'Into the Spider-Verse' and the Importance of a Biracial Spider-Man

For all the kids of color who dream of being superheroes, the film has a message: They could always be Spider-Man with the mask on, but now, they can be Spider-Man with the mask off as well.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment
Shameik Moore voices Miles Morales in 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse'

“Anyone can wear the mask,” Miles Morales says in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But there was a time when that didn’t always seem entirely true. For decades, Spider-Man has been Peter Parker. Sure, there have been alternate versions, daughters from the future, and those born of Marvel’s questions of "what if," but at the end of the day, we knew that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. But when Miles Morales swung onto the scene in 2011, he changed things. This Afro-Latino boy who would become Spider-Man was a sign of our times, a reminder of the past, and a means of hope for the future.

Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which lands in theaters this weekend, is a celebration of that sentiment. Under the tutelage of Spider-Men and Spider-Women from alternate realities, Miles Morales learns to become his own Spider-Man. But that means more than just putting on a costume. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just the next great leap in superhero movies because of its introduction of the comic book multiverse, but because it treats black and Latino heritage as a key piece of a superhero identity, and that’s just as important as any spider symbol.

Let’s back up for a moment. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man in 1962, they created a character tailor-made for younger readers. Teenage Peter Parker didn’t fit in with his peers, he made mistakes and even as Spider-Man he wasn’t immediately embraced by older superheroes like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. Additionally, most of Spider-Man’s earliest villains were older men, poisoned by their own worldviews. The fact that so many kids are drawn to Spider-Man should come as no surprise. It’s equally unsurprising that so many remain fans through their teenage years and into adulthood. Following Peter’s adventures provided a means to grow up with the character, change as he changed, while never losing sight of the responsibility that comes with growth. Spider-Man is a bridge. For many kids he’s an entry point into the world of superheroes, be that through comic books, animated series, video games or movies.

Part of the reason behind that accessibility is because Spider-Man doesn’t operate on terms of race. I can’t remember a time when Spider-Man wasn’t a part of my life, and I think part of the appeal, as it is for so many other children of color, is that you can’t see behind the mask. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have Superman’s blue eyes or Batman’s superior chin. It doesn’t even really matter what gender you are. In the comics Peter Parker may be Spider-Man. But at home, on the playground, in our minds, we could be Spider-Man because our sense of humor, our joys, our pains, were just as important as Peter Parker’s. But what if we could be just as much like Spider-Man when we unmasked as well?

In the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man (2000) Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley re-envisioned Spider-Man for the 21st century, capitalizing on the buzz surrounding the production of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). For a decade Bendis told Peter Parker’s story, reinventing friends and enemies, and asking how a teenage superhero would function in the world of cellphones, Internet and instant celebrity. But even as he was telling this story, the world was rapidly changing. America was experiencing a shift in culture. The immigration of Mexicans and Africans to America was receiving increased attention, schools were becoming increasingly diverse, biracial relationships were increasingly common and our language was changing not only in the increase of bilingual persons, but in how our slang was infused with Spanish and Ebonics. In 2008, America elected President Barack Obama, whose biracial background and message of hope also served as a bridge. Two years later, Sony announced it would be rebooting the Spider-Man film series with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and actor-rapper Donald Glover expressed interest in playing Peter Parker. The idea caught on and gained momentum, sparking conversations that begged the question, "Why does Spider-Man have to be white?"

In the pages of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli answered this question with a firm "he doesn’t." Together, and undoubtedly influenced by Bendis’ own experiences as part of a multiracial family, they gave life to a biracial Brooklyn boy whose struggles and triumphs made him just as endearing as Peter Parker, but uniquely his own man. Miles Morales proved to be a huge win for biracial visibility, one praised by Stan Lee for being a role model to children of color. While he began his exploits in an alternate Ultimate dimension, one where 16-year-old Peter Parker died in a battle against the Green Goblin, Miles proved so popular that he was eventually brought over into the main Marvel Universe, not as a replacement for Parker or as a sidekick, but as his own individual Spider-Man whose stories could stand on their own. Miles goes against so many established superhero tropes. He’s not an orphan and instead comes from an unbroken household with two loving and supportive parents. He’s smart and a little nerdy, but not an outsider. And he’s protective of his racial identity, refusing to be limited by it. When the fact that he’s a kid of color is revealed on a YouTube show (Spider-Man No. 2), Miles says he doesn’t want the qualification. “I don’t want to be the black Spider-Man. I want to be Spider-Man. First of all, I am half Hispanic,” he says. In an era where we so often search for easy, limiting labels, it’s hugely important that Miles Morales isn’t a novelty character like a number of race-bent comic characters have been over the years, but a character who is biracial and Spider-Man, not Spider-Man because he is biracial. But of course being biracial does affect the kind of Spider-Man Miles Morales is.

To say 2018 has been a stellar year for Miles Morales would be an understatement. From his vital role in Spider-Man PS4, to his comic book relaunch, Miles Morales: Spider-Man from Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron, Miles Morales’ stellar year is perfectly capped off with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It took 40 years for Peter Parker to come to life on the big screen. Miles did it in seven. Not only because the industry had changed, but because we needed him there — a reminder of the hope and diversity that has been fought against in the time since President Obama’s term ended. The animated Into the Spider-Verse, directed by the team of Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman, takes many elements from Bendis’ run on the character, along with those writers and artists who have populated Spider-Man’s multi-verse over the decade, to create a film that gives us the best version of Miles Morales’ story.

