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Anatomy of a superhero: Miles Morales in Across the Spider-Verse is the true postmodern Spider-Man

Altering a canon event defines Miles Morales and differentiates him from all the other versions of Spider-Man we have seen on screen before

Priyankar Patra Calcutta Published 17.07.23, 05:17 PM
Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Twitter

Superheroes inspire good. They are an important part of the social fabric of this generation and because of the accessibility of the cinematic medium, they have reached far and wide. But there are too many superheroes today on our screens. Despite unique powers and different origin stories, their films are hard to tell apart.

The postmodern superhero, popular since the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, is a part of the gritty social reality they live in; the challenges they face are a commentary on the world around — inequality of wealth, class struggle and utter chaos. The underlying theme in the films of these postmodern superheroes are largely the same. These are heroes who don’t possess the traditional qualities of a hero, yet circumstances push them to develop traits that are worth celebrating. They don’t listen to authorities blindly and are often largely self-conscious and self-reflecting.

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Postmodernism gives heightened importance to heroes fighting their inner demons — the fight with oneself. Like their heroes, the postmodern superhero films by extension are also largely similar: visually dark, gritty and rooted in realism. Even the comparably goofy Marvel films have successfully given their heroes the postmodern touch. However, in an attempt to make heroes relatable, the films have forgotten to experiment with the form.

Enter, ‘Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’. And no, not the Tom Holland one. Sony’s massively popular 2018 animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, that eventually won an Academy Award was a breath of fresh air. And this was for a number of reasons.

Anyone can be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with Miles Morales

To begin with: the story spotlights Miles Morales, who for the most part isn’t the Spider-Man most people grew up with. Morales’s story — of an American teen of African-Hispanic descent — is untold, unheard of and socially already distinct. But characters alone seldom make films feel different. It’s the treatment that ultimately gives the film a personality. In this, Into the Spider-Verse boasts of a unique personality, quite unapologetically.

In its treatment, Into the Spider-Verse is very postmodern. It rejects the idea of what animation should be, it rejects the idea of what storytelling should be like, merges mediums and media, connects characters that normally wouldn’t fit together and, with its comic-book inspired approach, creates something unique and fresh. By giving the film a personality of its own, the animators give Miles, by extension, a fresh personality — something different from anything that has come before.

When Miles gets bitten by the radioactive spider, there already is a Spider-Man. He wasn’t born into a world without superheroes. He has grown up admiring one. Hence, Miles’s journey isn’t much of the usual ‘What is the role of a hero in today’s world?’ Miles already knows that. Maybe he has been on the positive receiving end of it.

Into the Spider-Verse, which has Spider-Man variants from other multiverses, largely explores the fact that anyone can be Spider-Man; anyone behind the Spider mask can save the day. Mary Jane, the widowed wife of the main universe’s Peter Parker, says that anybody could be Spider-Man. The hero becomes an idea, a legend, and hence lives on in people much after the person initially representing it is gone.

A similar theme was also explored in the opening and closing acts of The Dark Knight trilogy. ‘If you devote yourself to an ideal, and they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely: a legend,’ Ra’s al Ghul tells Bruce Wayne who’s still trying to find his purpose in the prisons of unexplored corners of the globe. The final act of the film echoes another thematic pillar of the trilogy. ‘A hero can be anyone, even someone doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hadn’t ended,’ an older Bruce Wayne with purpose reminds Commissioner Gordon before making his final sacrifice.

Into the Spider-Verse ends with similar thematic pillars. But 2023’s Across the Spider-Verse examines it, deconstructs it and even challenges this notion.

Gwen Stacy as the context in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse doesn’t start off as Miles Morales’s story. It is Gwen Stacy’s story. She’s our perspective to this multiverse world, the main character of the film. You get sucked into her story — her tragedy for not being able to save her best friend, Peter Parker; her fleeting crush on Miles when she was in Miles’s universe; her complicated relationship with her father and her conflicting thoughts on being accepted in the ‘secret Spider society’ that’s led by Miguel O’Hara, the Spider-Man of an alternate futuristic universe.

Much after the context of the world and its threats are established, Miles is introduced in the film. This is where Across the Spider-Verse becomes really interesting. It has a different main character from its protagonist. While Gwen is the main character, through whose perspective we experience the world, it’s ultimately Miles who’s the protagonist — the one who pushes the story forward. It’s his challenges, his obstacles that we, the audience, are invested in and follow. Gwen simply contextualises the challenges.

In very few films, let alone superhero films, is this distinction of the main character and protagonist so prominent. Miles’s character isn’t stuffed with emotional baggage. In fact, it’s very neatly divided between Miles and Gwen. By doing this, the creators of Across the Spider-Verse allow both the characters to have enough personality and arc to realise their stories on their own terms, and also allow us to compare their contrasting moral standpoints.

