Academics on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Released on December 14, 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a movie that shouldn’t exist. Superhero movies have been dominated by live action adaptations for well over a decade, while animated comic book movies have been mainly regulated to direct-to-video / DVD / Blu-ray for just as many years.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was not just a reminder of how great an animated movie could be, it introduced millions of people Miles Morales (the half-black / half-Hispanic Spider-Man) as well Spider-Gwen (a version of Spider-Man in which Gwen Stacy becomes a hero instead of a victim). Spider-Verse has currently earned over $350 million at theaters on a $90 million budget, is beloved by critics and fans, and has been nominated for and earned several awards. This success has already led to Sony announcing that several sequels and spin-offs are in the works.

Since many critics have already praised this film, I wanted to produce a different type of document related to Spider-Verse. As such, I have reached out to academics who professionally study popular culture and mass entertainment, and asked them to share their thoughts on what type of scholarship Spider-Verse could inspire. So please take a moment to take in what these amazing scholars have shared with us.

With 3x ROI on their investment already at the box office (and still tallying), it’s a sure bet that Marvel and Sony will be co-producing a sequel and several spin-offs of Into the Spider-Verse before too long. Well-deserved for any number of reasons beyond monetary success, to be sure, but one thing I’m really interested in is what this newborn franchise has to say about media literacy and transmedia narratives for post-millennial fandoms and moviegoers. Go back just over half a decade, and filmmakers were concerned enough with cohesion and audience comprehension that even Superman’s origin called for retelling.

The “you know the rest” motif of this movie puts to rest the idea that these massive properties are tethered to overarching narrative or nuanced, personalized thematics. Jenkins’s concept of transmedia storytelling as a unified and coordinated entertainment experience with integral elements of a single fiction dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels (which I like to think of as the narrative mode of transmedia) is far less prevalent today than Kinder’s earlier suggestion of a “transmedia ecosystem” where subjects are sliding signifiers and intertextual literacy is key to survival (which we can refer to as the strategic transmedia model of churn). This mode/model tension requires no resolution as long as all the dollars flow into the right pockets (as Žižek writes, there are some dialectics that we just cannot resolve), but it suggests a deep shift has taken place in what we enjoy and tolerate. As our media demand more and more from us, we all seem to be increasingly deft at processing the kinds of sensory overload a movie like Spider-Verse offers us on every level—or at least a lot more comfortable with not getting the whole picture.

Kalervo A. Sinervo, PhD
Concordia University
@kalervideo

I first became aware of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) as I awaited Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). Throughout the first official teaser trailer, viewers saw Spider-Man leap from a skyscraper and race throughout the streets of New York. While thrilled about a pending animated Spider-Man film, I—perhaps like many in the theater that morning—immediately questioned whether another Spider-Man film was necessary. However, this question dissipated when, in mid-trailer, Spider-Man pulled off his mask to reveal Miles Morales, the multi-ethnic black teen who has featured in Ultimate Spider-Man and his own eponymous series since 2011. An audible collective gasp resounded throughout the theater, particularly among those who seemed otherwise unaware of Miles’s existence. I overheard concerned murmurs about “political correctness” and the like; however, I would venture to suggest that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the big screen realization that Spider-Man is an everyman and that anyone—including girls and anthropomorphic pigs!—can be Spider-Man.

Indeed, as I note in “Donald Glover for Spider-Man” (which appears in Web-Spinning Heroics: Critical Essays on the History and Meaning of Spider-Man), J.M. DeMatteis—who wrote many of the most important story arcs in Amazing Spider-Man in the 1990s—stated, “Peter Parker is perhaps the most emotionally and psychologically authentic protagonist in any super-hero universe. Underneath that mask, he’s as confused, as flawed, as touchingly human, as the people who read — and write — about him: the quintessential Everyman.” To wit, Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko envisioned Spider-Man as someone with whom everyone—especially young men—could identify. Spider-Man’s everyman sensibilities are in strong contrast to black superheroes, most of whom are marked by their blackness (e,g. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, etc.). Thus, one would have been hard pressed to believe that there ever would be a black Spider-Man. However, as the furor for Donald Glover to play Spider-Man initially suggests and as the critical success and reception of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse apparently confirms, perhaps we are finally entering a space in which a character’s blackness is no longer a barrier to relatability.

Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Media Studies
Quinnipiac University
@plcphd

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an extremely fun romp for super-geeks who have loved the many, many iterations of Spider-Man presented over the course of his long comic book history.  In addition, the film is an extremely successful enterprise that moves beyond meta-jokes with a coherent narrative and demonstrates the changing appetites of the mainstream audience.  By offering many different versions of Spider-Man, the film directly engages the proliferating trend in popular culture that engages the digital age’s love of variants.  While superheroes are often (perhaps too often) described as modern mythology, they are described as such because they depict super-strong heroes building a new culture in an epic drama.  I would contend they should be described as modern mythology not due to the story content but the story-telling practice long associated with comic book superheroes.

Like oral culture, superhero stories maintain a basic core for their characters but retell (or redraw) their stories over time and produce many variants.  As Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, and more recently John Miles Foley have argued, the electronic and digital ages do not engage in this anti-canonical practice organically but self-consciously: perhaps preferring the recent to the original but definitely telling stories that place variants alongside each other.  This has been seen in superhero comics for over 50 years, most often with DC which gave birth to their multi-verse with the classic “Flash of Two Worlds.”  This has creeped into the other media productions of superheroes in ways subtle (the too quick reboots and replacements of Spider-Man in the movies) and more obvious (the Arrow-verse move toward a Crisis on Infinite Earths story and the studio consideration of a Flashpoint movie).  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse represents Sony’s first truly successful attempt at building a long-desired superhero world based on the Spider-Man mythology.  Moreover, the film is a quantum leap beyond fan fiction alternative arcs and into the digital age embrace of narrative and narratology based on variants.

In the film, our familiar Peter Parker is killed early in the film to make room for Miles Morales.  Of course, he’s not too familiar as he is based on the Marvel comic books Ultimate universe variation of Spider-Man.  And so we bring into the fold, another Peter Parker: perhaps the “real” Peter Parker but pot-bellied and living in a depressing future most fans would not consider canonical.  And of course, his story only seems as valid as that of Miles Morales or Spider-Gwen or Spider-Man Noir, etc.  Concomitantly, Spider-Man’s story is always one of family tragedy and guilt with Uncle Ben and as members of a self-conscious oral/digital culture, we know this about our cultural hero.  And so that story is told not through Peter Parker but through the variant stories of another Spider-Man (Miles Morales) and his enemy (Kingpin).  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse succeeds by using a story-telling practice that could be called classic, post-modern, or digital but is definitely in step with the current shape of its mainstream audience.

Terrence Wandtke
Professor of Literature and Media
Judson University
The Comics Scare Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Horror

One of the great successes of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is its easy and clear illustration of the Multiverse. Due to Sony’s non-Marvel Studios rights, operating differently here than in the collaborative Spider-Man Homecoming (2017), the Spider-Verse film maybe has an advantage in implementing this premise; the fact that the movie’s freewheeling team-up only concerns a handful of Spider-people, not a full range of superheroes/villains, lends a degree of clarity.

Still, SM:ITS negotiates two difficult potential pitfalls. One relates to that which Derek Johnson wrote about in 2007 regarding Wolverine. Essentially, Johnson noted the compromises that threaten to contaminate a clear iteration of a character when alternative fiction streams or media platforms are involved (“the ways in which the re-organization of characters into brands and sub-brands has erased and rebuilt the boundaries among and between comic book [...] texts”, Johnson, 2007: 67). In other words, the video game version of Wolverine might break continuity with the filmic Wolverine, who doesn’t resemble the then-extant comic version – and so on. SM:ITS even manages to offer us two Peter Parkers, while clearing up why this is, and (through the Kingpin’s universe-linking Supercollider) making the existence of different Spidey iterations (including cross-media ones) not a complication, but its main appeal. Not forgetting, its hero Miles Morales began life as an ‘alternate’ (and it is to the film’s credit that he is not so here).

The other pitfall is more related to Marvel Comics. As I have written in a chapter soon to see publication, Marvel Comics has recently struggled – as I see it – to form a relationship to its own history; one which will allow it to resist numbering re-sets, creative team changes and sometimes partial or full universal re-boots – all, apparently because of the fear of alienating notional new fans (who it is assumed will probably drift to the comics from films and TV, and find high issue numbers and large continuity bodies intimidating). The publisher’s ‘Legacy’ project of 2017 was after a few short months replaced with the antithetical ‘Fresh Start’ initiative (introducing new Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man etc #1 issues). Non-casual readers often object to moves like this. So, Marvel seems very split about its attitude to its own continuity-filled history, and to the future, which it wants to be enjoyed by new generations of consumers. Multiversal dramas have controversial reputations throughout superhero comics (DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, 1985). SM:ITS seems to handle all the problems posed by a Multiverse, not as a pressure, or a threat of alienating spectators, but as a vein of narrative to be celebrated. This provokes thoughts about why Sony/Marvel (and, to an extent, Marvel Studios in various projects such as the ‘Quantum Realm’-revealing Ant-Man films) can pull this off, while Marvel Comics – torn between ‘Legacy’ and a ‘Fresh Start’ – seems almost paralysed by it in publishing direction.

