The Art of Over Analysis #6: Max Caulfield and The Parker Formula


2015 saw the release of the last four episodes of Life Is Strange, a time bending whirlwind of an adventure game that introduced the world to Max Caulfield, a young heroine out to solve the mysterious disappearance of one Rachel Amber. Max is, for lack of a better term, the everywoman. Dressed in a hoodie and jeans for the bulk of the game and armed with only a Polaroid camera, Blackwell Academy’s newest student has goals and a craft that she works her hardest at, despite her own anxieties and self-doubt about it; she’s dedicated to all of her friends, to the point of changing history itself in order to help them. She’s got interests and hobbies, and admittedly strange taste in movies, and two love interests that both like her for her, shown in ways that feel totally natural for 18 year olds, and like a lot of teenage heroes in fiction, she shares a personality with one Peter Benjamin Parker.

Now of course, there are obvious differences between the two — for starters, Max has two living parents and Peter has one aunt — but the core of the characters is the same. Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man realized that he had to use his powers responsibly after a gunman killed his Uncle Ben, and Max’s discovery of her powers comes in the form of seeing a girl, who she later finds out is her long lost best friend, Chloe Price, shot and killed by school bully Nathan Prescott, an event she immediately rewinds to save her. They both have a recurring issue with adversaries later turning out to be friends, and vise versa, and would, figuratively, in the case of Peter, and very literally in the case of Max, turn back the hands of time themselves to prevent the death of someone they love dearly.

This isn’t to say that Max is a bad character or a ripoff of Spider-Man or anything like that. Max is actually one of the more interesting game protagonists in recent memory, and definitely one of the more fleshed out female characters, as is the case for a lot of the supporting cast, i.e. Victoria, Kate and Joyce; she just happens to be the newest to follow the template of the teen super hero with her own spins on it. You see, prior to the first appearance of Spider-Man, way back in 1962, no teenage character had been so prominently featured in comics. Sure, Captain Marvel had existed for a while, but Billy Batson was a child who could turn into a grown man; Peter Parker was 15 years old with or without his powers. Parker’s creation gave rise to the tropes that are so common now in fiction with young male leads, mostly because they work — so much so that when Dwayne McDuffie created Static, he openly stated that he wanted to make a Spider-Man who realized that he had to be responsible with his powers before someone died. Max may not have been created with that in mind, but she follows the tropes to the letter and her personal journey over the course of her timeline spanning adventure mirrors some of everyone’s favorite web-slinger’s.

In the opening hour of Life is Strange, the player is introduced to Victoria and Nathan, two characters who are initially presented as at best, bullies, and at worst, straight up villains. From the outset, both of them terrorize Max, but as the story progresses, new light is shed on both characters and in the penultimate episode, depending on player choice, Victoria admits that she admires Max, and wishes they were friends — something that is explored just a little in the previous episode — and Nathan leaves a heartfelt apology to Max as the world comes crashing down around his ears. Compare this, of course, to longtime Spider-Man bully Eugene “Flash” Thompson. He plagues poor Peter for the entirety of their time in high school, and in college until he goes away to the Army. When the proverbial bus comes back, Flash has been through a lot of changes, chief among them being his new attitude towards Peter. After Gwen Stacy’s untimely death, he and Peter become roommates temporarily, and some time after Flash loses his legs in Iraq, Flash admits, albeit not to Peter, that he considers Spidey his best friend.

Conversely, the climax of Life is Strange’s fourth episode reveals that the villain all along was none other than teacher Mark Jefferson, whom Max looks up to, although Rachel Amber’s death, which sets the plot in motion, was indirectly caused by Nathan, in an attempt to emulate Jefferson. The player and Max both are left with a feeling of betrayal by someone that outside of a choice in the second episode, has never been seen as untrustworthy — like a certain Goblin we know. Prior to the reveal that Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin, Peter has no inkling of that, because why would he? What reason would he have to believe that his best friend’s father was one of his greatest enemies? The same applies to Max. What good reason would she have that her favorite teacher had been the one behind everything, even before she got to Arcadia Bay in the first place? With the exception of his willful ignorance towards Kate’s plight in Episode 2, Jefferson has been nothing but helpful to Max and Chloe, actively encouraging Max as it pertains to her skills as a photographer. This encouragement and willingness to be of assistance to our hero makes Jefferson’s heel turn and the accompanying action of killing faithful sidekick Chloe hit that much harder — and that much more reminiscent of the Goblin throwing Gwen off the bridge.

You see, Max and Peter also share the trauma of being absolutely helpless to save someone they loved, in Max’s case, Chloe, and in Peter’s of course, it’s Gwen Stacy, and in both of their cases, they wish they could take it back — but in Max’s, she actually can. In the game’s final episode, aptly named “Polarized”, Max jumps back and forth in time, in an attempt to save Chloe from Jefferson, only to find out in the process that her action of saving her retroactively caused the tornado in her vision that destroys Arcadia Bay. She is faced with the realization that she cannot save both Chloe and the town; she has to sacrifice something. Staring this final choice down, I asked myself the question, “what would Peter Parker do?”. In the minutes prior, I came to the realization that brought me to writing this; as Max is braving the storm, she sees the bulk of her classmates caught in it and makes it a point to try and save every single one of them, even the ones who treated her and her friends poorly. She doesn’t want to see anyone hurt, even if she is about to go back and time to try and prevent this from ever happening. This is evocative of the Ultimatum and Fear Itself story events, in which Spider-Man is dealt the impossible task of saving everyone he can while the rest of the world’s heroes take down the threat–not because he can’t fight, but because saving the lives of every person in New York City is that important to him. It raises the question: if Peter could save Gwen from ever being on the bridge in the first place, but everyone in New York was wiped out by a hurricane as a result, would he? The answer, just like in the case of Max, is no. They both love the girl in question, but the two are too conscience-driven to weigh the life of one person vs an entire city.

Max Caulfield, like Virgil Hawkins, Jaime Reyes, Tim Drake and countless others before her, uses Peter as a template. Maybe not consciously, but notably, and thats okay. The entire superhero genre is based on Superman to some degree. What matters isn’t where the tropes and character story come from, but where the character takes them and how it is applied, and in the curious case of Maxine Caulfield, it’s all applied very well, to a point where fans are still clamoring for more from DONTNOD Entertainment’s tale of power and responsibility. But then again, maybe I’m just over analyzing things.

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