Saving Gayatri’s father and altering a canon event

Miles is new compared to the alternate universe’s Spider-team we watched minutes prior to this. He’s not as seasoned, is still boyish and full of optimism. In fact when he first meets Spot, who ultimately becomes the primary antagonist of the film, Miles dismisses him as the ‘villain of the week’. Spot isn’t threatening, is soft-spoken and barely a fighter. In the cinematic world which is populated with heroes, despite not being a beginner, Miles is hardly a substantial one at this point. In that way, Miles and Spot are not that different from one another. Both characters start off as fresh, breezy and humourous opponents who have a lot to prove to their ilk.

Once Miles is introduced to the concept of the secret society of Spider-Mans, all he wants is to be a part of it. He’s introduced to other versions of himself — Pavitr Prabhakar, Hobie Brown / Spider-Punk and Jess Drew who all become aspirational figures of sorts to Miles. So his desperation builds up only to let himself down.

During an attempt to save Pavitr’s world, Mumbattan (and cheers to us for finally seeing Spider-Man India on screen), Miles saves Gayatri’s father, despite Gwen asking him not to. Gayatri’s father’s death was a necessity. It was a canon event — an event that every Spider-Man has to go through in one way or the other. They all lose someone. It’s these losses that make them who they are. Changing or stopping a canon event messes up the harmony of the Spider-Verse. It changes what is already predestined for these heroes. And every Spider-Man in the multiverse — standing in the headquarters of the Spider society — seems to believe so: never alter what is predestined for these heroes.

Peter B. Parker, Miles’s original mentor, also seems to agree — allow it to happen to you. So what’s predestined for Miles now? The death of his father, who’s now a police captain. Everyone seems to be aware of it; they have accepted it. And this is where Miles’s true transformation happens. Despite it being a canon event, Miles cannot let it happen.

To understand why Miles’s transformation is cathartic, one needs to go back to good ol’ Joseph Campbell who, in his book A Hero With Thousand Faces, first popularised the monolithic ‘Hero’s Journey’. Every hero — across stories, cultures, geography, genres, themes and challenges — goes through similar steps in the journey. They live in their ordinary world when they get a call to an adventure. Despite initial hesitation, they accept the call and begin their journey towards an unknown extraordinary world with the help of a mentor who explains to them the rules of the world.

What Miles refusing the rules set up by his mentors means

In Across the Spider-Verse, Miles is the only Spider-Man in the ordinary world who’s also preparing for the next phase of his academic life when Gwen Stacy opens a portal to his world and asks him to join her for an adventure. Here she becomes both a mentor and an ally to Miles, explaining to him the concept of the Spider society. Miles, who spends much of the film’s runtime aspiring to be one of the Spiders, ultimately ends up being in the society’s headquarters where he meets the leader, Miguel O’Hara.

He is close to his ultimate goal of becoming one of the elites; a callback to what his mother had said earlier in the film: never have anyone in these fancy elite places tell him that he doesn’t belong there. And for a moment, he belonged there — among those who are versions of him, those who have gone through the same pain.

Miles learns that his father’s death is inching closer and everyone in that room is well aware of it, yet nobody is going to do anything to stop it. He is asked to not interfere by those he considers authoritative and aspirational figures; that Miles cannot allow. Sure, he’s a hero who cares for the harmony of the larger universe but ultimately he’s also a son who loves his father.

Would he choose one person over the fate of the whole universe? For Miles, the answer is simple. Yes, he would. He refuses the rules of the world, the rules set up by his mentors and god figures. He escapes the headquarters, carefully tricking and strategically beating every other Spider-Man chasing him. This move that happens towards the end of the film truly defines and differentiates Miles from all other versions of Spider-Man we have seen until now.

This is a Spider-Man we have never seen before

Spider-Man is supposed to be the friendly neighbourhood guy who plays by the rules and inspires good. Yet, what Miles has done is dangerous and, objectively, selfish. He’s not the Spider-Man who’s pulling Mary Jane and a cable car full of people like Peter Parker did in 2002’s Spider-Man. This is a Spider-Man we have never seen before. Miles is the true postmodern Spider-Man.

Miles’s action at the end of the film challenges the popular superhero notion — ‘anybody can be a hero’. That’s not always true. Sure, a lot of people can wear a hero’s mask. But a hero, especially a protagonist, must inspire good. A hero must do everything in their capacity to save and protect, unlike the Spider society who left the future in the hands of predestined canon events. Despite his inefficiency and inexperience, Miles is the protagonist we ultimately end up rooting for. He chooses to do good — even if the good largely benefits himself — despite odds.

And by choosing to have his own perspective and take on things, Miles becomes larger than the hero in flesh and blood. He is an idea that needs to be explored, ultimately also inspiring other Spideys, led by our main character Gwen Stacy — previously Miles’s mentor — into ultimately following in his footsteps.

In a world where DC heavyweights like The Flash travel through time and universes to team up with the Batmans, Supermans and Wonder Womans across multiverses for mere fan service, Miles Morales does the same with his Spider counterparts for character development. Across the Spider-Verse follows the Hero’s Journey within the saturated multiversal storytelling yet challenges it in important moments to make Miles’s journey unique and unforgettable. Miles Morales is a hero for the ages.

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