Reflections on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the Power of Representation
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, is one of the most thrilling and talked about animated films of the year. Following the life of Miles Morales, an Afro-Puerto Rican teenage graffiti artist from New York City, who was bitten by a radioactive spider while painting in the tunnels of a subway station, it is groundbreaking in its cinematic introduction of an Afro-Latinx teenager in the animated film industry and superhero world. However, what is even more compelling is the writer's choice to bring to the forefront two elements of becoming an adult that are rarely explored in films featuring Black and Latinx male characters: the awkward transitions of adolescence and the emotional connection between a Black father and son.
After discovering that his powers came from the spider, he crosses paths with Peter Parker fighting against the film’s primary villain, Wilson Fisk. While trying to protect Miles and the city, Peter Parker is murdered by Fisk, who is seeking to bring his wife and son back to life through a particle accelerator, a machine that has the ability to reach alternate dimensions. This would ultimately enable Fisk to find other versions of his wife and son to “replace” those that he lost. While on his mission, Fisk unleashes all of the Spider People from other alternate universes, who eventually form a team to stop Fisk. Due to Miles’ inexperience, the team of Spider People, including Peter Parker, decide to bind Miles to his dormitory chair and leave him behind while they apprehend Fisk, believing that he will pose too much of a danger to himself and others. While restrained, Miles is visited by his father Jeff, who makes amends for the emotional estrangement in their relationship and apologizes to Miles for misunderstanding him when he needed him this the most.
Lord and Rothman juxtapose general adolescent awkwardness and clumsiness with Miles’s cosmic anatomical changes he undergoes when introduced to his new superpowers. They use this narrative technique to emphasize the stage of adolescent awkwardness on a larger scale, represented by his consistent trips and falls over untied shoelaces. This clumsiness reveals the many ways Miles lacks spatial and bodily awareness, something relatable to most growing teens. At a more symbolic level, he becomes his own roadblock, unaware of how much space his body fills both as a teenager and as a superhero. For the viewer, Miles’ clumsiness becomes one of the more compelling elements of the film, representing a Black and Latinx man through a multidimensional lens.
Miles’ relationship with his father is another critical dynamic within the movie, coming to a head when his father visits his dorm. It is only then that Miles is able to free himself from the rope bindings and reach his full physical potential as Spider Man. This was such a profoundly poignant moment in the film because it emphasized that Miles had to go beyond just the physical and instead access his spirituality in order to undergo a full metamorphosis into a superhero. It is revolutionary because he reached emotional and cosmic depths of his identity through the love and support of another Black man, further changing the landscape in how the media depicts Black male relationships as well as showing the interconnectedness of two Black characters that transcends the material world. In the film industry, Black and Latinx bodies are often objectified and dehumanized in order to illustrate the violent manifestations of oppressive systems in historical and contemporary contexts. In such cases, much of the industry focuses on Black and Latinx characters as objects of oppression and violence, which can hinder many audiences from establishing emotional resonance with those characters, further dehumanizing both communities. Instead, Spider Verse created a multifaceted, genuine Afro-Latino character in Miles and emphasized his emotionality.
Through the lens of a young teenage boy, Spider-Verse presents an aesthetically “textured world,” as described by one of the film’s artistic director’s Patrick O’Keefe, that follows the journey of a burgeoning Spider Man seeking to find justice and himself in the moral complexities of his world. The writers’ intentionality to create and connect various parallel universes, in contrast with a teenager’s internalized struggles made for an accessible piece for Black and Brown youth supplemented by the fantastical worlds of the Spider Verses. This film beautifully harmonizes Miles’ interior world with multiverse that challenges conventional boundaries of representation in universally and temporally.