have been interesting about her play-style had nothing to do with her own ability. Spider-Man is a great game overall, but its depiction of MJ failed in every single way.