From Feminist Flicker, on Channillo:
Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse
I present to you two contradictory facts. Firstly, I loathe the character of Spider-Man with a passion, and have done for over 25 years. Secondly, Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. How can both these things be true? Well, to understand that, we must first examine why I came to loathe Spider-Man so vehemently in the first place. We must examine my biases.
For me, Spider-Man has been the embodiment of everything this very column rails against every fortnight. I am aware that his comic books include a great many other characters, and a great many other versions that are far more interesting than Peter Parker, but adaptations of those comic books and that character on both the big and small screen have always reflected the same thing: a white, male teenager dealing with puberty and mortality. I don’t know about you, but I’ve dealt with plenty of white male pubescent teens in my own life. Seeing them constantly and repeatedly re-hashed onscreen is more than boring – it’s downright tedious – but only because these depictions have never been properly balanced out by alternatives.
This tediousness is not helped by the fact that Spider-Man’s origin story and the arcs of his supporting characters involve a number of elements that have become equally boring tropes: death of a parental figure; unrequited love; father-son conflict; ‘I can’t be with the one I love because it puts her in danger;’ and, of course, swooping in to catch falling women. And the whining. There’s always so much whining.
We’ve seen this – all of it – in four early films, six modern films, two appearances in other Marvel films, and no less than 12 television series. But, it’s not so much the fact that Spider-Man is constantly re-launched onscreen that irritates. It’s the fact that it is always the same version that is constantly re-launched onscreen. It is the fact that film studios and television networks make the conscious choice to repeatedly depict the same thing, despite there being far more interesting versions available in the source material.
That’s the story of how, for me, Spider-Man came to symbolise the fundamental hideousness of our patriarchal pop culture, and also the story of how I came to wholeheartedly love Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse. It is, you see, a comprehensive and entirely effective counter punch to all of that misogyny and racism.
Directed by Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rothman, the film benefits from a lean script written by Rothman and Phil Lord – based on the comic book Miles Morales, by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli. It is an animated film that employs a very distinctive style, succeeding in making the audience feel that they are witnessing something very different from everything that has gone before. It is designed to look like a living painting – incorporating artistic techniques found in the frames of comic books, elements of the visual style of specific comic book artists, such as Miles Morales co-creator Sara Pichelli, and different animation styles for different characters in the story. This becomes very important as the story unfolds, and we find ourselves plunged into a ‘multi-verse.’
The feminist credentials of this movie sing on several levels. In the plot, the action commences when Wilson Fisk (voiced by Liev Schreiber) builds and uses a Super Collider to change reality. He blusters about wanting to change the city, but we discover through his flashbacks that he simply wants his dead wife and child back. So far, so blah, right? We’ve seen that countless times before. But here, we see another layer peeled back. We see Vanessa Fisk (voiced by Lake Bell) and her son walk in on Wilson committing violent acts against one of his victims, and we see them flee from him in terror. We see this wife and child try to escape his violence by car, only to be killed in a traffic collision.
So, Wilson is responsible for the deaths of his family, and in his grief, he has created a way to bring them back to him – the consequences for the rest of the world be damned. But, the point is, Vanessa and her child did not want to be with him. They were running away from him when they died. They literally left – but Wilson has found a way to strip them of their autonomy, ignore their withdrawal of consent, and return them to his sphere of control. This understanding – delivered clearly and succinctly in just a few vivid frames – adds an additional layer of complexity to the efforts of those trying to derail the plan of Wilson Fisk.
In the characters, we have a number of brand new elements adapted to the screen. The fact that this is a multi-verse story means that the women are not there to facilitate the rise of white male Spider-Man – they are there to actually effect meaningful change, and drive action. We see that Vanessa Fisk paid for this with her life (a regular, male-centric trope), but we also have Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), and Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz).
Gwen Stacy is introduced to us before the Super Collider is cranked into action. The lead character, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is starting at a new school, and he crosses paths with Gwen in unfortunate circumstance – he accidentally gets his hand stuck in her hair, and she has to shave a chunk of it off. There is an interesting sense of connection between them, though, which doesn’t become clear until much later, after the Super Collider is deployed.
In the beginning of the film, we spend time with Miles Morales in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. He is the son of police officer Jefferson Davis-Morales (Brian Tyree Henry) and nurse Rio Morales. He also has an Uncle, Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali), from whom his father is estranged. Miles enjoys a bond with his Uncle, however, and turns to him for support while struggling to settle in to his new school. Aaron takes him to an underground location where Miles can graffiti a wall in peace, but Miles also gets bitten by a spider down there.
As Miles begins to discover that he is turning into a Spider-Man, he crosses paths with Peter Parker’s Spider-Man (Chris Pine) while Peter Parker is trying to fight the Green Goblin (voiced by Jorma Taccone). Peter Parker agrees to mentor Miles, and gives him an important microchip for safe keeping, but is then killed by Wilson Fisk for trying to prevent the operation of his Super Collider. When Fisk turns the Super Collider on, a multi-verse is created, and several different versions of Spider-Man appear in the Morales universe as a result – including Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman. Each one is introduced in the same way – which is hilarious, and draws satirical focus on the fact that we’ve seen the origin story of white male Spider-Man far too many times.
