I’ll try to do this without too many plot elements, but be aware, there will be plot elements in my piece.
Near the beginning of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Miles Morales father says to Miles, while driving him to school, “With great ability comes great accountability.” Sure it’s fun, funny and kind of square, though it arguably has some rime riche in it. It’s supposed to be a joke—a riff on something Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben says to him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And an embarrassing moment of a dad being so square. But the comment also reflects the ways that heroes are part of a community. (Don’t make me point out how often Batman, the iconic loner, keeps making scrappy families from strays like himself). Being accountable is about being accountable to someone. And a hero in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is accountable to the community. Not like the Avengers where there are conference tables, paperwork and Congressional oversight, but just being part of a community–the neighborhood, the city, the world. If you have some ability, you should use it to help however you can. And that take is part of why I feel the stakes more in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse than I have in a lot of other superhero movies lately.
Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is a high school student living in Brooklyn. His father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) is a police officer and his mother Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez) is a nurse. They’re putting Miles through a private school, trying to give him every opportunity for success. But Miles isn’t so sure that’s what he wants. He misses his old life and sneaks off to see his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala m’f’ing Ali) who is a little more open to Miles’ uncertainty and Miles’ love of art thank Miles’ dad seems to be. One night, Uncle Aaron shows Miles a new underground place with a nice untouched space Miles could tag. Miles creates something special, but he is also bitten by a mysterious, probably radioactive, spider. Miles has a sudden growth spurt and develops powers—wall-crawling and general… adhesion—that he claims are “just puberty.” But as always, things are happening. Kingpin Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) has paid Dr. Ock (Kathryn Hahn) to build a particle accelerator in an abandoned subway tunnel not far from where Miles was bitten. The machine is connecting realities and Fisk is searching for other versions of his wife and son to recreate his family. Miles shows up in time to see Spider-Man (Chris Pine) trying to stop Fisk. Spider-Man saves Miles, saying, “You’re like me.” He gives Miles a USB that can destroy the particle accelerator telling Miles that the machine will destroy New York if it’s turned on again. Miles escapes, but not before seeing Spider-Man killed by Fisk.
This is all a lot for anyone, let alone a kid. But the upside of creating a portal to Miles’ New York is that other spider-people have been sucked into Miles universe: Sorta retired, divorcee Spider-Man Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson); Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld); Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage in the midst of a Nicholas Cage–aissance); Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her spider in a mech suit best friend, Sp//dr; and Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Peter B. Parker takes on the role of mentor / uncle who talks a lot about how his life went wrong and, oops, he left his wallet at home do you mind covering me at the diner, kid. Peter B. Parker is the Ryan Reynolds to Peter Parker’s Ryan Gosling in Miles’ universe. But together they help Miles figure out his powers, realize he can do this hero thing. And they can help Miles save the city. All their cities.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is just about everything I would want a superhero movie to be. The soundtrack is pretty sweet. The film and design are gorgeous–and so thoughtful. (Though if you are prone to seizures or migraines, you might want to watch the trailer first). It might seem obvious, since a lot of comics are being adapted for film because they seem pre-story-boarded, but comics are a visual medium. It’s a film that loves comics and I love it for that. And I appreciated the film’s use of comics’ visual elements. It represents a take on comics on film not so popular with big screen, big budget, tentpole movies since Ang Lee’s The Hulk (2003). I enjoyed the use of half-tone in shading and the squiggly, tingling spider-sense lines. The palette was fantastic, playing on both the spider-suits and the red/blue conventions of olden times 3-D. I especially enjoyed the clever use of text boxes. The tricky balance between 3D shading and stylish cell-style animation was well-done.
I appreciated art’s references to Jack Kirby, Bill Sienkiewicz and Steve Ditko as well as more recent spider-artists like Sara Pichelli and Robbi Rodriguez.
They put a lot of thought into how each Spider character’s design and how they would remain distinct while feeding into the overall style of the film. And I have to say, I think it streamlined a lot of the Spiderverse (Marvel, 2015) comic storyline. Focusing on Miles was a good decision. He’s a teen who feels a bit out of his depth but wants to do the right thing. When Miles leaps out into space it’s exhilarating, even when it doesn’t go so well for him. And when it finally does, well, it’s a joy.
I have really only one complaint and that is Spider-Woman’s entrance and her footwear. I could tell exactly when she was going to show up and that it would be as the hyper-competent girl who does her spider-womaning almost effortlessly. So that we can see Peter B. Parker and Miles feeling embarrassed in front of her. The movie does so much so well that this felt, well, too easy. And Robbi Rodriguez’s design for Spider-Gwen is one of the best in the couple decades, certainly my favorite in a long time. Switching out her Converse-ish shoes for ballet flats just makes me sigh.
On the other hand, they manage to keep the focus on Miles so well when it would be easy for the story to be about Peter B. Parker. It’s easy to make it about the white guy finding himself again while mentoring Black Puerto Rican American youth. Makes me shudder just thinking about it.
