By: Pranav Padmakumar
Spider-Man was created in 1963 and his popularity has only grown in the years since. Spider-Man has evolved into a franchise of his own, with an array of comics, movies, and TV shows adapting the character as well as multiple spin-off characters who have gone on to find success. Despite such a wealth of content, none of it quite got me hooked onto the character or his stories. This all changed when I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on December 14, 2018.
The Spider-Men who came before
To tell you this story I will have to take u back 15 years, all the way to 2002. This is where our story begins, with the release of ‘Spider-Man’ (2002) directed by Sam Raimi. It was well received by both critics and audiences alike and was a huge commercial success. I was 7 years old and oblivious to comics, superheroes or anything related to their culture. I watched what was my first superhero movie on the television the following year and I ended up loving it. Everything about it was done with great care and love; you could see as much in the final product. I loved the web-slinging; Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Peter Parker; Willem Dafoe’s outstanding performance as Norman Osborne/Green Goblin; and the central theme that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. It was, in essence, the perfect superhero solo movie.
In spite of this perfection, I still wasn’t caught in this character’s web. Perhaps I was too young to understand the struggles of a teenager in high school. Looking back, the naked attempt at making the character relatable might also have worked against the movie. It did not resonate with me on a personal level and I moved onto the next big superhero movie. Watching ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004) the year after its release, I loved it even more, but the character of Spider-Man himself appeared to grow further and further away from me. Whilst I enjoyed it, ‘Spider-Man 3’ (2007) admittedly didn’t feel the same. The level of care and intimacy I felt from the first two movies were gone, to be replaced by a sense of spectacle and grandeur. Nonetheless, it was quite enjoyable and it exposed me to several new elements of Spider-Man lore.
Skipping ahead five years to 2012, the story resumes with the release of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012). As a 17 years old, in 12th grade and going through the trials and tribulations of high school, this heartwarming story of a teenager trying to navigate through the trials and tribulations of high school (whilst secretly using his superpowers to protect his city) spoke to me. This movie felt a lot more personal. I was blown away by the performances of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy); their on-screen chemistry was great. The final crane scene in the movie makes me emotional every time I watch it.
‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) was, in short, amazing. Gwen Stacy’s death scene is so raw and rife with emotions, it leaves me drained every time. But again, these movies didn’t make as much of an impact on me as I had hoped.
Spider-Man: Homecoming came out in 2017 and I was disappointed with it on several fronts. The character was reduced to a caricature of himself. I did not like the way they portrayed Aunt May. The action seemed lacklustre, the comedy overbearing and the plot thin. There was just one scene in the whole movie where we see the real Spider-Man, when he’s trapped under the rubble in the climax. Even that wasn’t enough to make me love it, and so I had to wait even longer for the perfect Spider-Man movie to come along and make me fall in love with the character.
Into the Spider-verse
It is the 14th of December, 2018; the year is coming to an end. I was already very disappointed by the superhero movie offerings of the last twelve months and I was wearily getting ready to see the 2018s last chance at superhero success, featuring Spider-Man.
The early buzz around the film had me excited and the trailers had impressed me, but given past experiences, I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed by the film. As a fan of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, their involvement as writers (story and screenplay by Lord) and producers on the project gave me optimism. I took my seat in the theatre excited for a fun time at the movies. I was not prepared for what was going to happen in the next couple of hours.
I loved the score (by Daniel Pemberton); the voice acting was great; the animation was phenomenal; the comedy was well placed and did not detract from the seriousness of the plot. It was all very well done and looks, dare I say, spectacular! But it secretly did more. I was drawn to this movie. I saw it two more times at the theatre and I wanted more. I felt my faith in comic book movies rejuvenated. Sitting an analyzing what the movie was doing to me, I realized that it happened, I finally fell in love with Spider-Man. Those 2 hours did for me, what 15 years of the other movies couldn’t. Spider-verse explores not only Miles Morales’s journey but also that of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. The movie does this by separating the three individuals and demonstrating what sets them apart from each other, but more importantly what binds them together and what at the end of the day makes a Spider-Man.
I remember feeling this way watching Man of Steel (2013), a film that made me fall in love with Superman. I recognized similarities in both movies. They were an exploration of an individual’s purpose in life. They showed us reluctant heroes who, through their respective journeys come to understand their greater purpose. They got to the crux of who the characters are and what they are about. Incredibly, Into the Spider-Verse managed to achieve this with three heroes on different paths simultaneously, to have them converge at the end to answer the question – Who is Spider-Man?
Enter Miles Morales a.k.a Spider-Man
Miles is an ordinary high school kid, a genius who gets into a prestigious private school on his own merit and has a loving family to support him. He is popular and loved by his old schoolmates.
He is, in effect, a normal teenager living his life, going through the motions. That is, until he gets bit by the radioactive spider which appears to be from the multi-verse. His whole life gets turned upside down. He goes in search of the spider and ends up right in the middle of a battle between his world’s Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Spider-Man saves him and promises to mentor him, only to be killed before Miles’s very eyes. Miles blames himself for Peter Parker’s death. He goes to the cemetery to pay his respects only to be confronted by… Peter Parker!? Another Spider-Man, sucked in from a distant corner of the multi-verse, Peter B. Parker is unwilling to mentor Miles because he has lost faith in himself.
