About an hour ago as I write this, my son, grandson, and I were walking out of the theater after watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). This animated film chronicles the coming of age and origin of the Miles Morales Spider-Man (voiced in the film by Shameik Moore), who, in the movie, looks about 13 or 14 years old.
I know I just put up a link, but I haven’t read the page yet, so don’t know much about the Morales “Spidey.” I didn’t want to find out more about him before I watched the movie, and for years, I have only been tangentially aware of him. I have to admit, when I first heard of that version of Spider-Man, I figured it was Marvel taking a highly popular franchise and just inserting a person of color in order to attract progressive readers as well as pull in long-term, hardcore Spidey fans.
This movie changed all of those misconceptions.
One of the things that hooked me on the film, was how Miles struggles to earn the respect of his Dad, a New York City cop. His Dad, Jefferson Davis (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry) is tough on his son because he believes the child is capable of great things but tends to not “realize his potential,” while his Mom Rio (voiced by Luna Lauren Velez), is the peacemaker between the two of them, and the one who keeps trying to help father and son understand each other.
That’s pretty much how I grew up, except my Dad was a firefighter and general, all around “manly man…all of the things I was not. Of course, in comparing how I grew up as opposed to the fictional Miles , most of it is drastically different, but I think there’s something universal about how sons labor under the shadows of their Dads.
There’s also a cool uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali) who understands Miles, and with whom Miles feels like he can be himself, but the tragedy is that even through both men love the young teen, it’s the uncle who ultimately lets Miles down, and facing that incredibly painful lesson is part of what eventually makes Miles Spider-Man.
Just to let you know, I’ll be letting a few cats out of their respective bags, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to be surprised, stop reading now.
I don’t know about the comic book Miles, but in this film, his quantum reality already has a 27-year-old Peter Parker/Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine).
The Kingpin or Wilson Fisk (voiced by Liev Schreiber) lost his wife and son when they discovered him battling Spider-Man. Fleeing, they were killed in an auto accident.
Kingpin enlists the aid of physicist Olivia Octavius (voiced by Kathryn Hahn) and her research team, to build a massive particle accelerator in his Manhattan skyscraper so he can create a rift in the multiverse and find an alternate reality version of his family.
Miles was bitten by a biomechanical spider in an abandoned part of the subway near the accelerator, and when he went back to find it after his powers started manifesting, he discovered the facility as well as Spider-Man fighting several super villains including the Green Goblin (voiced by Jorma Taccone), the Prowler (mum’s the word here), and the Scorpion (voiced by Joaquín Cosio).
Miles hides during most of the battle, but eventually gets caught up in it and has to be rescued by Spider-Man. In the battle, there’s an explosion and Spider-Man is critically injured. He asks Miles to finish his mission to shutdown and destroy the massive device. Miles barely escapes the enormous lab and the Prowler who pursues him, while Kingpin unmasks Spider-Man and kills him.
From here, Miles slowly begins to encounter alternate spider people, including a disillusioned and cynical Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), still mourning his divorce from Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz), as well as Spider-Woman/Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a variation in the spider universe I had never heard of before, and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), one of my personal favorites.
At times, the movie was a little too cartoonish, with thought balloons, being able to see the wavy lines indicating “spider sense,” Miles reading Spider-Man comic books to see how a 15-year-old Peter Parker managed the emergence of his powers, and each character revealing their origin story in comic book format, including covers.
Miles is terrified most of the time, but also thrilled some of the time, not only trying to cope with his powers, encountering spider-alternates and super villains trying to kill him, but in dealing with his family who loves him but can’t possibly comprehend what he’s going through.
A movie like this absolutely has to have a happy ending after a very, very hard-fought victory. It was the cynical Peter Parker who helped him realize you’ll never know if you’re ready to be Spider-Man, you just have to do it, and his universe’s version of Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), who finishes outfitting the brand new superhero with equipment left behind by the diseased Spidey, though Miles, an artist, develops his own unique look.
