By Noah Berlatsky
"Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask!" Spider-Man, aka Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) exclaims towards the end of the new Marvel animated film “Into the Spider-Verse.” It's a rousing declaration that superheroes are for everyone, including, finally, people who aren't white men. The film gives us a glimpse of a multiverse in which heroes are as diverse and as varied as the world we live in — though it's ultimately still a little unclear whether that multiverse, or that world, really exists.
As every Marvel fan knows, young white, male Peter Parker became a hero after being bitten by a radioactive spider. “Into the Spider-Verse,” though, imagines that there isn't just one Spider-Man, but many different spider-folks existing in many parallel universes. On one world, Peter's friend Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) was bitten by the spider. On another, Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) is older and fatter and less heroic. On yet another, Peter Porker (John Mulaney), a funny cartoon pig, has gained spider powers.
And of course there's our primary hero, Miles, a disarmingly awkward Afro-Latino teen attending a new boarding school — except when he sneaks away to practice his graffiti art. It's Miles who lives on the earth in which the villainous crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) builds a machine to bring the worlds together. And it’s Miles, with the help of his new Spider-friends, who has to thwart the Kingpin's plans, and return every Spider-person to their earth before their atoms (and all those worlds) disintegrate.
The movie vibrates with ambition and enthusiasm. The animation is a jaw-dropping mash up of styles, incorporating elements of the comic-book page like speech bubbles and panel borders alongside surrealist collages of colors and shapes to designate the overlap of worlds. "I think it's a Banksy" one bystander says, staring at a giant thingamabob left behind by an inter-dimensional hiccup.
The visual effusion is inspired by and captures the joyous potential of a milieu in which many different kinds of people can become amazing and super. The spider origin story gets retold over and over, in animated comic-book pages. And even when a given origin is less than inspiring —as when old Peter Parker tells his downbeat story of divorce, expanding waistline and ennui — the variation, positive or negatives, leads to creativity. How does this person get to be Spider-Man? What about that one? And wait a minute, that person is the evil villain Dr. Octopus? "I guess I have to reassess my preconceptions," as older Peter Parker mutters.
The movie is fun because it takes those preconceptions and tears them up and then webs them together again every which way. Like the black and white noir Spider-Man fascinated by the multi-colored Rubix Cube, “Into the Spider-Verse” finds the virtue in difference. It isn't an accident that Miles' story is the most inspired superhero narrative so far this year, besides the wonderful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film “Black Panther,” which featured a nearly all-black cast. Including different people in your narratives isn't just a matter of equality and justice. It actually leads to better stories.
At the same time as it swings gleefully into the future, though, “Into the Spider-Verse” is also, in some ways, still tied up in the web of the past. Despite witty writing and the wonderful visuals, the plot itself is convoluted, unfocused and often repetitive. Miles has to say a sad goodbye to not just one, not just two, but three older mentor figures, each of whom has to reassure him that yes, he is the (or at least a) real Spider-Man.
The movie needs so many people to pass Miles the torch because it doesn't quite believe he can carry it. Though the film celebrates diversity, the fact remains that most Spider-heroes are white. That notably includesTom Holland, the star of the ongoing Spider-Man live-action film franchise.
It remains quite easy to reboot the live-action franchise with a white Spider-Men. Marvel just rebooted the series; they didn't even need to bother retelling the origin. Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Holland are pretty much interchangeable and don't require much explanation. To give Miles the cowl, though, Marvel had to spin out an impossibly tangled fantasy in which multiple white Peter Parkers line up one after the other to insist that Miles is really worthy.
"Into the Spider-Verse" is off to the side of the mainstream of superhero films; an animated, kid-friendly, out-of-continuity confection. The “Spider-Verse” vision of infinite possibilities is fun and cool, but it's also presented as fantastic, cartoonish and improbable.
This is a shame, because in reality, “Into the Spider-Verse” is more true to life than the standard superhero storyline. White guys aren't the only important people. Those old comics about the one and only white guy Peter Parker is the warped version of reality.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe would be better, more realistic and more exciting if it merged with the Spider-Verse — and believed in it. "We're all Spider-Man," Peter Parker's grieving widow tells a crowd in “Into the Spider-Verse.” Miles gets excited, but another listener talks him down. "It's only a metaphor,” he says. And perhaps it is for now. But with films like “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” and “Into the Spider-Verse,” maybe it doesn't have to be for long.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.