The following post contains some mild spoilers for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
Spider-Man debuted in the pages of the Marvel comic book Amazing Fantasy #15. The issue sold well enough to spin the Web-Slinger off into his own series, The Amazing Spider-Man. In its debut issue — Spider-Man’s second-ever appearance — he tried to join a superhero team.
It didn’t go very well.
Desperate for cash to help his dear Aunt May, Peter Parker thinks he might be able to get a salaried gig with the Fantastic Four. Spidey has no way to contact the F.F., so he breaks into their headquarters, which sparks a fight with the group. Despite Peter’s inexperience and youth, he manages to hold his own against the team. So then he asks for a job, at which point they inform him that the Fantastic Four is actually a non-profit organization; they don’t get paid by the government for the work, and whatever money they do earn funds their research and elaborate equipment. Crestfallen and broke as ever, Spidey sulks away from the Baxter Building.
It would be years before Spider-Man even attempted to join another superhero team. Through all of that time, Spider-Man remained Marvel’s ultimate loner. That suited the stories stories Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, and so many other Marvel writers wanted to tell; melodramatic action tales about a confused kid who felt like an outsider everywhere he went.
Hunted by the police, hounded by J. Jonah Jameson and his Daily Bugle newspaper, Spidey could never catch a break, and had very little in the way of a support system to deal with his problems. Those who loved him as Peter Parker didn’t know his secret; those who fought alongside him as Spider-Man had no clue what he was dealing with as a high school student. Everywhere he turned, his isolation deepened.
For hundreds of Spider-Man comics, that was how the story went: Peter Parker struggling to maintain his double life, and often finding that any success in one identity directly hurt the other. You could practically set your watch to it. Oh, is it the first Wednesday of the month? Well then Peter is going to have to stand up Gwen Stacy in order to save New York City from the Sandman, and so on. That was the way things were done, because that’s the way things had always been done.
That’s changed in recent years. In 2005, Spider-Man became a full-fledged member of the Avengers. A few years after that, the Fantastic Four finally let him in to the group as well. (I’m not sure if he ever got that salary.) For a while, Peter Parker revealed his secret identity to the world; a couple years after that he became a world-famous scientist and the head of his own multinational corporation.
And little by little, Marvel Comics started to fill up with dozens of alternate versions of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man, Noir, another Spider-Woman, Spider-Girl, Spider-Man India, a third Spider-Woman, Spiders-Man (a bunch of spiders that think they are a human being), Spider-Ma’am (Aunt May, bitten by a radioactive spider), and even a gigantic Spider-Man dinosaur named Spider-Rex. Marvel began publishing a series of Spider-Verse comics, which in turn inspired the animated movies Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and now Across the Spider-Verse.
Into the Spider-Verse played with that notion, drawn from early Amazing Spider-Man comics, of a “one and only Spider-Man.” That’s how Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) introduces himself in an opening voiceover. Later, he discovers that Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has been bitten by a radioactive spider and gained similar powers. Soon additional heroes like Spider-Ham and Peni Parker show up to help Miles in his quest to defeat the Kingpin.
Each one of these Spider-Men (and hams) previously thought they were the only Spider-Man alive. Into the Spider-Verse’s story about this group of outsiders collectively finding common ground was a lovely metaphor for the way so many of people feel isolated and alone in the real world, only to find that sense of belonging they’re searching for in communities like comic-book fandom.
Across the Spider-Verse complicates that lovely, simple message by actively questioning that sense of community. In the new film, Miles meets a whole “Spider Society” of heroes from across the Spider-Verse, led by Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara. This futuristic Spider-Man has taken it upon himself to protect the entirety of the multiverse from “anomalies” that hop between worlds and threaten to destroy individual dimensions. Miles is desperate to join the group; Miguel staunchly refuses to let him in.
The Spider-Society concept is not that all that dissimilar from the multiversal stories currently unfolding in Marvel Cinematic Universe titles like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that Miguel actually alludes to in one of his lines of dialogue. But when Miguel talks about saving the “Web of Life and Destiny” that makes up the multiverse, he doesn’t mention “sacred timelines” or preserving history.
He calls himself the guardian of “the canon.”
As Miguel describes it, the canon is what connects all of these various Spider-Men from multiple dimensions. While each Spider-Man has a unique story, they all share certain important “chapters.” Stories that supposedly “need” to happen to preserve the structural integrity of a dimension are referred to as “canon events.”
