With the progressive championing of diversity in Hollywood, there’s always the risk of pandering and needlessly pushing the racial divide.
I remember when Disney brought out Moana as a “diverse” princess two years ago. I grew up in an era with Disney princesses like Pocahontas, Jasmine and Mulan. There was no such marketing distinction back then.
Cynically, it is easy to think they do this to drive up support, shield themselves from legitimate criticism and earn virtue-signaling points (which does happen on occasion).
— Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (@SpiderVerse) December 18, 2018
Thankfully, there is plenty about the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” that earns most of its distinction.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is average teenager living in the Bronx, with his working mom and dad. He’s just been transferred to a new private school, thanks to a scholarship, and he’s not entirely happy about the shift.
He struggles through the change in environment but finds some relief in his friendship with his uncle, Aaron, who is often at odds with Miles’ dad. While having fun spray-painting a new wall with his uncle, Miles gets bit by an Alchemex Spider #42 (kudos to the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” reference).
As he starts to experience strange symptoms, Miles stumbles onto Kingpin’s latest scheme, where Spider-Man is working to stop him from blowing up the city. As the machine starts up and eventually gets stalled, Spider-Man protects Miles and realizes he has spidey-senses, too.
After Kingpin kills Spider-Man, it’s up to Miles to find a way to stop his machine, learn to control his powers and save the day. Thanks to the machine, Miles has plenty of help.
The device has torn open the divide between universes (a la the multiverse theory) and several other Spider-Man heroes (including Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Man “Peter B. Parker”, Peni Parker, Spider-Gwen and Spider-Ham) have crossed over into Miles’ universe.
The crush of superhero movies from the last decade, and even several more decades’ worth from the comics, have familiarized people with Spider-Man’s story. The nice thing about Miles Morales’ origin story is how it didn’t get rid of the original Spider-Man.
Even in the comics, the Spider-Man/Peter Parker who dies is not the one from the same universe that we have grown up with. Instead of Miles Morales replacing that Peter Parker, he is allowed to not only have his own yarn, but his story serves to enhance the Spider-Man narrative – and the best part is, the film does this in a fun, believable way. How? By using its comic lines without destroying them – as opposed to what Disney did in “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”
The animation style seemed to be a strange choice to me, but as the movie introduced the different characters, everything about it made sense; it was a combination of comics and their respective worlds, where the fun of the comics was blended into the film and the different universes each get their moment.
All of the characters that Miles comes in contact with have similar narratives. They’ve been bitten by a radioactive spider, lost someone dear to them and live lives of quiet desperation as the heroes/vigilantes of their time and cities.
Yet they all have unique features about their own comic book series (such as Peni Parker’s manga-like drawing and Spider-Man Noir’s noir fashion). This leads me to the second point of distinction: Diversity done right.
One of the dangers of today’s culture is to hail a film as excellent if it meets the progressive rubric for representation
Note: I actually had a student once tell me that she didn’t think “The Princess Bride” was a good movie because there were only white people in it. That was an interesting conversation for many reasons.
What I liked about “Spider-Man” is that it didn’t try to write a story about a black Spider-Man — it wrote Miles’ story.
He’s an African-American-Hispanic lad from the Bronx, but that does not serve as a function to check off all the progressive check boxes. He’s a real character, with universal concerns such as fitting in, making good grades, impressing the ladies and dealing with the ups and downs of family life.
That’s similar to the original Peter Parker Spider-Man origin story.
Even the more so-called “progressive” changes that were made — Octavia Octavius, or Dr. Oct as a woman – were seen as perfectly reasonable to the multiverse theory from the movie’s worldbuilding (as opposed to just changed for no real reason, like Captain Phasma from “Star Wars.”)
Miles’ character has a generic Spider-Man arc, but he also has distinctively personal ones: a love for art (spray-painting), interest in comics (including Spider-Man), and a lack in understanding the strains between his father and his uncle, which is part of the next reason I enjoyed the film’s direction:
This Week in @Marvel takes you behind-the-scenes of the new film, Spider-Man: Into the #SpiderVerse. Stars @shameikmoore and Jake Johnson, as well as producers @philiplord and @chrizmillr talk about Miles Morales, visual style, and much more.https://t.co/TDaCN9UocB pic.twitter.com/znGMXIj8Qx
— Apple Podcasts (@ApplePodcasts) December 12, 2018
One thing I appreciated about “Spider-Verse” was that people actually die – including the first Spider-Man from Miles’ universe. It was a bold, shocking choice, and one that I did not see coming (though, in all fairness, the one plot hole that bothered me centered on this).
Miles sees his uncle killed, and other Spider-Man heroes also face their losses. The villain in the movie, too, was shown to know his own significant losses, with the death of his wife and son. His motivation for using the machine, and risking New York City in the process, was in hopes of finding another universe where they were still alive and he could be reunited with them again.
The film didn’t just handle the issue of loss well, either: the common themes of self-betterment, self-sacrifice, family love – especially fatherly love in this one – and the importance of friendship were upheld as we’ve come to expect from Spider-Man’s legacy.
Overall, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” honors the tradition of the comics of the past, without dismantling it in the name of diversity. It offers a solid coming-of-age film in which fans of all the Spider-Man comics and their different universes can find something to love.
C. S. Johnson is the author of several young adult novels in a variety of genres. If you like superhero high school stories, check out “The Starlight Chronicles: An Epic Fantasy Adventure Series: Collector Set 1, Books 1-4 (The Starlight Chronicles Box Set).” With a gift for sarcasm and an apologetic heart, she currently lives in Atlanta with her family. Find out more at Johnson’s official Web site.