Spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ahead.
There’s a ringing sound—high pitched, like a whistle.
Spider-Man and Miles flinch in pain. There are glossy dots in the background, giving the screen an old comic-book feel as it shifts into neon color. The ringing signifies the iconic ‘spidey-sense’ which tells us that danger is nearby.
“You’re like me,” Peter Parker says in awe to the panicked Miles, kicking off the theme of the film.
A Quick Recap for Those Who Need It
It’s been a whirlwind few years for Marvel’s most iconic superhero. After Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise in the early 2000s, the series got a full-on reboot by Sony starring Andrew Garfield. It aired simultaneously with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with some hopes for a crossover. Those hopes were dashed after no apparent third film was being released in the Amazing Spider-Man series.
People wanted to see Spider-Man in the MCU, which was pretty revolutionary for Marvel’s B, C, and even A-list characters. In a way, the absence of the X-Men and Spider-Man allowed the others to breathe and headline in their universe. But again, people wanted to see Spider-Man in the expanding and relatively well-received world. He is, after all, not only Marvel’s most popular superhero but the genre’s most popular superhero.
So, after Marvel and Sony brokered a deal to share the rights of Spider-Man, Peter Parker flipped into the MCU for the first time in the Captain America: Civil War trailer.
Since 2017, Spider-Man got this full franchise reboot, an acclaimed video game, and a striking performance in the one of the most watched crossover events ever. Now, a gorgeous, otherworldly animated movie.
This essay is not necessarily about Spider-Man: Homecoming or Tom Holland’s Spider-Man (but full disclosure, I love it and him). This is how 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse explores the complex character of Peter Parker, his legacy, and how it all makes you fall in love with Miles Morales.
What makes Spider-Verse different is that Spider-Man isn’t Peter Parker—the nerdy and lovable brunette from Queens whose backstory is so ingrained into our pop culture awareness that it’s almost a joke (*insert Toby Maguire crying meme here*). It’s Miles Morales, a sweet and anxious, kid from Brooklyn.
Miles is voiced adorably by Shameik Moore who perfectly captures the eagerness and nerves of a young teenager. He is Afro-Latino and one of the few heroes of color given a production as large as this one. Miles also made an appearance in Disney XD’s animated series and the video game, but this is his first time as the lead in a media setting.
And what a perfect, perfect debut.
Spider-Verse opens with Miles going to a new, high-achieving school, put under pressure by the expectations of everyone around him. Miles is pulled apart by his own insecurity, underestimating his worth as a student, as a son, and later, as a superhero. After getting bitten by a radioactive spider, he stumbles into a battle between mobster Kingpin and renowned hero, Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine). Spider-Man takes note of Miles and his new powers, promising Miles that he will show him how to handle his new hopped-up genetic abilities.
But Spider-Man is murdered—and a horrified Miles is struck with guilt and fear on what to do with his new powers. He runs into Spider-Man again—but it’s an older, sadder, deadbeat Peter B. Parker, voiced perfectly by Jake Johnson.
With Kingpin’s new machine converging alternate universes together, Miles and Peter need to find a way to pull the seams of reality together so Peter can go back home.
The movie also features other alternative universe Spider-People who fall into Miles’s world, including:
- Gwen Stacy: one of the most infamously frigid girlfriends of the genre. However, with some acclaim from Emma Stone’s performance in The Amazing Spider-Man, Gwen’s legacy got a lot of reshaping and even her own series where Peter Parker dies and she is Spider-Woman. She is a surly loner who lost a best friend, choosing to keep others out of her life (Miles also has an adorable crush on her.). Played by Hailee Steinfeld.
- Peni Parker: who is rendered in an Anime-styled mecha series (a very neat animation feature). The radioactive spider is in her robot and is psychically linked to it. Played by Kimiko Glenn.
- Spider-Man Noir: a smooth 1950s Nazi-puncher. Played by Nicolas Cage.
- Spider-Pig: The Simpsons did this to us. Played by John Mulaney, a human Warner Brothers cartoon.
The film has a wild, expansive comic-book plot that embraces its roots and goes all the way out there. The animation matches the details of an old school comic, from the 3-D art to the tiny speaking marks when a character exclaims or laughs loudly. The way the characters swing, the way the colors mash together and the way the film portrays the breaking of time itself is some of the most remarkable I have ever seen. The way it pushes the medium of animation into something crazier and different with a blend of the language within comic books and visual signals is so creative.
As someone who was a fan of Infinity War, Spider-Verse was the film event that truly encompasses the concept of comic-book events. They are big story-lines that can get convoluted, but Spider-Verse tackles an origin story extremely well. It’s about Miles, but also gives Peter, Gwen, and others their due. It’s about the characters but also about what the superhero genre means.
Alright, Let’s Do This One Last Time
Spider-Man is my favorite superhero. He’s my favorite character, period. I couldn’t delve into how much this franchise means to me and how much I see myself in this awkward teen boy. How I grew up watching Neil Patrick Harris’ Spider-Man series on MTV, how my family set up the projector to watch Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker against the living room wall. How I love comic books, even with how infuriating they can be most of the time.
