My son Quinn virtually dragged me to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I went along because, as a father, it is my job to be interested in what he is interested in, but I thought I was over the Spider-Man origin stories. I was tired of the spider bite. Of the “Oh look, I have superpowers” realization and the “you have to learn to embrace who you are” storyline. It had gotten trite.
Or so I thought. Spider-Verse, I soon discovered, is one of the year’s best movies. The animation style, the story, the depth of character, and the music are all used to create a world like none other, and the cast—which includes Shameik Moore, Mahershala Ali, Nic Cage, Lily Tomlin, Brian Tyree Henry, Oscar Isaac, Hailee Steinfeld, Chris Pine, Liev Schreiber, Zoë Kravitz, and too many others to name—is as strong as any this year. On top of that, the film takes seriously what it feels like to be a black teenager in a predominately white and affluent school, and while I was not expecting the film to work on me as it did, I found myself getting misty-eyed in the movie theater. Quinn, meanwhile, smiled the whole time. He was having the time of his life. He loved seeing a Spider-Man who looked like him.
Yet, while I loved the film, something kept me at a distance. It was not until I was home and thought about the movie critically that it became clear: Miles Morales, the movies’ first black Spider-Man, was the focus of the movie, yes, but he was a Spider-Man among Spider-Men.
When we meet Miles, he is the only Spider-Man left in New York City. In his dimension (just go with me, here), Peter Parker dies at the hands of the villain known as the Kingpin, and Miles is left to figure out how to be a hero on his own. That is a compelling premise. Spider-Verse could have taken this by now tired origin story and made it fresh by exploring the ways that, for a black Spider-Man, the story might be different. It could have delved deeper into the double consciousness of being a black person in an America that sees blackness as undesirable and a black man as something to be feared. (This is already a story about dual identities after all.) That would have kept with the way the character was introduced in 2011 in Chapter 4 of the Ultimate Fallout Marvel comic book series, which dealt with the aftermath of Peter Parker’s early death.
But Morales’ time as our lone webslinger doesn’t last long. Instead we are soon introduced to no less than four other characters who all have similar powers to Miles (one of which is, um, a pig) and who have more experience at being superheroes. (Yes, even the pig.) With that setup, the star of the film spends more than half of the movie’s running time being relegated to a character who must figure out how to be a superhero while the more seasoned characters look down on him in a way that feels, at times, condescending. (And yes, even Spider-Ham looks down on Miles.) To use another film that came out this year as a reference point, it was like if Black Panther had given as much screen time to Agent Everett K. Ross, the only white protagonist of the film, as it gave to Erik Killmonger and Black Panther. We got a movie, even if it is a very good one, that gestured toward blackness without fully embracing it—and that is a shame.
This film deserves a sequel, and given the money it is expected to make and the buzz surrounding the movie (which recently won Best Animated Film from the New York Film Critics Circle), my Spidey sense tells me they will make one. That’s a good thing. When the next film comes out, I’m sure Quinn will make me take him to that one just like he made me take him to this one. My only hope is that the first Afro-Latino Spider-Man will finally get his own movie, instead of having it hogged by, well, a hog.