Yesterday, we watched Spiderman: into the Spider-verse (Sony, 2018). This storyline is set in an alternate reality, in which Brooklyn teen Miles Morales takes on the mantle of Spiderman, after having been bitten by a radioactive spider and witnessing the death of Peter Parker (the original Spiderman).
It is a fascinating exploration of human motivation and the multi-layered complexity of our actions.
Miles is Black-Latino, the son of an African-American father and Puerto-Rican mother, and this adds new dimensions to the depiction of superhero role models in New York, the city of immigrants. For them, danger is not ‘out there’ beyond. Both parents seek to make the world a better place for their family, and indeed for all: Jefferson Davis is a police officer; Rio Morales is a nurse at the hospital. They are assets to their neighbourhood (and, perhaps, feel that they need to be). They are aspirational for their son, moving him to a weekly boarding school, and, in the case of his father, putting him under pressure to make the most of the opportunities they have provided for him.
Miles’ uncle, Aaron Davis, also looks out for his nephew, and is motivated by the desire to build a better world for his family—taking a villainous route that he hides from the family he loves. The contrast between Jefferson and Aaron is, on the surface, binary; but in fact, it is far from black-and-white. There is love, aspiration, a driven hardness, miss-steps, in each; and a cost paid by both men. In the end, Aaron chooses family over crime and he and Miles each see the other at a deeper level than before. We are also given hope that Jefferson and Miles will be reconciled—as Jefferson overcomes some of his pride, and Miles, his resentment—though they are not yet at the point of seeing one another face-to-face.
Jefferson and Rio’s relationship is also a beautiful blend. Both love, and are proud of, their son; but Rio is more understanding of him, and tempers some of Jefferson’s blunders, where, of the best of motives, he risks pushing Miles away.
The super-villains are no less complex. The central ‘bad guy’ is gangster Kingpin, who is funding the construction of a super-collider that risks destroying Brooklyn in attempting to open up parallel realities. He is motivated by the dream of being (re)united with (a version of) his wife and son, who died in a car crash, having left him when his wife discovered that he was a criminal. His criminal past, his hiding that from his family, and his present monstrous activity, are all motivated by love for his family, to such an extent that he is willing to sacrifice countless others.
Kingpin’s chief scientist is Olivia Octavius/Doctor Octopus, a scientific genius who appears to be motivated by the desire to push the boundaries of the possible, and to gain recognition for having done so (and again, a ‘classic’ character has been reimagined so as to explore fresh perspectives, in this case as a woman). Again, these are hardly motivations that are strange to us.
Meanwhile, an array of Spider-men, -women, and -pig, wrestle with the burden of expectations, self-imposed as well as projected upon them by others; and the inevitability of failure, and especially the failure to save someone they loved (an uncle, a father, a friend, a role model). Not allowing failure to define us, but allowing how we respond to failure to shape us for greater things, within a supportive community, is central to their journeys of discovery in alternative but coinciding realities. And not allowing death to be the end, but rather, a formational moment in redefining our kin relationships.
Why is it that we are capable of great goodness, making great sacrifices to make the world a better place? Why is it that we are also capable of perpetrating what is, initially at least, unimaginable evil—often from the most noble of motivations or universal aspirations? Why is it that we set out to do right by one another, and get it so wrong? Or that we are driven to be reconciled with those we love who have hurt us deeply? Why is it never too late, while we still have life within us?
These are deep questions of life, addressed by the world’s great faiths, including the Christian tradition...and also by the comic books.
In the words of Miles Morales, “anyone can wear the mask.” Not just the superheroes among us. But putting on the mask is just the beginning of the adventure.
As I look at the deep polarity of British society; our response, so well-rehearsed now it has become an impulse, to vindicate ourselves and castigate the ‘other’; I can't help but think we could do worse that sit down and watch Spiderman together.