The example Miguel gives is called “ASM-90,” in which a police captain close to Spider-Man dies heroically, lending even sadder dimensions to Spidey’s already tragic existence. The ASM-90 designation refers to The Amazing Spider-Man #90, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Gil Kane and John Romita Sr. In that issue, Captain George Stacy — the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy — is killed saving a little boy from falling debris during a fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus.
As it turns out, Miles’ dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is about to be made police captain — and when that happens, the evil Spot (Jason Schwartzman) is going to kill him. Miguel and his Spider-Society — including some of Miles’ close friends from Into the Spider-Verse like Peter B. Parker — know this is going to happen, but they refuse to stop it because, according to Miguel, Jefferson’s death is one of the “canon events” that must occur in a Spider-Man’s story. Disrupting it could break the canon, and cause Miles’ entire universe to unravel. (“Break enough canons, save enough captains,” Miguel tells Miles, “and we could lose everything.”)
Miles refuses to sit by watch his dad die, setting up Across the Spider-Verse’s big third-act chase and driving a wedge between the Spider-Men that will continue into the upcoming sequel, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse.
Miguel’s explanation of the canon’s rules is informed by personal experience. He attempted to insert himself into a universe where an alternate Miguel O’Hara had died, leaving behind a family — a subtle echo of the Kingpin’s motivation from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to find alternate reality versions of his dead loved ones. Miguel meant no harm, but his selfish actions inadvertently caused the collapse of the entire dimension.
Or so Miguel believes. It’s not entirely clear how Miguel can be so sure his relatively benign choice led to a universe’s destruction, a choice that makes him seem a little overzealous in quest to protect the sanctity of this suppose canon. With an entire Spider-Verse movie still to go, I have a feeling Miguel will eventually realize he’s not quite as responsible for all those deaths as he believes — or at least that Miles will teach him that there is more than one way for a Spider-Man’s story to unfold.
That presumption of a “canon” that must be defended at all costs — and with it, a certain set of narrative prescripts that must occur in order for someone to be considered a “true” Spider-Man — is far and away the most interesting aspect of Across the Spider-Verse. It’s also the one that welcomes the most interpretations.
One could argue that Miguel and his Spider-Society enforcing the rules of what is “supposed” to happen in a Spider-Man story is analogous to the self-policing that goes on in the angrier corners of niche fandoms — the dark side of the communal allegory from Into the Spider-Verse — whose members sometimes lash out at films, filmmakers, or other fans that they perceive have not followed the “correct” way to make or appreciate a new version of a classic intellectual property they love. Miguel and his team pursuing Miles through the futuristic Nueva York is like an internet mob trying to chase off “fake fans” it feels have not earned the right to join them brought to unsettling life.
You can also read Miles’ fight against Spider-Society and their emphasis on rigid, well-worn storytelling tropes as one big parable about the struggle to make boundary-pushing art within the confines of the conservative studio system, with Miles and his allies refusing to acquiesce to the folks in charge of “the canon” (i.e. studio executives) who only want to recreate what’s worked in the past and are terrified of new ideas. “Everyone keeps telling me how my story is supposed to go,” Miles tells Miguel in their big confrontation, before adding, “Nah. Imma do my own thing.”
In other words, the story of Miles fighting to live his own life isn’t all that different from the story of Across the Spider-Verse’s creative team pushing to tell Miles’ story in a unique way. (The presence of controversial artist Jeff Koons’ work in the prologue — along with Spider-Gwen and Vulture’s argument about whether Koons’ balloon animals constitute true art — really enhances this reading.)
I think there some legitimate complaints you can make about Across the Spider-Verse. It’s a 130minute long half of a story, and it feels like it. I also think the subtext about protecting the legacy of Spider-Man stories would hit even harder if the guy in charge of the Spider-Society was an older version of Peter Parker rather than Miguel O’Hara.
Still, I find it very difficult to dislike a movie that not only looks as phenomenal as Across the Spider-Verse looks, but is as thoughtful about its own design as this one. There probably hasn’t been a sequel this interested in (and self-referentially engaged with) the process of its own creation since Ocean’s 12, another film about characters upending its audience’s expectations while forced by a supremely skilled adversary to recreate and outdo their first movie’s success. (“We’re forcing it,” George Clooney’s Danny Ocean mumbles to Brad Pitty’s Rusty Ryan during one of Ocean’s 12’s many metatextual moments.)
Nobody in Across the Spider-Verse feels like they are forcing it. But it does seem like the filmmakers are openly encouraging the audience to consider how this Spider-Man movie is different than others — and why some of the characters find that difference so dangerous.
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