Dr Martin Flanagan, University of Salford, UK
Co-Author of The Marvel Studios Phenomenon

For the record, the first thing I’d state about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that I had absolutely zero confidence regarding the project in the months leading up. I just didn’t (Couldn’t? Had no body of evidence to support?) have any faith that Sony, who rightly handed the character back to Disney/Marvel in a six-picture deal after the failure of Marc Webb’s ret-con of Sam Raimi’s better received films. And Sony thought they could translate Miles Morales, the brain child of Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, and loosely smash it into Dan Slott’s Spider-Verse saga while integrating Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham et al into something meaningful, necessary, and…well, to be blunt, not terrible? Reader, I had my doubts.

Fortunately, I also had my eldest daughter. Like her father before her, my eldest was a Spider-Fan. Where I grew up with Peter, she grew up with Miles. And then she met the Gwen Stacy of Earth-65. And it wasn’t a discussion — we were going. For the record, when your nine-year-old daughter wants to go and watch comics films (quality be damned), that is not a hard sell. And, the funniest thing happened in the weeks leading up to our showing: the reviews came in; they were a symphony of praise. The soundtrack did not feature Chad Kroeger or Dashboard Confessional…It was woke and pertinent and diverse featuring folks like Post Malone, Dj Khalil, and in a track that hasn’t left my workout playlist from the moment I heard it, a Blackway & Black Caviar joint production called “What’s Up Danger” that brought me to tears at its integration in the film. There was internet chatter that it was the film that most perfectly captured the formalism and tenor of the comics medium…which actually scared me a bit because the last time I had heard praise as such, it surrounded And Lee’s Hulk. That could have gone better.

Optimism is not a thing I had otherwise associated with when walking into a film that had the words “Sony” and “Spider-Man” in it. And I could not have been more happy to have been wrong as Hell. My daughter recognized it before I did — I was in awe. She was mesmerized. It makes sense. In my youth, I recognized with nerdy Peter (I still do in this film as well as we’re about the same age with similar waistline issues.), but my daughter, with eyes bright and open saw Miles and Gwen — and she saw herself on the screen. She recognized and identified what Lord and Miller (producers and screenwriters alongside Richard Rothman) showed her: representation, strength, courage in the face of overwhelming fear, and a diversity that was not present or valorized nearly enough when I was a kid. In her face, I saw why this movie was so damn important to her generation and mine — it was engrained on every frame with hope and possibility. There were no tired bromides here about power and responsibility. There was a story about love and recognition and understanding family both given and found. There was a story about growth, acknowledging your errors and trying to be better. In her face were eyes that recognized these kids, and saw herself or what she could be there. And, in my eyes, you know, amidst the tears for seeing Ditko and Sienkienwicz and Pichelli realized in ways I didn’t think possible, I saw a brighter future than our present and the best damn comics movie I had ever seen. (Thanks for throwing Leonardi and David’s Spidey 2099 in there, folks — We all have favorites; he is mine.)

In short, epiphanic experiences are not things I often think comics critics run to the theaters to see. Hell, half the time, if we can be pleased or if we can be silenced or if we can get a Black Panther or Donner Superman every few years or so — we’re going OK. But, for two hours, a 42-year-old and a nine-year-old, for reasons unique and shared, sat rapt in the best way before a visual panoply of light and color and sound that changed the way we saw films together. We sat silent in the theater, but we couldn’t be shut up afterwards; I’m pretty sure her mother would have paid good money had we stopped.

But as Kirby and Ditko and Lee and Romita et al et al et al did so many years ago for me, Lord and Miller and Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey et al made us both true believers again. They took us to church. And they made us want a whole lot more. I hope we get it, and I hope all comics moviemakers take note of the alchemy that took place on that screen. Things just got taken up a notch (or several). We’re not willing to go back.

Joseph Michael Sommers, PhD
Associate Editor, Children’s Literature Quarterly
Editorial Advisory Board: INKS–Journal of the Comics Studies Society
Professor of English
Central Michigan University

Thank you for taking the time read what these scholars had to share. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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