Caught the latest Spider-Man movie today, after seeing the very good reviews around it. It was excellent, as promised–so good in fact that I bothered to type up this rant about it.
During the post-show discussion with my friends, I mentioned that this Spider Man could have been a textbook example of the recent push for diversity in representation. I got a couple of pained looks–I suspect because for the Marvel nerds the characters have already existed within the Spider-Verse for a long time, and served as Marvel’s litmus test for inclusion and diversity. Of course, Marvel’s X-Men kicked the ball off for representation, but I thought it was odd that the Spider-Man franchise, a stereotypically white male superhero, would get picked to be so radically rebooted (or perhaps not so strange, given Sony’s relationship with Marvel over character IP and canon).
You could probably write entire essays about the politics of this new Spider-Man: how the new Spider Man is black (at least, as black as Obama), how it’s about an ensemble cast of racially and gender diverse Spider-People working together to save the world rather than a lonely single Uber-Mensch, how Spider-Woman is the best fighter of all of them, the tension middle-class African Americans have with the stereotype of black gang and criminal activity… The movie is a morality play, and rather a heavy-handed one, but perfectly juxtaposed with wink-wink self-referential humour and high-adrenaline swinging-through-the-rooftop action sequences.
What I thought was interesting was how the show presented to a white male perspective, and the questions it posed about the role of straight white men in a gender-equal, post-racial world. In a movie about being a hero, this Spider-Man is about how to not be the hero.
We open with Peter Parker, the Spider-Man we all know and love, but yet slightly different from the slightly-bumbling Peter Parker we’re familiar from the first movie (I only acknowledge Toby Maguire). This Peter Parker is blond, confident, sassy, in love with his woman and his job and, most of all, successful at everything he does. He is at his prime, the symbol of white male privilege and power.
Unfortunately, this Peter Parker dies twenty minutes into the movie.
We are instead left with a new Spider-Man in the form of Miles Morales, who is young and unsure of himself. Miles stumbles around, trying his best in an ill-fitting Spider-Man costume, but he is young and unready–the new world order cannot survive without a little help and guidance.
Cue Alternate-Peter Parker, who is a little older than our blond, blue-eyed but dead Spider-Man. Alternate-Peter has been around a long time, is a little past-his prime, and has learned that being the Sole Saviour of the World is not very rewarding. His marriage has collapsed, he lounges around in sweatpants and he sports a dad-bod. He’s stuck in a rut–he’s afraid to move on, he’s afraid of children, he’s lost his way despite having all the power and privilege of being Spider-Man.
In what I thought was a very intelligent subversion of a very common trope of a white man being taught by a wise and quirky ethnic how to succeed in strange and new circumstances, the movie has Alternate-Peter mentoring Miles on how to get ahead. He does so with limited success, but like he says, there is no real training that can prepare you for the real thing, social systems are made up as they go along, and young Miles is not ready to do a real man’s job. This means the burden of the world’s problems are once again on Alternate-Peter’s shoulders, which he seemingly is happy to sacrifice himself to do, but which we all know is his way of extending the status quo as long as it will last, so that he does not need to face the future.
Miles eventually comes to terms with his newfound powers and starts kicking ass, but not before putting on a new outfit–one that he modifies himself. The new order, whilst keeping vestiges of the old, must govern on its own terms.
We finally see Alternate-Peter trying to get back with Alternate-Mary-Jane. Whether or not it works we don’t know, but at least he has found a way forward after recognizing the new Spider-Man and realizing that he does not have to be the only Hero. Also he discovers he might actually like children now.
The movie’s main antagonist, Kingpin, is in many ways similar to Alternate-Peter. He, too, has lost power and masculinity. His wife and child are dead, indirectly because of him. However, unlike Alternate Peter who languishes in confusion and apathy, he seeks to bring them back by whatever means necessary.
I thought it was interesting that despite seemingly having an equally inclusive and diverse (if less pretty) cast of villians, Kingpin never treats them as being any better than mere henchmen, and does not recognize them as being equal partners.
Refusing to acknowledge that he is, in fact, the root of his issues, he sees the world as the problem and constantly tries to “fix” it, to shape the world around him. But he is doomed to fail, his alternate-wives and alternate-childs alternate-rejecting him, and ultimately again run over by alternate-cars. Being an Ubermensch cannot solve the problem when being an Ubermensch is the issue.
(Also, one cannot help but wonder what his plan was for when his alternate selves built alternate dimension machines to steal back their alternate wives from him, but that is probably another essay to be written about the selfishness and short-sightedness of capitalism.)
I think the movie gives a nod to the loss of power and masculinity (whatever that term means) experienced by straight-white-men across the world, which has seen the rise of uber-male groups like the bad boys. It says simply–“A more equal world doesn’t exclude you, it won’t be that bad, and the faster you come to terms that the future is changing, the happier you’ll be the and the more allies you will have.” And that’s a refreshingly conciliatory message in an increasingly insular and polarized world.