There’s this quantum leap in control and development in Miles toward the climax of the movie, which appeared a little rushed, but then it seemed as if his powers were continuing to evolve as well, which I supposed could explain it. Suddenly, he’s very comfortable with heights, develops not only amazing agility, but maneuverability, that he didn’t have just hours before.
Yes, there are plot holes, and character development is uneven, but none of that obscures the film’s central message.
All and all, it was a very satisfying film and I’d certainly see it again.
And now, the social commentary
Recently, African-American author and screenwriter Steven Barnes wrote his own review of the film as seen through the eyes of his teenage son, who he describes as ADHD (and having raised an ADHD son, I can only imagine he also struggles with some learning disabilities, and a lot of underlying anger), and who is feeling particularly vulnerable having broken his leg.
You can read his review by clicking the link I supplied, but it does bring up this question. Are movies like “Spider-Verse” and Black Panther (2018) for only or for primarily audiences who are people of color?
Probably not. A film makes the most money if it attracts the widest possible audience, so Marvel (and Disney and Sony) won’t pump additional dollars into their massive bank accounts by creating movies for niche audiences, but let’s look at this in terms of the silver age comic books I grew up reading.
Until 1966, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the Black Panther in a “Fantastic Four” comic book, there were no black superheroes, and then suddenly there was an African King in a costume being heroic. In 1972, the first African-American superhero was unveiled and had his own comic book, “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire,” created by Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, and John Romita Sr.
Before that, with rare exception, all superheroes were white, which means if a black kid growing up in that era wanted to be like a superhero, that hero was white. If that “kid of color” wanted to dress up for Halloween as a superhero, they’d have to be a black Superman, or a black Batman, or a black Spider-Man.
Now that’s beginning to change. In fact, there was some controversy last Halloween with some white kids wanting to dress up as the Black Panther. Is that cultural appropriation? My understanding is that actor Chadwick Boseman who plays T’Challa/Black Panther didn’t think so, and I agree with him.
Consider. Heroism is universal. In the “Spider Verse” movie, the point was made more than once, and was the touchstone at the film’s ending, that anyone can be behind the mask, and that in fact, anyone can wear the mask. The idea is that we all have a hero inside of us, so if a white kid wants to dress up like the Black Panther, he (or she) is recognizing T’Challa’s heroism as something they admire and realize in themselves.
When Steven Barnes wrote his review, he mentioned my very favorite Spider-Man comic book (I’d love to talk with Stevens about it, but I get the feeling, he wouldn’t want to hear from me), actually, issues 32 and 33, when Spider-Man, who needs a special isotope to cure his Aunt May of radiation poisoning she acquired after Peter had given her a blood transfusion, must battle Doctor Octopus, who had stolen it. After an epic battle in a subterranean complex under the Hudson River, Spider-Man is buried under tons of concrete and steel, something that outweighs a locomotive. There are cracks in the ceiling and in minutes, the river will cascade in and drown him. The isotope canister is just a few yards away.
Peter’s been on the go for days, frantic, hungry, exhausted, having been searching for the stolen isotope to save his aunt. In spite of everything, he does the impossible, even for him, and lifts a weight that only the Thing or the Hulk should be able to budge, all because he had failed his Uncle Ben, resulting in his death, and he wasn’t going to fail his Aunt May. Even as an adult, it’s still one of the most thrilling moments I remember in reading comic books.
It means it’s not the powers that make you a hero, it’s who you are as a person. Miles always had the hero inside of him. It wasn’t his abilities that made him Spider-Man, it was the belief he could actually be a hero and then being able to act on that faith, even when he was battered and nearly crushed by the Kingpin at the movie’s climax.
That’s why I think it’s okay for a white kid to dress up for Halloween as the Black Panther or the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man. It’s not taking away from another culture, it’s believing that we all are the person behind the mask, the hero we all want to be inside. That also means black kids and other kids of color can be Spider-Man, Superman, Captain America, and Batman, too.
That’s why “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a movie for everyone. Yes, people of color with their lived experiences can relate to Miles in a way that people like me or my nine-year-old grandson never can, but if African-American/Latino-American Miles Morales can find the hero inside of himself, in the real world and without super powers, so can my grandson Landon.