You can’t be Batman. People like to say you could be, but Bruce Wayne was a billionaire who had the ability to dedicate his life to training and self-improvement. You can’t be Superman – he was born that way. You probably can’t even be Captain America; sure, Steve Rogers was a scrawny dweeb before the Super Soldier Serum, but he always had a kind of intense heroic decency to which most of us only aspire.
But Spider-Man? Yeah, you could be him. Peter Parker was an angry nerd in the right place and at the right time, and when he got super powers he immediately behaved selfishly with them. He totally fucked up, got his uncle killed. And from that point on Peter never quite made the most of his powers; he was always poor, he was always harried in his personal life, and he was always hated by the police and media. Peter Parker was, and is, a schmuck. Just like you. Just like me.
Definitely like me. I grew up in Queens, New York, and hung out in Peter’s neighborhood of Forest Hills. At one point I figured out Aunt May’s address and would make pilgrimages. While to 2018 eyes the home in which Peter grew up seems luxurious, in the old days it was pure working class. I identified with the Parkers’ economic class, I identified with Peter’s early angry days and his later, continuously baffled days. I identified with this guy who was doing his best but always fucking up, who was always getting the short end of the stick. That Old Parker Luck? I had it, baby.
Spider-Man was my hero growing up. Everything about him rang true to me, and while he didn’t quite look like me – I was always a fat kid – he was so close to my experience that Peter Parker was the character I most identified with in all of superhero fiction. And I think he was a character many people could identify with, not only emotionally, but also physically – Spidey had a full face mask, and so his race was never an integral part of the character.
And yet… Yet it’s not quite the same. Growing up I never considered how lucky I was to be a white kid who had Spider-Man. I have known boys of many races who loved Spider-Man, but they never really truly saw themselves fully in him. And girls, too – Spidey was an early crossover between the genders (I grew up in an era when social distinctions between boy and girl properties were as rigid as the Berlin Wall). But none of those girls really saw themselves in Spider-Man.
I swear this isn’t just an Aint-It-Cool vintage ‘personal digression at the start of a review’ thing. This is going somewhere. It is, in fact, going right to the heart of what makes Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse so special:
It understands that what makes Spider-Man special is that he isn’t special. Anyone could be under that mask, and – for the first time in motion picture history – anyone really can be under that mask, as the film introduces a diverse group of Spider-People who bring their own flavor and their own meaning to being a Spider-Person. There’s Miles Morales, half-black/half-latino and there’s Gwen Stacy, the Spider-Woman. There’s a Japanese anime girl Spider-Man, and even a pig and a noir Spider-Man. There are infinite Spider-Men, all of whom can reflect you if you want them to.
But what makes them all Spider-Man? It can’t just be a costume, especially as most of them have different costumes. It could be a logo, but that doesn’t quite do it – the assembled multi-dimensional Spider-People don’t know if Miles is really one of them until he does that one specific thing that defines Spider-Man throughout all of history:
He gets knocked down and then he gets back up. That’s it. That’s the feature that defines a Spider-Person. It isn’t powers – many of the Spider-People have different powers (one of them is a girl and her pet spider who ride in a mecha together) – but rather attitude. When Peter’s Uncle Ben was killed by a burglar, Peter didn’t hang up the tights, he became a hero. The same goes for all the Spider-People, all of whom have suffered losses and who have been knocked on their asses again and again… they get back up. They keep getting back up.
Fall down seven times, get up eight, goes the old Zen saying.
This is the heart of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, a movie that opens with a Spider-Man dying. Into the Spider-verse is the most hopeful and inspiring movie to come along in a while, and what’s more it’s an absolute blast to watch, a megadose of eye candy and superheroic fun, with the exact sort of wicked sense of self-referential humor you’d expect from producing team Lord and Miller. The movie takes loving shots at decades of Spider-Man history (did I miss it or is there no Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark reference?) and makes them not easter eggs or fourth wall breaks but rather part of the larger tapestry of Infinite Spider-Men.
But all of that, all of the fun and the excitement and the genuinely next-level animation, all of it pales in comparison to the way that this movie redefines Spider-Man for a new generation while also maintaining the core of who Spider-Man is.
When Marvel was casting the latest Spider-Man reboot there was that whole ‘draft Donald Glover’ campaign going on. I was part of it. Peter Parker’s whiteness doesn’t define him; if Peter Parker were growing up in Forest Hills today he’d likely be Asian, whether eastern Asian or from the Indian subcontinent. That’s just who lives in the area, and that racial difference wouldn’t impact who Peter Parker is in any meaningful way.
But I think I was wrong about that at the time. Not that I was wrong to support a black Spider-Man, and not wrong that Peter Parker’s whiteness is immaterial to the character, but wrong in thinking that the answer to today’s inclusion issues is just to slap a brown coat of paint on an existing character. That’s an easy answer, but I think it’s also a condescending one. “Here kid,” we white people are saying to people of color. “You can have this character, I’m done with him.” It’s hand-me-down heroes, and while I love the idea of legacy heroes (seriously, I adore legacy heroes and wish the Captain Marvel movie didn’t look to be shying away from that concept), I don’t think race-bending a character is the answer to our inclusion issues.
When Miles Morales was created I didn’t get it. I didn’t have a problem with Miles, per se, but when he showed up in Ultimate Spider-Man I just didn’t see the point. He wasn’t Spider-Man, and I thought that his creators should have just given him a different name. After all, he had different powers! At the time it felt like creative bankruptcy to me; Marvel couldn’t figure out how to get a new character to take off (new characters almost never take off in DC and Marvel anymore), so they just slapped a familiar name on him.
