Anyone can be Spider-Man. It’s an unusual theme for a superhero movie, where the exceptional nature of the central character is usually the central point. However, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an unusual superhero movie. Animated at a time when live-action superheroes rule at the box office, it’s currently struggling against the live-action Aquaman, but if there’s any justice, it will find success in the long term, because Into the Spider-Verse is a far more interesting movie and a fitting bookend for a superhero year that started with Black Panther.
Spoilers for the movie (which you really ought to go and see) below.
The origin of Spider-Man has become one of the best known stories in modern media. Retold multiple times across comics, television, and film, it’s now a part of modern myth. It’s so well known that the most recent live-action Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, could avoid retelling the story at all, but Into the Spider-Verse goes the other way, making a virtue out of familiarity by retelling it not once but six times.
The film’s first retelling is the classic one, a quick skimming over of the life of Peter Parker, Spider-Man, from his beginnings as a nerdy kid bitten by a radioactive spider to the loss of his uncle, which teaches him the lesson that with great power comes great responsibility. This version of Peter Parker is an unqualified success in his career as a superhero, marrying his girlfriend Mary Jane and a becoming hero to New York. He even releases an album of Christmas songs. (One of which, hilariously, plays out over the end credits.)
But this movie isn’t Peter’s story. It’s the story of Miles Morales, who gains his own superpowers in a not entirely unconnected fashion and grows into the mantle of Spider-Man in his own right over the course of the movie. As a character, Miles is different in many ways from Peter: a smart, confident kid with two loving parents pushing him to get out of his comfort zone and make the most of his talents, he’s unsurprisingly bewildered to find himself becoming his own version of Spider-Man but clever enough to work the details out on his own.
He has an advantage in doing so though, for while the first Peter Parker isn’t on the scene any more, there’s another one who is: a schlubby, scruffy Peter who has made all the wrong choices in life. This Peter becomes Miles’s reluctant mentor and clues him into the big problem that they’re both facing: a device that’s threatening to collapse multiple realities into their present one—also the reason why Peter v.2 has shown up.
This is just the kickoff for what turns out to be a delightfully funny, action-packed story of personal responsibility and self-belief, wrapped up in some of the best imagery and audio that cinema has served up in 2018. There’s a serious amount of craft at work at all levels of this movie, and despite all the factors at play, none of them feel like they’re given the wrong amount of weight or time. Multiple Spider-People make their appearance at various stages, but the story always remains Miles’s.
You can even arrange the multiple Spider-People in neat tiers with regard to their roles: Miles at the top as the central figure, with Peter v.2 as his mentor and an empowered Gwen Stacey as his friend one level below. Below them come three yet wilder variations, culled from comics history, to reinforce the film’s central message: that anyone can be Spider-Man.
It’s an interesting point to focus on. American comics have provided three great superhero archetypes: Superman is the blessed child delivered from on high, special from birth; Batman forges himself into a dark avenger, using his personal tragedy as an anvil; and Spider-Man is an accidental hero, empowered by an experiment gone wrong and only later learning to be a hero, when his carelessness leads to personal tragedy. Despite the science-fiction trappings, Spider-Man is the more realistic and relatable of the three. Few can imagine being as pure and good as Superman, or as driven and focused as Batman, but the idea of knuckling down and trying to do the right thing day-to-day is something that most of us are familiar with.
With this concept as the core theme, the filmmakers built a supporting cast to help show it off. Through their origin stories, the Spider-People show Miles the need to accept responsibility, but also just how hard it can be to take on that responsibility for your life and others. The villains show what happens when power is used irresponsibly, either in the service of amoral curiosity or an utterly self-centred need to wipe away the mistakes of the past, whatever the cost to others. The supporting cast show how the same principles apply even for those without superpowers. Almost all of them get enough time to show how they’ve reacted to the events of their lives and used or misused the power they’ve been given. (Perhaps the only character who gets unfairly short shrift is Miles’s mother, but being the loving rock at the heart of a stable family is hard to make dramatic in a minor role, and her career as a nurse makes quite clear that she learned the lesson Miles needs to a long time ago.)
The turning point comes quite late in the film: having fallen in with the other Spider-People in their effort to forestall an oncoming disaster, Miles is shut out from the final mission. Too inexperienced in the use of his powers, he’s benched by the others, who don’t want him to get hurt as they save the world. At that point, he has to face up to the problem that’s been holding him back since the beginning. As smart and capable as he is, and for all the new powers he’s been gifted with, he lacks self confidence. His parents recognised this in their efforts to push him out of his comfort zone, but only he can take the Leap of Faith necessary to shoulder the responsibility of saving his city and his world.
It’s the rarely stated corollary to the “With great power comes great responsibility” cliché. Just because you have the capacity to do great things doesn’t mean that you have the belief that you’re capable of doing them. Of reaching your full potential. The most powerful forces holding us back are our own doubts. To become Spider-Man in his own right, Miles has to take that Leap of Faith and leave those doubts behind.
Of course, this is a superhero movie. Miles does take that leap, and the final act is a thrilling action set-piece in which all of the threads that the film has been weaving are tied together. But in their telling of this story, the filmmakers have doubled down on their thesis that anyone can be Spider-Man. All that’s necessary is to recognise the need to use one’s gifts in the right way, and to believe in one’s ability to make a difference.