Peter B. Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) is an older, washed up Spider-Man. We see that he has ‘let himself go’ after his wife, Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz) left him. As Parker explains it, she wanted to have children, and he ‘wasn’t ready.’ He is devastated at having allowed his relationship to die, and deeply regrets his romantic inaction. Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) is from Earth-14512, and she is a Japanese-American student who uses a Sp/dr mech suit, piloted by a radioactive spider, with which she shares a psychic link. Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage) is a version designed to be a 1930s character, with the mannerisms and outlook of a Humphrey Bogart character. Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) is a version of Spider-Man from a Looney Tunes universe, and takes the form of a cartoon pig.
So, in creating this multi-verse in pursuit of his own misogynist ends, Wilson Fisk unwittingly creates a small army of Spider-People to bring down his dastardly plan. And that small army of Spider-People includes two women – one of whom is a Japanese-American – along with a young man of Puerto Rican and African American heritage.
Then, while much of the second act involves the expected phases of self-doubt from the hero of the piece, Miles Morales, followed by the expected rise to the occasion of heroism, it is the Puerto Rican-African American boy that saves the universe, and bests Wilson Fisk.
It’s not just the Spider-People that buck the historical Spider-Man trend here, though. Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) is a notable character who makes her own subtle, feminist statements. When we first meet her, she is stunned by the arrival of Peter B. Parker alongside Miles Morales, because she has just buried her nephew, Peter Parker. She needs little explanation of the situation, though, and quickly understands what is happening, and what is at stake. She provides the Spider-People team with her Peter Parker’s space and resources, and is a point of comfort and retreat on more than one occasion.
By far her best and most important scene comes when the Spider-People team are meeting in her lounge, and are interrupted by Fisk’s team, who wish to do them harm. Aunt May squares up to them, and makes it clear that they are in her space, and her rules therefore apply. Of course, she is ultimately outmatched, but she does not hesitate in standing her ground against evil.
Then, there is Olivia Octavius (voiced by Kathryn Hahn) – a scientist working for Wilson Fisk. In an outstanding action sequence, she is revealed to be Doctor Octopus, which is a villainous character usually depicted onscreen as male. Her character here is wonderfully refreshing. Unlike most other depictions of female villains, this Dr Octavius needs no reveal of past trauma linked to her reproductive system. She is not in the romantic thrall of her boss. There is no reasoning that revolves around her having been treated badly or abused by anyone in her history – she is simply evil, just like the thousands of male ‘baddies,’ that have preceded her in cinema.
The character of Dr Octavius also gives rise to one of the greatest, most incisive moments of the film. It is a throwaway joke made in the build up to a huge set-piece, but it demonstrates the ethos of this entire movie. Miles Morales and Peter B. Parker are trying to break into the lab of Dr Octavius and, when Peter B. Parker is running down his plan in comedic fashion, he imagines getting into the lab and being faced with a man and woman working in there. He looks to the man in the expectation that he is Dr Octavius, but Miles corrects him, and points to the woman.
“Step seven: Examine my biases,” says Peter B. Parker, duly admonished.
The point here is not just the joke itself, but also how the joke is made. It’s a visual gag, first and foremost, but the follow-up is in the way that Peter B. Parker immediately accepts his mistake, as highlighted by the teenager accompanying him, and actually owns it. In the space of seconds, he recognises his mistake and, crucially, the cause, and makes a note to himself to circle back and look into the issue further when time allows. He understands that he needs to do the work, and doesn’t argue about it. It’s funny, but it’s also leading by example.
The Morales familial relationship also bucks the Spider-Man trend. Neither of Miles’ parents have to die for him to find his moral compass and direction in life. His Uncle is revealed to be the dangerous villain Prowler, working for Fisk, and is killed by his boss in front of Miles – but, while this certainly provides focus for Miles in the final showdown, it is not the cause of his conflict with Fisk.
Instead, Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse presents a positive, constructive, and healthy parent-child relationship within the Morales family. The family home is shown to be a safe haven for the young man, and both his parents are very supportive of him, and involved in his personal progress. His father continues to reach out to Miles during his phase of self-doubt, and plays a large role in helping the boy through it. At the end, though Miles opts to keep his superhero identity secret, he re-bonds with his father, and even manages to convince him of Spider-Man’s value to the community.
Beyond plot and character, there’s also the bigger picture. The fact that this story is about multiple realities existing simultaneously speaks directly to the idea of patriarchal influence. Patriarchy projects a false reality through several pillars of society – politics, education, religion, science, and art. It tells us that things must operate in a certain way to ensure success and safety – and that certain way just happens to be the way that most benefits straight, white men. We know that this is a fallacy because…well…just look at the state of the world. We also know it’s a fallacy because the demographics in the rooms of leadership in society do not reflect the demographics of the world we each walk through every day.
Fisk’s Super Collider is essentially the Patriarchy – trying to create a single, man-made reality that strips women, children and men of their autonomy, and handing more power to white men (like Fisk). But, as seen in Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse, this is not sustainable…
Continue reading, over on Channillo: Feminist Flicker.
Channillo is a subscription literature platform that is home to hundreds of series in multiple genres. Feminist Flicker is a fortnightly column by Sarah Myles – now in its fifth year of publication – which decodes sexism in movies by analysing one film at a time. You can read Feminist Flicker for free, with a 30-day free trial membership.
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