The arching quote, “You’re like me,” rings so true in the film. It’s the message to say that you aren’t alone, that if you let people in your life, you can grow from your insecurities and anger. From Peter B. Parker’s bitterness at the state of his life, to Gwen Stacy’s insecurity of losing a best friend, they all learned something about taking a leap of faith and trying to better themselves instead of conforming to what feels comfortable. Miles’s intense insecurity of feeling like an inadequate Spider-Man is his own barrier to overcome.
In a meta sense, the film touches upon the legacy of Spider-Man and who Peter is. Many of the Spider-Man properties deal with Peter Parker as a high-school or college student, approaching his new status with a baby deer-like shakiness. An underdog going through the ropes, experiencing his first heartbreak and his first failure, yet these films rarely engage with him later in his career. This is often the way we approach superheroes—not always, but often. Reboot, restart, new tone.
The world of comic books are their own kind of special arrested development. It is often said that there is a fear of change and embracing new character arcs embedded in the comic book industry. It makes a bit of sense—sadly—since they run on serial story-lines. If there is no end in sight for a character, why push them through the motions of change so quickly. None of the above aspects truly mean that there is an end for a character if its in the hands of a good writer, but that’s an argument for another day.
Change is Good
In Peter’s case, there is something so exciting about seeing him dissected as an older character. Run-down, yes, but experienced. To have him react to his long career with resentment, as it caused damage to his personal life and his esteem. It is clear that he still has a lot of learning and growing to do—that the way he was running for so many years was not self-sustaining. He has a chance to change his course in order to become a balanced husband, hero, and person. I like that no matter where you are in life, you can change and grow. There isn’t an end or a deadline.
He’s in your Sunday cartoons, on your cereal box, your little sister’s book bag, maybe even your first celebrity crush. You grew up with him. This is kind of the first time where the legacy of Spider-Man is dissected. What does he mean as an icon?
He’s everyone. He’s not a billionaire, he didn’t land on Earth in spaceship. Spider-Verse emphasizes that the powers are not what makes the hero. It’s that these are very normal people with normal and scary problems but still find themselves striving to do good in the world. That means everyone can be Spider-Man.
Reminding us of the scene from Spider-Man 2, where Peter is lifted by a crowd in a broken train and shielded by civilians from a blood-thirsty Doc Ock. Or the little kid from The Amazing Spider-Man who chorales Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man to keep on fighting. Because that’s what Peter says: “…no matter how many hits I take, I always find a way to come back”.
Spider-Verse forces the character to recognize their potential as well as their limitations, and their connection with others while still being good people. It’s a unifying, hopeful message— a sentimental embrace of love instead of masking that anger and hurt with cynicism and suppression of emotions. The Spider-Man franchise has always leaned towards optimism, even when the plot, villains and feelings get dark.
Miles Morales is an icon for Black, Latino and Afro-Latino children, and an icon for children of color who are starving to see themselves in their favorite characters. This is a perfectly developed theme and message of unity. Go to Twitter’s hashtag Spidersona and see thousands of artists and fans develop their own Spider-Characters, using their own cultures and background to create a mirror of the familiar hero that evokes warmth and childhood memories.
It’s almost head spinning how good this movie is. It almost feels like it shouldn’t be possible. I feel like I should personally send a thank you card to each person who worked on this project. (It also makes sense this movie shared people from The Lego Batman Movie— another fantastic animated film that broke down the icon and history of Batman and how he is bad at feelings and should deal with them with family.)
“It fits perfectly,”
Vulture had a lovely article featuring screenwriters Rodney Rothman and Phil Lord that explained how they got you to fall in love with Miles under a minute. Moore does a wonderful job of capturing this scratchy and sweet essence of Miles’s youth and how much natural spirit he has.
What struck me about Miles was his intense insecurity— a trait that he shares with all teenagers, including a younger Peter Parker (and myself, but I’m 22). Miles, near the beginning of the movie, spray paints ‘NO EXPECTATIONS’ for his graffiti-art, encompassing his isolated feelings and uncertain future in his new school. As we roll into the battle, he constantly feels inadequate to the other Spider-People, who all seem to gently agree with him. Miles spends much of the beginning needing Peter to teach him when it was his own self-doubt blocking his ability to grow—he couldn’t mimic another Spider-Man. The film also doesn’t prescribe to the notion that tragedy makes us stronger, it makes us more tired and worn out.
It is Miles’s father, who opens himself up along with the lines of communication with his son. It is a moment of bare feelings, especially from a figure in superhero movies that is often regulated to a shadowy beacon of masculinity than pure familial love. “I see this…this spark in you. It’s amazing, it’s why I push you. But it’s yours and whatever you choose to do with it, you’ll be great.”
This is what spurs Miles into action. It is love and connections that makes a person stronger.
During the climatic moment, Miles takes a leap of faith, jumping from skyscraper to test his web-slingers. It’s his moment of truth and the jump he needed to take—that came from his love of his parents, his new Spider-family and his background. Miles couldn’t rely on approval from the other Spider-People, not even Peter (If anything, he serves as a figure for Peter to take his own steps towards building a family with Mary Jane.) Miles needed his own boost and path and suit.
It’s remarkable and so, so meaningful to not only open 2018 with Black Panther but to end it with Miles’s swinging across New York, finally able to declare himself as his world’s Spider-Man with confidence.