What I Learned from watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an animated superhero movie that will be referenced by fans and cultural commentators for many years to come. The film takes the popular formula of a coming of age meets superhero origin story but tells it through a fresh, bright-eyed perspective. Miles Morales as a new Spider-Man and Peter Parker (also Spider-Man), team up when their alternate universes collide. The hallmarks of what makes a good Spider-Man movie are in Spider-Verse. There is plenty of web-slinging action presented through visually stunning animation. The story has enough heart and depth to engage viewers of all ages. Overall, the quality of the story, voice-acting and presentation is far above what one might expect from an animated superhero movie.
I wouldn’t say I’m a big comic book reader. I did happen to previously read a volume of Ultimate Spider-Man featuring Miles Morales as Spider-Man. This was before the current era of Marvel Comics. In comic books, you often get to read the superhero’s inner monologue. My immediate impression was that Miles Morales is a fresh voice and that the comic book expressed his youthful innocence and good nature. I also liked that his additional ability – the venom strike – is another feature to help differentiate him. Spider-Verse successfully captures these aspects to Miles Morales.
Peter Parker is different than we have seen him before. He’s older, in his mid-20’s. He’s a tad overweight, down on his luck and a little jaded. These differences help to contrast him and complement the characteristics of the younger, inexperienced Miles. Peter still has a lot of qualities that make him a likable hero. Through mentoring Miles on how to be a Spider-Man, he’s regaining the parts of himself that he had let go. Spider-Verse depicts different mentors for Miles. While some mentors are good at pushing beyond the boundaries, going too far can lead one to be undisciplined. On the other hand, Peter Parker is a natural fit as a mentor. He understands what Miles is going through having gone through it himself. Peter knows when to encourage Miles and at the same time lets the student come into his own.
Building the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man is an immensely popular superhero and his relatability is a big reason why. It may take a certain level of abstraction but some comic book readers, no matter their walk of life or background, see parts of themselves in Peter Parker and aspire to Spider-Man’s heroism. Similarly, the key to making Miles Morales relatable is starting off the story with some shared experiences. Everyone can think of their own awkward situations that happened at school, getting embarrassed by your parents or feeling that you don’t quite belong. By appealing first to common humanity, everybody feels like they’re on the same team and it becomes easier to empathize with one another.
Another key to making the Spider-Verse story work is building upon the existing mythology rather than replacing it. While historical revisions in the retelling of superhero stories is a common practice, Spider-Verse acknowledges Spider-Man history including the Sam Raimi’s movies. What we know about Peter Parker’s Spider-Man in essence has not changed. Miles Morales, as the film’s primary viewpoint, expands the mythology in a way that stays true to what makes the Spider-Man origin story resonate. He’s a young kid that is making his way in a challenging world. To succeed he needs to become proficient in his abilities and fulfill his potential.
With Great Power …
Uncle Ben’s famous quote hits home because it distills ancient wisdom into a repeatable, memorable soundbite. But there is always a possibility for wisdom to lose it’s original meaning through each successive generation. Similar to how modern culture has separated the relationship between freedom and responsibilities, I can see a societal shift in separating capabilities from responsibilities. I hesitate to use the word power because it is increasingly associated with unjust authority rather than its connection to accountability.
In the older Hollywood era, the heroic narrative in films reinforced the idea of sacrificing physical and emotional well-being for the benefit of others. In short, sacrifice is not only a value, but can be considered a responsibility. Heroic sacrifice is often a common theme in superhero films. This type of heroism might be outdated, especially in the context of the current culture where its meaning has been altered. What was once a noble sacrifice is now construed as exerting control over others. Spider-Verse touches on the notion of sacrifice in a different light. A possible positive message that Spider-Verse conveys is to take your place in the world, so that others do not have to sacrifice what you can do by yourself.
Are you a Spider-Person?
As much as superhero movies are entertainment, they also provide a cultural function. Superheroes have historically been used to explore the cultural climate. For example, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins tapped into a post 9/11 anxiousness. In current times, we are less concerned with day to day survival. Our society’s focus now is increasingly geared towards functional well-being. One aspect of this is our universal human need to have our experiences acknowledged and validated including through representation in media entertainment.
I can sympathize with those who have a strong need to see themselves reflected in the media. A wide range of role models and mentors are very important as is challenging stereotypes. While working towards change on a societal level is valid, there is also work to do on an individual level. Rather than relying on an external source to tell you how you should feel about yourself, self-validation involves setting your own standards. It’s not enough to be told you are good and valued. You need to accomplish something good and valuable. Understanding yourself and overcoming personal life challenges helps to strengthen one’s identity and character.
Spider-Verse balances the above mentioned ideas in Miles’ story as well as through the animation. Perhaps since the film has a younger audience, there is a moment where a character directly states “its a metaphor” referring to the alternate spider-man universes. Spider-Verse is unconventional when it introduces different animation styles all together at once. As seen in the second trailer, there is everything from Japanese anime, colorless noir to old-school Warner Bros animation. The mish-mash of styles is visually engaging and supports the movies overarching theme. Artistically, the animation and direction is a carefully thought-out feast of sensations. As many have noted, it’s like a vibrant comic book coming to life on screen.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse expands the Spider-Man mythology by including and connecting people through shared experiences. A valuable component to Mile’s journey into becoming Spider-Man is a positive mentor-ship. And that journey in Spider-Verse presents ideals that are at the forefront in the current culture without it being too heavy handed. Examining the heroic narrative can also help inform the film’s viewpoint on how society should progress. Visually, all the praise on the innovative animation is well-deserved. Quality films tend to endure, which is why there will be fans talking about Spider-Verse for some time.