It’s not just superheroics that make Into the Spider-Verse work. It’s culture. We’re given a sense of Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore) identity in and out of the costume, and shown how the two sides work together to create a fully fleshed out character. In the film’s opening we see Miles listening to hip-hop with his headphones on, while sketching graffiti tags in a notebook. As he gets ready for school he speaks to his mom, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), in a blend of English and Spanish that feels authentic. When we see him on the streets we see him interact with his neighbors — people like him and he likes them. He represents Brooklyn, and he knows his place there. Immediately, the film lets those unfamiliar with the character in on the fact that Miles Morales is not Peter Parker shaded darker. Nor is the world he’s living in a black fantasy like Wakanda. To quote Glover, “this is America.” The subtext concerning Miles’ identity is evident across the film. From feeling out of place in his new private school, obviously lacking the same diversity as his public school, to his relationship with his “cool” uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who offers an alternative black masculinity than his police officer father, Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry), Miles’ struggles are ones many children of color can identify with. The humor that comes from these situations isn’t just situational; it’s racial, and many of the reasons why we can laugh at certain moments is because we recognize these moments from our own lives. But as much humor as there is in Into the Spider-Verse, there’s a very serious consideration given to Miles decision of what kind of man he wants to be — made even more difficult by the fact that the world sees him as black first and foremost.

The fact that Miles looks more black than Latino opens up interesting narrative possibilities and conversations. While media so often codes him as the black Spider-Man, undoubtedly the factor that led to Bendis having Miles directly discuss not wanting that label in the aforementioned issue, his Puerto Rican heritage is just as important. In the most recently launched Miles Morales: Spider-Man comic by Ahmed, the first scribe of color to write Miles’ series, Miles is directly confronted by the detainment of immigrant children. He’s dealing with challenges pulled straight from the headlines, and as he learns about the detainment from his mother, it’s clear that he feels some responsibility to his Latino heritage to do something. Miles may have most of the same powers as Peter Parker, but his responsibilities have the potential to be different and perceived on a more personal level because he is Afro-Latino.

Into the Spider-Verse, because it’s Miles’ origin story, doesn’t have Miles dealing with race crimes as Spider-Man, but the two sides of the character’s racial identity are still represented as inherent parts of who he is. Language is key to this, not just in terms of Miles’ bilingual identity, but the cinematic language of the film. The film’s animation shows the beauty of urban neighborhoods, from graffiti to hairstyles and clothing, this Brooklyn as seen through Afro-Latino eyes. Peter Parker can wear a hoodie with his costume, as he, or rather his clone Ben Reilly did as Scarlet Spider in comics. But when we see Miles wearing a hoodie when he first becomes Spider-Man it means something entirely different. It’s not just fashionable, it’s a statement. It’s an affirmation that wearing a hoodie doesn’t make black and brown kids the menaces or thugs that the news media so often portrays them as, but individuals just as capable of heroism and growth as anyone.

Music is also a key factor in this cinematic language, both in terms of what we hear — the Notorious B.I.G., Post Malone Swae Lee, Blackway — and what we see. A poster of Chance the Rapper is featured prominently in Miles’ dorm room. Not only does this reflect Miles’ musical tastes, but it tells of a larger story. In Chance the Rapper’s track “Everybody’s Something,” he raps about how he would claim to be biracial (“dark light or off-white”) and fight kids who said he talked white. Chance isn’t biracial but his identity struggle, the desire to be proud of one’s blackness but also not wanting to be defined by its stereotypes, is very much inherent to Miles’ struggle. Even if it’s not a central part of the plot, there are Easter eggs and musical choices in the film that perfectly allude to the identity struggles of kids of color, struggles that make this version of Spider-Man all the more important.

Through Miles Morales, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, offers something that no other cinematic universe or superhero franchise has offered. There aren’t a lot of biracial characters in comics, less that aren’t coded as white, and none with names as big as Spider-Man. So the fact that Miles’ biracial identity is given such prominence and consideration here is major. Miles Morales is better presented in this film than he ever has been before. That’s not a slight against Bendis, who consulted on the film, or any of the other writers who have told Miles’ story. Rather it’s an awareness that a diverse team of filmmakers, writers and animators brought out aspects of Miles that are immediately recognizable for kids of color. Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t change Miles Morales, it elevates him. As much as the film is a love letter to Spider-Man, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, it’s also a love letter to black and brown fans looking for their place whether that be at school, the workplace or within their personal relationships.

Miles Morales’ journey to becoming Spider-Man isn’t a straight line. It’s the strands of being black, Latino, a son, a nephew, an honors student, a graffiti artist, a hip-hop fan, all woven together to create the web that is the wide demographic of Spider-Man — a union of many of the best parts of humanity. There’s a shot in the movie of Miles Morales starring up at a glass display case containing Spider-Man’s uniform. It’s a brief moment without dialogue, but it resonates as one of the film’s most powerful moments because it represents Miles so well, and the tremendous legacy of carrying more than one identity. For all the kids of color who dream of being superheroes, and all the adults of color still grappling with power and responsibility, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse leaves us with a clear message: We could always be Spider-Man with the mask on, but now, and perhaps more important, we can be Spider-Man with the mask off as well.