Faced with a plot that threatens his city and the people he cares about, Miles meets Spider-Gwen and the Spideys from the 3 other corners of the multi-verse. None of them have any faith in him or possess the patience to teach him. Miles is lost at this point. He has superpowers he never wanted, a guilt ridden responsibility to use them for good to honour the Peter Parker that died, and a lack of experience. In spite of all of these odds, he has a sense of justice pulling him to jump into action to save his city nevertheless. These conflicting emotions and ideas are only made worse when he finds out his favorite Uncle Aaron is the Prowler, a notorious mercenary working for the Kingpin.
When he sees his uncle murdered right in front of him by Kingpin his self-doubt grows and he is forced to stand down by the team of Spideys. Bound to a chair in his dorm room, he hears his not always understanding father trying to connect with him. He tells Miles, “I see this spark in you, and it’s amazing. That’s why I push you, but… it’s yours. Whatever you choose to do with it, you’ll be great.” Unknowingly Miles’s dad lights the spark in him. He finally realises he needs to take ‘a leap of faith’ and make a choice to let go of his self-doubt and fears. He returns to Peter Parker’s house to find that Aunt May still had faith in him. He fashions a new suit out of Peter’s old one and takes that leap of faith to join his fellow Spideys in battle. He inspires everyone on the team, gets back up when pushed down, stands up to the Kingpin and brings him to justice, and establishes himself as the new Spider-Man for his world.
He finally finds his purpose. To carry on the legacy of Spider-Man, to go beyond it and forge a legacy of his own. He found the faith he lost with the help of his reluctant mentor, his family, and his friends. An ordinary kid taking on that much responsibility is inspiring, but even more inspiring is the selfless nature of it. This version of Spider-Man I could relate to. The reluctant hero falling and faltering in his resolve, only to pick himself back up again to continue to fight selflessly for the people around him. A true hero. This to me is a facet of Spider-Man that has seldom been explored in previous iterations. The catalyst for a call to action has always been the death of Ben Parker and not the faith placed in him by others. That feels like a reluctant acceptance of their responsibilities rather than personal growth and exploration leading to accepting the role. I believe because of this, ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ answers the question ‘who is Spider-Man?’ better than all its predecessors.
Enter Peter Parker a.k.a Spider-Man
Peter Parker from Miles’s universe is the Spider-Man archetype. Confident, happy and in love with being Spider-Man. He is in a loving relationship with Mary Jane (MJ) who supports him along with Aunt May in his crime-fighting endeavours. He promises to mentor Miles without a second thought and comforts him as much as he can. He says to Miles “There’s a lot going through your head, I’m sure. You’re gonna be fine. I can help you. If you stick around I can show you the ropes”. But sadly he did not get the chance to keep his word. He is brutally murdered in front of Miles with a city left to mourn him.
In stark contrast to “our” Peter, Peter B. Parker has lost his way. He is older than the one we just saw killed, has long given up on his relationship with MJ, stopped working out, wallows in self-pity and has for all intents and purposes given up on being Spider-Man. He is reluctant to teach Miles because he has lost faith in himself. This is not the Spider-Man we know or one we have seen on the big screen before. At first, he only appears to have the selfish goal of returning to his dimension. But you see his hero instincts kick in when he gets to know Miles and the other Spideys. His and Miles’s faith slowly grows in each other, and this drives him on to pick up where he left off and be the hero the city needs him to be. He immediately chooses to sacrifice himself to stop Kingpin’s plan and get everyone else home safely. Through his journey and the course of the movie he explores himself and realizes the mistakes he made in his personal life and beyond. A broken man becomes whole again and takes up the mantle of Spider-Man proudly once again. He bids farewell to Miles, knowing he has it all figured out, ready to make amends when he gets back and change the course of his life.
Enter Gwen Stacy a.k.a Spider-Gwen
Gwen Stacy has had a life different from those of Peter and Miles. She was bitten by a radioactive spider and was thrilled to have superpowers. She joined a band and was living her life to the fullest. She loved fighting the bad guys and she even managed to save her father from getting shot. But it all changed when she couldn’t save her best friend Peter Parker (from her universe).
She withdrew from everyone and kept to herself, no longer forming any attachments to avoid getting hurt again. “I don’t do friends anymore, just to avoid distractions.” Hence she does not trust Miles in the beginning. She infiltrates Kingpin’s lab on her own and only joins the other Spideys when she learns about their similar predicament. She repeatedly discourages Miles from the crime-fighting business, evidently so he should not encounter the tragic moments she has. Fortunately, watching Miles overcome his fears and insecurities inspires her.
She begins to form a bond with Miles despite all her attempts not to. Through the course of the film, she begins to trust the team and Miles. She finally entrusts the job of shutting down the reactor to Miles, having faith that he’ll get the job done. And before she leaves for her own dimension she makes a friend in Miles. She comes out of her shell and starts trusting people again. All because of the inspiration provided by Miles Morales.
Thus we come to the conclusion of the story. The 3 character arcs for the 3 main characters in the movie showed me who Spider-Man really is for the first time. It doesn’t matter if you are at rock bottom with no hope left. Or if you are happy with your life and are suddenly burdened with responsibilities and you are terrified of the future. Or if you suffered a tragedy and have chosen to close yourself off to the world. All you need is for someone to have faith in you and for you to have faith in yourself. That is all it takes to be Spider-Man. The courage to face your demons and come out of the other end a hero. That is the message of the movie, that anyone can be Spider-Man. And it delivered all of that without the need to spell it out in a reductive manner. It disguised the message in the form of a personal and heartwarming story of 3 people. This is what makes Into the Spider-Verse stand above the other movies in showing who Spider-Man is, and is precisely why I fell in love with not only the movie but also the character of Spider-Man. It pointed out the hero within me instead of the hero within Spider-Man and that made all the difference.