Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the best films of the year. You shouldn’t read another word about it. Just go see it, and be surprised by all its gifts. But if you want to read more…
For years, film aficionados have been saying that superhero movies are the contemporary Western. What they mean by this is that just as the Western was the dominant film genre for a time, so now is the superhero film genre. Implied in this is the idea that the popularity of the superhero genre will fade. Accepting this, some go one to wonder if the cycle of popularity taken by the Western genre will apply to the superhero genre as well. They look for the revisionist superhero film especially, as, assuming a close approximation with the Western genre, the revisionist superhero film promises a grittier tone, moral ambiguity, and more melancholy denouements.
I think that the commentators are correct about the superhero and Western genres serving similar functions in our society. Just as the Western genre helped American society transition from the trials of WWII into becoming a global superpower, so the superhero genre has helped the global society deal with the age of terrorism. There’s no reason we should expect the superhero genre to follow a pattern of revisionism so closely aligned with the Western genre though – wholesomeness turning harsh, white hats giving way to grey, and optimistic exceptionalism yielding to pessimism. Rather, the superhero genre will (is!) revise itself in the manner the Western genre revised itself, meaning we can expect revisionist superhero movies to do what revisionist Westerns did: they called attention to what we took for granted in the classic Westerns and played with formal elements to call attention to those conventions of the genre.
Yep. You guessed it. We’re already in the middle of of the superhero genre’s revisionist period, and it didn’t start with The Dark Knight, gritty and morally ambiguous though it may be. (A post-9/11 genre, the superhero film as we know it has always been those things.) It started this year with Deadpool 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Naturally, both these films were released seventeen years after September 11, 2001, and made for a generation that grew up watching the first wave of superhero films but have no emotional connection to the real-world events that sparked the genre’s present popularity.
Purely, realized, in the classic superhero film, the hero is always an exceptional (there is only one) straight, white, cisgendered man who already conforms to society’s expectations of him in key ways, has responsibility thrust upon him, and then is required to sacrifice himself for the greater good to prove he is worth the esteem society places upon him. These heroes are part of a “cinematic universe” which encompasses a single narrative in which all the characters play a part, and internal continuity is of paramount importance. Everything that happens and everyone involved has a definite purpose that makes all the intervening complications “worth it.”
Deadpool 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are revisionist in that they call attention to what we take for granted in the “pure” version of the genre. Deadpool’s sexuality is fluid. He does not conform to anyone’s expectations. And any sacrifice he makes is undone by his ability to self-heal. And there is no purpose to any of it. Miles Morales’ Spider-Man is an Afro-Latino teenager, and his story is part of a multi-verse where no one is exceptional. Or maybe everyone is? And there is a meta aspect to both films, which specifically calls into question the need for any internal continuity in the genre. Purpose, in Deadpool 2, is a joke. In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it’s personal, not universal. The ways both films play with formal conventions is intriguing as well. Deadpool jumps around between movies made by different studios. Spider-Verse incorporates comic book imagery into the cinematic image as Morales moves into a superhero story, and the movie tells the Spider-Persona story multiple times, so that Morales’ story is folded into a story-type rather than into an overarching narrative.
That last conceit is the most intriguing to me in a movie full of fascinating elements. Spider-Verse very explicitly hits all the established story beats of a Spider-Man origin story for Miles Morales. The interesting parts are the subtle ways it deviates from the norm. Take the famous spider-mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility.” spoken always by the soon-to-be Spider-person’s dying loved one as a charge to their ensuing superheroing career. Spider-Verse doesn’t put that on Miles Morales. Rather, his dying uncle tells him to “Keep going,” which takes on new meaning as we realize that Spider-Verse intends to break superhero ground for a hero that isn’t like all the exceptional, straight, white, cisgendered men who have come before him. “Keep going. Take this story to new places those who have come before couldn’t even have foreseen. You don’t have any responsibility to a society that expects little of you.” And how does Morales use his new-found power, not to sacrifice himself for everyone to prove his worth, but to send them skyrocketing out into their own narratives.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse reminded me why we watch/listen to/read the same stories over and over and over again. Even though they are the same each time, we are not the same, and the way the story falls on us is different every time. Also, that same story effects you differently than it does me, and I can learn from your experience with the story. That’s one of the blessings of diversity. When we listen to one another, we gain a wider appreciation for all the world contains. We see both each other and ourselves better, and we’re better able to respond to the challenges we all face. Goodness. I can’t wait to see this movie again, because I’m excited to see what I see differently next time. And I’d love to hear what you see there too.