This essay was published in the collection Into the Comics-Verse, available free on Kindle Unlimited.
I think there is something in each of us that wants to be a superhero. That, to my mind, is why the trend of superhero movies dominating the box office is still going strong, and why, despite the proliferation of independent creators with popular, original stories, superheroes remain almost synonymous in the public consciousness with comics themselves. We want stories where ordinary people gain extraordinary abilities and use them to defend their worlds and communities from danger. People, especially marginalized and underrepresented people, can connect with these characters, and they in turn can help us gain a different perspective on the world, and on what we can accomplish in our worlds. They help us believe that, just maybe, anything really is possible.
But there’s just one problem.
If you don’t have access to the years and years of comic background but you’re still interested in the superhero culture, your exposure most likely comes from film consumption. And what, until recently, has that looked like? Have you seen yourself up on screen, not as someone in the crowd being saved and standing in awe of the hero, or even as the sidekick, but as the actual hero? While I think we’re heading in the right direction (despite the kicking and screaming of some of the fanbase) there has never been a superhero film to engage that question so directly, or so broadly, as Into the Spider-Verse. As much as I loved 2017’s Wonder Woman, and as excited as I am for Captain Marvel, neither of those films really got me in the headspace of “what if I could do this too?”. Walking out of the theater for Spider-Verse, though, that is exactly the conversation I was having.
The film kicks the door open for the question, but it doesn’t answer it for us, apart from the diverse slate of characters it lets take turns slinging webs on the big screen. Rather, the concept seems tailor-made (in part from a marketing perspective, no doubt) to engage its own fanbase in imagining extensions of the concept. Fans quickly became so enthusiastic about the idea that they took to social media and began a trend on Twitter and other social media sites creating “Spidersonas”—avatars of themselves or their own characters as a Spider-Hero.
Each Spidersona has a unique design and power set, and some have even a brush of backstory to go along with them. My favorite thing about the trend? Everyone feels so free and excited to represent themselves in their truest forms. There are queer and non-binary characters, representation for cultures from all over the world, disability representation, and pretty much anything else you can think of. There are even people who took the concept to a more fine-grained level and based their characters on different spider species rather than the set of concepts available to them from the comic book and film universes. Others inverted the idea altogether and created “Man-Spider” characters with their arachnid characteristics predominating. While the latter may sometimes look closer to horror movie fodder, the idea the film presents, that anyone can wear the mask, and we can all coexist with our own strengths and our own ways of being heroic, cannot be ignored. It’s a multiverse, after all, so who’s to stop us?
The film hammers this point home often and from almost the very beginning. Miles buys a cheap store costume to mourn the loss of Peter Parker and help him try to cope with the newfound responsibility he sees as included with his powers. When he asks the cashier (Stan Lee) if the suit will fit, the response he gets is a response for us all: “it always fits, eventually.” Mary Jane, on the news after Peter Parker’s death, announces “We are all Spider-Man.” Everyone in the crowd staring up at the broadcast is wearing at least the mask. So the premise of the film right from the start is not just that Miles Morales is the new Spider-Man for this universe, but that we can all embrace the unique powers we have inside us, take our inspiration from the heroes we’ve lost, and thus build a heroic identity for ourselves that embraces both our unique advantages—our powers—as well as our challenges and the experiences that have shaped our respective outlooks on the world. Being a Spider-Hero is an identity, not a role.
Consider the way Miles initially reacts to his powers: at first they confound and confuse him. By the time the film has hit its pace, he still hasn’t warmed up to them, and spends much of the story wishing them away. Rather than basing his need to save the city on the fact that he’s the one with the powers, he bases it on the last thing he promised Peter Parker before his death, that he would destroy the machine. This is his most prominent motivating factor for the entire story, and it is a human–not superhuman–one. We can all find our strength in promises we make to those we love and respect. And we can use that strength to accomplish anything we want or need to.
Miles’ fascination with the Spider-People he encounters is also a motivator for how he chooses to embrace his identity as Spider-Man. Each of them teaches him something about what it means to take on this role, but his taking it on for himself only fully occurs in his own time, on his own terms, in his own way. In acting out his own Spidersona, Miles finally finds the capacity to embrace his inner strength, and soars to new heights in confident self-expression. None of his allies tell him how he should be or what he should do, or offer advice very long once he’s rejected it. There is no standard to conform to, among the extended Spider-Family, and their identities don’t dissolve, leaving them more Spider than human. Being a Spider-Hero, as Peter B. Parker learns, has more to do with embracing your ability to help those around you than with what costume you choose to wear.
My favorite thing about this film, the thing that makes me so excited every time I watch it, is best expressed by Verge writer Bryan Bishop: “In this film, Spider-Man isn’t one particular person; it’s an idea, accessible to anyone, no matter where they come from or what they look like.”
Never before has a superhero film told us directly that we, too, can become a hero, nor has it ever invited us so directly as Miles does in the last few minutes of the film: “Anyone can wear the mask. I am Spider-Man, and I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot.” The multiverse shows us too that there is no one way to look while embracing our inner Spider-Person. Everyone’s outfits are different and expressive of their unique characters. Yes, this in part has to do with a certain resonance with five decades and counting of changing comic book character designs, but the takeaway for both Miles and us as an audience is that heroes can use their abilities, move around, look, and act very differently.
Every identity Miles encounters over his journey is valid and, ultimately, important, both to Miles and to the characters’ respective universes. So why not express himself in the most honest way he knows? Miles’ costume is reflective of the other side of his story coming together with the superhero side. All he wants to do is create art. He takes the original Spider-Man costume and spray-paints it (mostly) black, and tags a new logo onto the chest. His style and the style of the hero he admires—the hero he made a promise to—intermingle on the costume and he from that point forward fully embraces his identity as Spider-Man.
Watching him go through the process of getting more comfortable in a costume and an identity that was more true to himself than just accepting a role passed down to him is part of what got my wheels turning about my own Spidersona, and part of what makes this movie so important to me and so many others. Miles is just a kid trying to find his way in the world. He’s fighting for his own individuality in the face of his father and the world around him. He’s creating his own representation of what it means to take on this role without losing the sense of yourself that makes you unique. And he invites us all to think: why shouldn’t we be a Spider-Hero, too? The Spidersona trend puts the power of representation directly into the hands of those who have been yearning to be represented for so long and says, no matter what, we should, we can be, and we are.