"Anyone Can Wear The Mask"
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Reimagining Black Adolescence through Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Who would have imagined that on the silver screen Spider-Man would be sporting a pair of Air Jordan’s? Or rocking a bomber jacket and hoodie, donning a small high-top fro? The most outrageous question of all is, who would have imagined that Spiderman would have been Afro-Latinx? When considering the history of animated feature films with Black folks as the center, these questions would seem impossible to imagine. And if for some reason, an origin story about an Afro-Latinx kid taking the reign from Spider-Man was to exist, “rarely would it be produced, directed or even written by members of the community portrayed on screen,” (Kunze 2017).
This skepticism ran to be true for many years, up until the 2018 theatrical release of Sony Pictures Animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. An origin story of Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, an Afro-Latinx kid from Brooklyn who becomes one of the many Spider-Men from alternate dimensions tasked with saving the world while also navigating the growing pains of adolescence. The lack of Black-led animated feature films (specifically those that have had theatrical releases, not television movies) in Hollywood posits Spider-Verse in an interesting moment for defining Black expressionism as it chronicles childhood and as we consider the influence of the advancement of animated technology and new media to radicalize our perspectives of Black life.
I argue that Spider-Verse presents an intricate expressionism of Black childhood and adolescence that is not defined by the requirement of a didactic double consciousness that many Black films, specifically about Black childhood, follow. This film instead allows its storyline and exploration of advanced visual aesthetics to position Black adolescence in an animated space where it has rarely existed in Hollywood, as normal, as secure and as heroic.
Nearly three-decades since Bebe’s Kids (1992), Black animated feature films that followed the journey of a young protagonist navigating through their adolescence was relatively non-existent (I am proactively excluding Disney’s, The Princess and the Frog, simply because she was a frog for majority of the movie, which is truly unfortunate). Based on the Marvel Comic Universe, Sony Pictures Animation released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. As stated earlier, it is an origin story for Miles Morales, an Afro-Latinx kid born and raised in Brooklyn. His first debut was in the Marvel comic in 2011, where he was bitten by the same spider as Peter Parker, the original Spider-Man. When Peter died, Miles took over. Serving as the first Afro-Latinx animated superhero to ever hit the silver screen, there was a lot of anticipation and excitement surrounding this character, especially from the lack of personality that the comic book version provided. From next-level animation styles, vibrant hues and a comic-book inspired visual aesthetic, Spider-Verse, became an instant cultural phenomenon, grossing over $300+ million worldwide and promoting the rhetoric that “anyone can wear the mask”.
I will particularly discuss the positioning of Miles’ racial identity throughout the film and the relationship with older Black men to demonstrate a construction of Black adolescence that presents an alternative to previous films about Black kids from urban areas. It is important to note that this is in no way an expansive re-telling of the history of Miles Morales because the comic book version is vastly different than the film nor is this an exclamation of a preference for Black adolescent portrayals, but rather this is commentary on cultural observations that could be compared to past movements for animating Black life.
The most striking thing about Miles Morales, outside of his swagger, is the normalization of his Afro-Latinx/Puerto Rican identity throughout the film. Prior to Miles, movies detailing the lives of Black urban youth had a double consciousness that was constantly being negotiated or discussed didactyly in direct opposition of oppressive systems, mostly through hip-hop (Menace II Society (1993), Juice (1992), Poetic Justice (1993), House Party(1990)). Miles, on the other hand, comes to us with an already grounded understanding of his racial identity and him “seeking to escape his community” or “fall trap to a gruesome inner city reality” isn’t made the focus of the movie. While this becomes a love letter to an urban Brooklyn, it also becomes a love letter to an urban and Black America. Miles is not interested in “escaping his environment.” He actually hates that he has to attend a private school rather than the public school in his community.
Miles treats Brooklyn like a co-protagonist, unlike our staple Black adolescent films that treat them more like an antagonist as they struggle to settle themselves into their identities. Animation provides an opportunity to ground identity and focus more on creating character in the surrounding environment. Co-Director, Peter Ramsey, who became the first Black man to win an Academy Award in the Best Animated Film category for Spider-Verse, specifically stated, “This genre [animation] allows people to sort of project themselves onto these heroic figures who struggle with their own difficulties and own insecurities … people of color want to be part of the story, want to be part of the myth. If you can't be part of a myth like that, then what do you have in a culture?" (Bowman, 2019). Spider-Verse presents an alternative to the gruesome and gritty hoods portrayed in the 90s and through animation it is apparent that their focus was to tap in to the imagination of how a child views Brooklyn. The vibrant colors, bustling streets and graffiti art gives us as much clarity into the person that Brooklyn raised Miles to be. A vibrant, restless and artistic kid who loves and will do anything for his community.