But I was wrong. And it took me a decade to see why. That one choice – not making Miles into Spider-Kid or The Black Spider or whatever – forever altered the nature of what Spider-Man IS. See, for decades Spidey and Peter Parker were not only inextricably linked, but Spidey’s innate loneliness was also part of what defined him. When he joined the Avengers I groaned – Spidey should always be an outsider, never quite measuring up. He had a supporting cast, yeah, but Spider-Man always worked alone. That’s actually what made the Marvel Team-Up book – wherein Spidey teamed up with a different Marvel character every month – work. You see, Spidey would work with The Thing or Blade or The Cast of Saturday Night Live, but he would never, ever stay with them. He was a loner.
But by turning Spider-Man into a legacy character Brian Michael Bendis did something really intriguing to him – he allowed Spider-Man (Peter Parker) to remain a loner, but he also allowed Spider-Man (the concept) to become something bigger and more connected. Then that idea got turned up to eleven; longtime Spidey writer Dan Slott introduced the Spider-verse, an infinite series of world with their own Spider-people.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse takes that concept and popularizes it, and it does so while maintaining the important central conceit of Spider-Man, which is that he’s on his own. Even knowing that there are Spider-People across the multiverse, each individual Spider-Person remains within their own reality and cannot spend too much time in another Spidey’s world. And so we get to have our cake and eat it too – a web of connected Spider-People, all of whom are on their own in a truly existential way. And yet, they’re never alone.
This takes the relationship between the reader and Spider-Man and literalizes it. This has always been the key to the popularity of the character; we, the reader, are Spidey’s best friend and confidant. In his struggles to pay rent or keep up his relationships we see our own struggles. By sharing his loneliness we find our own loneliness lessened. And yet we can never hang out with Spider, since he isn’t real (in this universe, anyway). But he’s still there, and we know that he’s out there and we can call on him and his adventures at any time.
It’s a symbiotic relationship, by the way. Spider-Man doesn’t exist without us. Those comic books, when they’re closed and unread nothing is happening in them. The movies only exist because we go to see them. We don’t exist in Spidey’s universe, but Spidey’s universe exists because of us.
By literalizing the relationship between Spider-Man and the reader/viewer, Into the Spider-verse allows the reader/viewer to take the next step and become Spider-Man. We’ve seen this in the past couple of weeks, as folks online have been sharing their own “Spidersonas,” illustrations of what they would look like if they were a Spider-Person. And most people truly GET IT – they don’t just draw Spidey with rocket launchers or as a transforming robot, they take the central character and his iconic imagery (the eyes, the logo, the form-fitting suit) and apply it to themselves. There are A LOT of Spidersonas on Twitter, but I really love these:
I’d be lying if I denied that I had tears in my eyes as I type this. I know what Spider-Man meant to me as a kid, when I was getting bullied and beat up, when I lived in a cold and loveless home, when I was growing up with one toe over the poverty line, when I struggled to fit in while also hating the idea of fitting in, when I felt so alone in the world. To be able to open a Spider-Man comic and see Peter Parker, with all his abilities, fighting hard to keep his head above water, was to see myself represented in a way that almost no other media ever represented me (perhaps only Adrian Mole ever spoke to me as completely as Peter Parker did).
To see that Spider-Man now gets to mean as much to such a diverse group of people is so powerful. To have that comfort, that relatability freed from the shackles of race and gender, to be thrown open to anyone, is astonishing. This is the promise of these escapist stories come absolutely true. I don’t think the main character of a thing needs to look or sound or be exactly like me in order for me to identify with them, but man does it ever take it to the next level. That other people can find the connection I found with Peter Parker via these new characters, or via their own projection into new characters, is heartwarming and beautiful.
What’s interesting is that it’s only Spider-Man who could do this. There have been multiple Supermen, and multiple Batmen, but we’re never going to be those guys. We just can’t be. They’re always distant from us, always aspirational but never quite identifiable. Spider-Man, though – one time Peter Parker taught the omniscient godlike being The Beyonder how to take a shit. That, to me, is the ultimate Spider-Man story, and it’s why Spidey has always been so relatable on a larger level.
But now that relatability has been atomized, brought down to a personal level and, in its own weird way, made canon. Yes, your Spidersona could exist out there in one of the infinite parallel Spidey realities. With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-versethe doors are flung wide open; no longer are marginalized or underrepresented groups being forced to hijack the culture and recreate it in their own image, they’re being invited to do so. And what’s more amazing is that none of this comes at the expense of the original Spider-Man. If anything, I think Spider-Verse‘s burnt out, broken Peter Parker experiences one of the great Spidey arcs in his whole history. This feels completely like a Spider-Man story, and Peter’s journey is wonderful and fulfilling.
Every time I think about this movie I get excited, and every time I see a new Spidersona I get emotional. This is what we should want from the longevity of these long-running serialized characters, that they can be expanded to speak to as many people as possible while still maintaining the core aspects that made them unique in the first place. In a world where we endure pitched battles about race and genderbending of characters, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse brushes past all the racists and sexists and throws open the doors to Spider-Man’s world for everyone. Now anybody can be under that mask, as long as they get back up when they fall down. Where you’re from, what you look like, none of that matters anymore. Now it’s just about your willingness to never give up. That’s what makes you Spider-Man.