The focus on Miles makes the question of why a hero becomes a hero less about tragedy, trauma and loss and more one of, well, ability and accountability. It’s not loss that drives him to become a hero, though his encounter with Spider-Man makes him think about what it means to be one. Once Miles comes to terms with the fact that what is happening to him isn’t “just puberty,” his question is what will he do with his new abilities? In fact, Miles is ready to be a hero from the start, it’s just that the learning curve is so steep and the stakes are so high. He wants to save New York and he wants to save the lives of the other spider-folk. And Spider-Woman, Spider-Man Noir, Peni and SP//dr even Spider Ham never doubt that they can save New York. What they worry about is losing Miles because he’s not very good at swinging yet and he adheres to things when he doesn’t mean to.
Watching Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, I care about the stakes–the loss of the city and the death of any of the characters. The current stakes and mortality rates in superhero movies remind me increasingly of the Golden Age comics of Fletcher Hanks. I wrote about him early on in my tenure here at the Gutter. In his comics, vast numbers of people die in terrorist attacks or from organized crime. If one death is affecting in a story, thousands or billions of deaths must be that much more effective. Or so it works with Hanks. I think he would very much enjoy a character who can eliminate half the galaxy’s life with the snap of a finger. And this then justifies the astonishing punishments meted out by his two most famous creations, Space Wizard Stardust and Fantomah. Of course, Fletcher Hanks was not making his comics in isolation. Any more than Julia A. Moore was the only late Nineteenth Century poet to write bathetic poems about the deaths of children to give her readers’ hearts a good work out. Around the same time Hanks was creating his comics thousands die in mad science, organized crime and weird industrialist-related attacks on Manhattan and Metro-Detroit in the pages of Norvell Page’s The Spider. And there were real, terrifying, organized crime and white supremacist gangs at the time that you see in comics, pulps, b-movies and serials in the 1930s and 1940s, like the Black Legion. Hanks is unusual, however, in his glee in punishing evil-doers and in the weird distance from the deaths he portrays in his comics.
Killing is high stakes, but it’s also often a lazy way to get the sense of a consequence without there really being one. It’s easy to see Joss Whedon’s superheroic future in his 2008 webseries Doctor Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog (2008). Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) is hardly a supervillain, though he is a villain, and Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) is about the appropriate level to combat him. During their conflict, Penny (Felicia Day), the woman Doctor Horrible has a crush on, is killed. And that’s where it goes flat for me. And I know Whedon is doing that deliberately, but he always has done that deliberately. He has one consequence and it’s someone who has it together dying, but not redemptively, and in a way that makes the protagonist in general realize the impact of their actions on the world.
But you know what would be less predictable? If Penny broke her leg. Because that really sucks, that would likely get the attention of both antagonists and it’s about appropriate with the level of the conflict. Viewers expect the death of an innocent in Whedon stories*. As it is, the story moves from something clever to something kind of bathetic, Victorian and weirdly distanced and distancing. And that is really not my thing except in the poems of the sweet songstress Julia Moore who made no bones about using the unlikely deaths of others as heavy-handed momento mori for us all.
I have felt that weird distance in watching recent superhero movies**. The buildings falling remind me of nothing so much as Norvell Page’s The Titans of Gotham and, again, Hanks’ nameless suffering masses. They are less effective for me in terms of making me feel the consequences rather than just how much they remind me of Fletcher Hanks. The Avengers (2012), for example, is general fun times for me. Man Of Steel (2013) is not. But regardless of how well done and how much attention is paid to collateral damage—they only get bigger and bigger. With more and more swarms of aliens, robots, undead, undead alien robots and larger and more cosmic losses until it all ends with a snap of the fingers. And there’s only so long that they can keep trying to hit the same nerve until I just want them to stop.***.
I didn’t feel that distance in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. It’s all very personal. We see the effects of only three deaths, Peter Parker, Wilson Fisk’s wife Vanessa and Wilson and Vanessa’s son. We see how these three deaths play out first through the lives of people directly affected, then through their city and then throughout reality. Fisk’s loss and his grief are hidden beneath the city while it mourns Spider-Man above. He is not comforted, but he does not seek comfort. Fisk’s willingness to risk everyone and everything to get his family back is paralleled with Miles Morales’ willingness to risk himself to save his city, his family and his friends. Fisk will mutilate a multiverse to get back what he lost and never have to look at how he might be implicated in that loss. Fisk’s grief and anger has become a catastrophe, because he does not recognize at all how even his great ability comes with accountability. Everything he’s done for Hell’s Kitchen before now doesn’t mean the multiverse owes him his family back. Fisk doesn’t believe he is accountable, not even to Vanessa. Wilson Fisk reminds us that we can believe we are heroes and family men while causing harm. Miles Morales reminds us that it’s what we do with our abilities that makes us heroes.
*Whedon does not want death to be redemptive. So characters who have done terrible things cannot die in any way that might be seen as atoning for what they have done. And he really seems like a writer who is afraid he will be tempted not to kill characters he likes if it’s necessary. So if a character is likable, appealing and seems to have their shit together, that’s one he’ll kill.
**I do not feel this way about Black Panther (2018). Black Panther is the shit. Did you know that Black Panther did not come out 4,000 years ago but in fact came out in 2018?
***I still love Punisher: War Zone and so many writers and filmmakers making superhero movies and shows owe Lexi Alexander so much.
Carol Borden says, “Miles Morales’ dad is the best.” Copy that?