While there may not be an acknowledgement of Miles’ double consciousness as it relates to his Afro-Latinx/Puerto-Rican identity, it does find a way to function in this film. Miles’ father, Jefferson Davis, and his uncle, Aaron Davis, serve as two physical manifestations of Miles’ conscious. Both of these men provide Miles with a security that wasn’t often given to young Black boys as they navigated through their hoods in earlier films. Jefferson, voiced by Brian Tyree Henry, and his brother Aaron, voiced by Mahershala Ali, took different paths as they grew up and began to slip away from each other with time, they had become two unreconciled strivings. Jefferson became a police officer, while Aaron became an undercover criminal. Even with this distinct contrast, they each hold a special place in Miles’ heart and their presence isn’t based on complications, but rather them both feeling responsible for helping Miles navigate through life. Whether it is his father pressuring him to do well academically or his uncle pushing him to be passionate creatively, the figuring of two Black male influences for Miles to have an option to choose from at any time already separates it from the previous representations of Black urban classics that detail the absence of the father, the murder of the father-figure or the presence of a religious grandfather. Even with this expanded view of Black mentorship that Miles has, Spider-Verse is a still a Marvel movie and contains its routine tropes. Aaron, who serves under the villain within this film, is shocked to realize that the Spider-Man he was tasked with murdering was his nephew, Miles. He chooses family over his boss’ demands and it cost him his life in the end. This loss devastates both Miles and Jefferson, with no reconciliation between Jefferson and his estranged brother. Even through this tragedy, it is warming to see that reconciliation with Jefferson function through Miles. To see the influence that both of these men, who took separate paths, have had on the characterization of Miles, gives him more reason to be heroic. Not only for himself, but to give his father and uncle an opportunity to also be heroic on a grander scale. The representation of the transference of familial manhood and coming-of-age narratives are not new to comics or films based on comics, what is new, is recognizing how well it works for an urban Black kid at the forefront of that transformation.
Even with garnering enormous popularity, there are still concerns surrounding the functionality of this film that has been made apparent by folks who were raised through the 90s representation of urban Black youth life. Many believe that Spider-Verse is not “woke” enough. Essentially meaning that the film does not serve and take advantage of the political messages of Blackness that could be echoed through this landscape because there is no acknowledgement of how Miles will be perceived as a “Black” Spider-Man and whether society will treat him any different. They claim that while this film is widely popular with young audiences, it will make their job difficult as parents to explain that the imagination presented about a Black adolescent superhero is all too good to be true. “Spider-Verse could have taken this by now tired origin story and made it fresh by exploring the ways that, for a Black Spider-Man, the story might be different. It could have delved deeper into the double consciousness of being a Black person in an America that sees Blackness as undesirable and a Black man as something to be feared,” (Ware, 2018). The criticism is warranted and valid, but it can be a bit regressive when we expect for children to only relate their view of heroism with Miles as valid only from his racial makeup and not from the coming-of-age journey he endured. This critique also stems from earlier generations being a bit particular due to the lack of animated Black superheroes during their time. But, a larger observation that should have been discussed more is the lack of Black girls within this film, it is as if they virtually do not exist in Miles’s dimension. Although I spoke about Black childhood through the lens of boyhood, it is important to recognize that the representation of Black girlhood in hip-hop cinema is centered around patriarchy, subservient roles and never given its fullness as Black boyhood is. As I expand my findings it will need to include the survey of Black girlhood through animated feature films and an examination of their distinction from the overall representation of Black adolescence displayed throughout Hollywood history.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse presents a unique opportunity to reconfigure the imagination of Black childhood and adolescence through animation. This childhood exists solely as functioning within itself, as playful, doubtful, full of thrills and at the most redeeming. It sits outside of the oppressive systems that we live through and just breathes in the air of our imaginative possibilities. This paper is not arguing for one approach over the other, but acknowledges that Spider-Verse is the first of its kind, in regards to animated Black-led feature films, to turn an eye on our own fears and anxieties as we transition through adolescence, allowing children to be children. As our filmic landscape is opening for Blackness, there is space for a didactic re-telling of our inherent double consciousness and there is also space to live outside of those political deliberations and just exist. Both are revolutionary acts within themselves and arguing for one over the other is reductive.