Miles Stephenson: Identities in animation
Born in the last year of the "Disney Renaissance," I grew up watching animated childhood tales with my family. Far from mindless cartoons, these films explored meaning through narratives of love, betrayal, coming of age and more — solidifying themselves as archetypal stories for entire generations. In no small terms, these animated films are often the preeminent means of social education for young children. They tell young, eager minds how to be happy, how to treat friends, how to treat the opposite sex, how to find meaning, how to behave toward parents and how to grow up. They orient the minds of children to the way of doing things here in the Western world. Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson examines these archetypes in "The Little Mermaid", "Sleeping Beauty", "The Lion King", "Pinocchio" and other classics in his lectures at the University of Toronto. After analyzing the fundamental hero myth in "Beauty and the Beast" during a segment on a news talk show, Peterson said, “A story is something that you can’t contrive. It has to manifest itself in some sense. The story has an internal logic. If you’re aiming it at a moral statement, then it's not art, it's propaganda, and it’ll fall flat.”
As I got older, animation had less of an impact on my beliefs, and aside from a few wildly imaginative stories like Studio Ghibli’s "Princess Mononoke", Laika’s "Kubo and the Two Strings", and Pixar’s "Up" and “The Incredibles”, I began to see animation as a sort of passive entertainment: bright stimulating colors, humorous sound effects and a simple three-act structure. The colloquialism of Saturday-morning cartoons lends this expendable, shallow classification to animation, something a parent might put on in the background to distract their three-year-old while dressing them. I began to look exclusively at live-action cinema for dramatic stories and when a new blockbuster animation headlined the marquee at my local theater (as with "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Moana"), I always left underwhelmed.
My mindset changed last week when I saw "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." First, there was the “living painting” style of animation that mixed line work, painting, dots and other comic book visual techniques to make it appear hand-crafted, “Achieved by artists taking rendered frames from the CGI animators and working on top of them in 2D.” This brilliant work could lead a viewer to believe that Spider-Man, a nimble, squishy acrobat suspended in webs, and his story were made for animation. Then there was the superb soundtrack that sampled from some of the biggest rap and hip-hop names in the world including Aminé, Juice Wrld, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Post Malone, Swae Lee and XXXTentacion, aiding the animation with its involved and energetic rhythm. But what fascinated me the most about "Spider-Verse" was its portrayal of changing social identities in a modern world.
To start, this film’s protagonist and central Spider-Man, Miles Morales, is the son of a Puerto Rican nurse and African-American cop. In the franchise’s last three iterations, Spider-Man was played by a young white guy, informing the audience with a cultural lens unique to that identity. Now, with Miles, Spider-Man can be something different. Aside from a positive stride in racial representation in cinema, following the efforts of "Black Panther" in allowing young people of color to identify more closely with their favorite superheroes, Spider-Man’s new non-white identity brings something fresh to the story. This Spider-Man is different, current and compelling: He has a new passion, taste in music, vernacular, group of friends and family dynamic, reinvigorating a classic story with a new lens. These traits are not so much tied to Miles’ race but are necessarily informed by the cultural implications of growing up as a person of color in New York City. Miles spray paints art murals with his uncle in the subway, listens to Post Malone while doing his homework and exchanges Spanish terms of endearment with his bilingual mother. An article by The Washington Post further examines these intersectional identities. The article describes Miles Morales’ arc as the following:
“The recognition that you are a freak; the isolation of the closet; the discovery of freaks like you, who might come to stand in for biological family; the play of identification and shame within a stigmatized group, of revulsion and self-acceptance, initiation and competition; turning freakishness into a weapon against adversity; and perhaps the eventual reintegration — of some part of yourself — into mainstream society, or at least into the family.”
The article argues that despite Miles’ heterosexual identity, the story resembles the stages of a coming-out story, paralleling his secret superhero identity with that of a closeted gay person. Later in the film, we’re introduced to a quasi-anime animation style with Japanese-American Peni Parker and her telepathic Spider-Bot, an alternate version of Spider-Man. This isn’t “diversity equals good” storytelling but instead a modern way to link the story of Spider-Man to contemporary experiences of not only Asian and homosexual identities but of all people. In this way, “Spider-Verse” invites all audiences to connect and see themselves as the protagonist: a superhero. As the world continues to become more interconnected through film, and the stories of marginalized populations find the spotlight, “Spider-Verse” seeks to make room in an American story for the new voices in the room.
There are times when this well-intended, progressive portrayal of identities seems a bit contrived. In the final act, Miles and his team of interdimensional Spider-People attempt to disrupt the villain Kingpin’s nuclear supercollider. In his final goodbyes to his team, Miles addresses Gwen Stacy, who up until this point in the film has been treated as a love interest, with an extended handshake. “Friends?” he asks. “Friends,” she agrees. Screen Rant writes that the story of the sequel “... will be focused on the romantic relationship between Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy, which is a thread from executive producer and co-writer Phil Lord's original script for the first movie.” And yet, this movie attempts to shoehorn a “not-all-female-leads-must-be-love-interests” lesson into the same story that, for the last hour and a half, framed Gwen and Miles’ relationship as the embarrassing and flirtatious high-school romance. A moment that tried to help viewers check their subconscious classification of the attractive female lead as necessarily filling the role of the romantic interest, which albeit is a valid meta-criticism of superhero tropes, felt awkward and out of character for both Miles and Gwen.
Aside from this infrequent faux pas, the film expertly addresses a modern audience by placing social identities at the heart of this Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, and Spider-Robot story. "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" pushes the boundaries of animation and reimagines the mid-century superhero comic to include the conversations of today, and for these reasons, it returns archetypal stories to the realm of animation.
Miles Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.