Anyone Can Wear the Mask: The Importance of Representation in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spoilers below.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a thrilling and dazzling movie; the animation is gorgeous, the characters are heartwarming and engaging, and the story is naturally paced, with each scene beautifully bleeding into the next with a mix of vibrant colors and hip hop. After years of seeing live action, formulaic superhero flicks, Into the Spider-Verse is refreshing–we have seen superheroes being self-referential, but none that use that meta contextualization of the medium to convey the importance of telling different stories. Stories where anyone can be the hero–where anyone can wear the mask.

Media representation is a hot-button issue in 2018, especially in comics. Into the Spider-Verse uses the medium of comic books while being its own self-contained film, unburdened by an ever-growing mythos, to instill a message of diversity as a strength. The themes of the film are straightforward: the importance of family and friendship, overcoming adversity and unthinkable odds, never giving up, and fighting to protect the ones you love; however, all of these themes are viewed through the eyes of Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager, who is constantly trying to balance his inner self with that which is expected of him. Miles consistently puts his own spin on whatever he is doing, whether that is a personal essay or what it means to be a hero–taking the mantle as Spider-Man, an identity often synonymous with whiteness, and imbuing it with his view of the world. Most importantly, Miles is not just a Black version of Peter Parker. While all of the heroes are based on the original Spider-Man, the film frames them all as autonomous. They are just as important in their own universes as Peter Parker was in his before he died. The movie doesn’t position them within the overbearing shadow of our fallen hero, instead choosing to highlight their unique strengths. All of the pressure from the conflict comes from the characters’ personal development as individuals instead of the idealization of Peter Parker’s legacy.

Instead of rehashing the six live-action movies, Spider-Verse cleverly sidesteps unnecessary repetition by using a montage to catch up viewers and remind them of the basics — The radioactive spider bite, Uncle Ben, and that with great power comes great responsibility. Skipping Peter Parker’s exposition, Into The Spider-Verse focuses on Miles Morales and what makes him unique and complex in his own right. He has a complicated family dynamic; he struggles to follow the moral righteousness of his policeman father and the laid-back charisma of his uncle Aaron. Miles grapples between opening up to his father, playing by the rules, educating himself, doing the right thing, and finding his own creative voice through street art. Miles spray painting and placing personal stickers all over New York is how he leaves an impression on the world around him. Though his background is decidedly different from that of Peter Parker, the film is quick to point out that Miles is an equally valid hero. Underneath it all, Into the Spider-Verse is a story about how anyone can wear the mask, and when doing so, they do not need to emulate their predecessor completely–they can be their own Spider-Hero, and that is just as important as the original.

Beyond the central story of Miles and his rise as Spider-Man, viewers are exposed to Spider-Gwen. Gwen, too, has her own journey as a hero; she is a young woman who feels the need to keep people at a distance in an effort to protect them and herself. For Miles, Into The Spider-Verse is about finding his voice and being a hero, but for Gwen, it’s about realizing that she doesn’t need to be alone. Gwen slowly accepts friendship after a time of grieving and loss instead of being resigned to romantic subplot–though the movie hints at an interracial relationship between Miles and Gwen, nothing becomes of it, and she goes back to her own universe as a more trusting and open-minded person. Additionally, Into The Spider-Verse shows a self-deprecating, washed-up version of Peter B. Parker going through the aftermath of a divorce, becoming a mentor, and taking a second chance at life. Miles’ drive to be a better Spider-Man inspires Peter to become a better version of himself, and even works towards easing his fears of being a terrible father. He goes back to his universe with the hopes of rekindling his marriage to Mary Jane, and to rediscover what it meant for him to be Spider-Man.

The comic relief characters (Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir and Peter Porker) don’t get as much screen time or narrative importance, and feel like flavor text. But, there’s only so much run time to work with. They still diversify the main cast, create new avenues for people seeking out interesting and unconventional comic books, and keep the tone of the movie playful and light, acting as a palette cleanser for the darker, more dramatic moments. Each of these heroes is framed as valid and important in their own worlds, which solidifies the themes of the movie.

Media informs our culture and reflects it back upon us. On the one hand, representation in itself, if handled with nuance and accuracy, should be enough and is better than none at all. On the other hand, the mere representation of a group is not enough, if that representation is offensive or exploitative.

It just so happens, Spider-Verse paints a complex portrait of the family life of a Afro-Latino teenager without using harmful stereotypes, and its mere existence is meaningful. There are children, who after seeing this movie, feel like they can be the hero; maybe they aren’t old enough to have ever experienced otherwise, but nevertheless, if there is even just one child in this world that was empowered by the movie and feels like they can be Spider-Man, that is enough.

At the beginning of the film, Miles is assigned an essay on Great Expectations, which is a seemingly fitting motif based on title alone; he’s an average kid who came upon a grand undertaking out of nowhere. But Miles’ story differs from the novel in that he has a support system, comes from a loving family, and his opportunity is not a monetary one. Though he’s less flawed and wroth with ambition, like Pip, Miles grows to be a better person and rises up to meet his destiny. Just like how within Great Expectations, money and opportunities do not magically dissipate a childhood of abuse and neglect, though Miles becomes Spider-Man, he is still plagued by the self-doubt and issues that he had before he donned the suit. Wearing it is not enough to make him dissolve into the identity of Spider-Man and erase himself. The importance is not the mask itself, Peter Parker as a person, or the legacy of the character, but the person growing as they undertake the role. Anyone can wear the mask. There is a hero in all of us, if only we choose to be one.