Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse had a near impossible task. It had to establish yet another marvel, spider-man universe, introduce seven spider-people, explain multi-dimensions, act as origin story for Miles Morales and give us a satisfying hero journey all within a 117 minute run time. Like an unstable super collider it could have been ripped apart by competing goals and focus. Instead it pushes through, celebrating it’s comic book complexity and it’s amazing lead, all the while building to a climax that bursts with color, style, music and pathos. It’s a good movie, a great movie and even more than that understands a problem that Marvel and DC have been grappling with for the last decade, how do you do legacy heroes?
Marvel and DC have super heroes that have been around for decades and occasionally those super heroes temporarily retire or die, (also temporarily), leaving their mantles to new characters. In the 90s Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman all gave up their titles to completely new characters. Captain America’s two former sidekicks: Bucky Barnes and Falcon have both spent time as Captain America in the past. These legacy changes used to follow a similar script: a new character takes the mantle, tries to live up to the legacy, gets a new costume, does things differently, has some victories, but ultimately the weight of that legacy is too much for them and they give it up when the original hero triumphantly returns.
The legacy character usually stuck around, getting a new costume or super hero name or returning to their old one. Bucky goes by Winter Solider now, Falcon is still the Falcon. They don’t live in the legacy of their mentor, they don’t get to make it their own, outside of Green Lanterns, legacy heroes have to forge a different path. Into the Spider-verse offers a different, more complex answer to the legacy problem. One that might only work for Spider-men like Miles and Peter.
Miles Morales is more than a modern Peter Parker from a diverse background. He’s a kid struggling to find his place, figure out what makes him special and how to relate to his family, especially his dad who he’s drifting apart from, much like his uncle did previously. Miles is extremely relatable. His failures are not big, dramatic moments, but honest setbacks that make him feel a mixture of humility and helplessness. He doubts himself more than Peter Parker ever did, and it manifests in powers he has trouble controlling.
Part of his doubt come from just being a kid who has all this thrust upon him, but a lot of doubt comes from Spider-man’s own legacy. Miles had a Spider-man to live up to. Unlike the audience, who knows that Peter Parker is just some schmuck from Queens trying to do the right thing, Miles knows Spider-man only from his victories and success. This is were Into the Spider-verse does something brilliant. It introduces us to a 40-something Peter who has made a mess of his life.
The two Spider-men learn from each other, with this older Peter redefining what Spider-man means to Miles, while Miles forces Peter to comes to grips with a legacy he never expected to have. When Pete finally decides what it means to be Spider-man he tells Miles to take a leap of faith. Ultimately Parker sees Spider-man as someone who doesn’t know if he’s ready, probably isn’t, but takes that leap because he has to. This message doesn’t come from a perfect hero, but imperfect one. Someone who Miles knows doesn’t always land when he jumps and that makes it more real than any pep talk that Superman or Captain America could ever give their legacy heroes.
One of the reasons the Spider-verse works (in comics and movies) and characters like Spider-Gwen and Miles Morales took off is because Spider-man’s legacy is unique. Yes, it’s about spider-powers, but it’s also about power and responsibility. Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, they weren’t born with their abilities like superman. Trauma is something they all have to face, but it’s not what defines them like Batman. They’re people with responsibilities who have powers and are trying to balance the two. None of them feel ready to handle it all, and they all fail sometimes. This makes Spider-man’s legacy unique amongst super-heroes, he can be anyone. Anyone who’s willing to take a leap. And because of that Miles doesn’t live in Pete’s shadow in the end, he swings alongside him.
(Seriously go see Into the Spider-verse it’s amazing and if you want another gushing Spider-man post you can find it here)