The Social Cut is a monthly column by Rishika Aggarwal that critically analyses various media shows, movies and documentaries, from an intersectionalist feminist standpoint.
If there’s one superhero that has almost been overdone when it comes to depiction on the movie screen, it is undeniably Spider-Man.
The web-slinging superhero and his civilian identity, student Peter Parker, has been the protagonist for a number of films. In the span of 12 years, there were 5 feature films and 2 iterations of the character on movie screen – Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s original trilogy, and the two films in the Amazing Spider-Man reboot in 2012, starring Andrew Garfield. Then came the Marvel movies, with Tom Holland taking over the role as a younger Spider-Man – and with it came clear indications of Spider-Man fatigue.
The Spider-Man that had first been introduced by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962 had been a breath of fresh air in the superhero landscape – he didn’t have access to expensive and high tech gear, was human and not alien or mutant (a la Superman or the X-Men), and dealt not only with super-villains, but also mundane problems like bullying and talking to girls. His powers affected his ability to hold down a job, forcing him to work for an employer who hated his masked identity, and he struggled with keeping Spider-Man a secret from the most meaningful people in his life.
Spider-Man, when first introduced, was proof that anyone could be a superhero. And while it’s true that there are parts of Peter Parker that people can relate to, it is increasingly clear that being fully represented by a superhero is difficult when the superhero in question is young white man.
This is why Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a breath of fresh air, especially on screen. This Spider-Man is no longer the young white man Peter Parker, but Afro-Latino teenager Miles Morales. He embraces his cultural background instead of being modified to appeal to white audiences – his school essays come doodled with graffiti and his form of relaxation is a combination of hip-hop and R&B (creating one of the most hilarious moments in the film when his need to hum music in order to control a part of his new powers conflicts with his need to stay silent).
Miles is a young, black boy in a city and country that has a racial profiling problem, a scholarship recipient who is an outsider in his rich (and visibly majority white) new school, a boy who yearns to return to the neighbourhood where his fits in while his parents dream of something else for him.
Yes, there is a Peter Parker in this film, but he is not the protagonist, and not the main universe’s Spider-Man – that’s Miles’ purview.
And then there are the other Spider-People that appear in the movie. Yes, Spider-Ham is played for the laughs, but the other important Peni Parker is the young Japanese-American girl who is the pilot of the SP//dr suit, Gwen Stacey is Spider-Gwen, and the Aunt May who was once nothing more than a motivation for Peter is now a technological force to be reckoned with. Even the villains get in on this – Dr. Octopus is no longer Otto Octavius, but Olivia Octavius.
Even background characters in the film are no longer majority white, but noticeably diverse, reflecting modern New York – and the world – better than older films have managed to do. Minor characters reflect this too – the momentary appearances of Miles’ Korean-American (future) best friend Ganke Lee and Spider-Man 2099, Miguel O’Hara who is of Mexican descent, help reinforce the naturalness of the diversity the film embraces.
One of the funniest – and most reflective – moments in the film is when Miles points out the head of the Kingpin’s labs to the alternate universe Peter Parker – when he points out that it’s a woman (the aforementioned Olivia Octavius) he mutters “I guess I have to reassess my preconceptions.” It’s a line that’s perhaps more reflective of the film’s effect on audiences than any other in the movie.
Into the Spider-Verse’s success is promising – a sequel has already been green-lit, and an all-female spin-off (likely starring Spider-Gwen) is in the works. At the end of the movie, Miles says that anyone can wear the mask – and it seems that the Spider-Man universe is finally catching up.
Image credit: DenofGeek
I want to be free, but patriarchy and capitalism tether me!
Pride with OFC, 2022
Who decides what queerness looks like?