In Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, one of the key concepts is the notion that the further a character is abstracted from reality, into the cartoon form, the easier it is for anybody to graft themselves onto that character. In other words, the less specific physical identifiers a character has that can be attributed to a particular race, ethnicity, age, gender, etc., the more any given person can imagine themselves in the character.
Considering media representation in relation to this concept, one might ponder whether race, gender identity, etc., play a significant role in which characters we like.
But I don’t think “liking” the characters is what representation is about, not really. I, like many, many other people, have been thinking a lot about representation of minority groups in popular culture, and just representation of groups in general, over the past several years. It seems there’s a new “controversy” every couple of weeks over the race, gender identity, or sexual orientation of an actor or character. The ideas brought up in class today made me think quite a bit, so I wrote about it.
As a touchstone for my thoughts, we’re going to be talking about the film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, and written by Rothman and Phil Lord, the animated 2019 film from Sony Pictures Animation follows a middle-school kid from Brooklyn, Miles Morales; Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, and is entrusted by a dying Peter Parker (alias the superhero Spider-Man) with a key to destroying a particle collider which has the potential to destroy New York City… in fact, an untold number of New York Cities across every dimension.
Why does Spider-Verse matter? Spider-Man is one of the most popular and profitable comic book characters of all time. Just within the three decades I’ve been around, he has starred in thousands of comic books, at least five animated television series, at least a dozen videogames, seven headlining live-action films, two co-starring live-action films (including the highest-grossing film of all time, Avengers: Endgame), and Into the Spider-Verse, the first theatrically released animated Spidey flick.
That is a LOT of exposure. I can’t imagine there are very many people who aren’t at least cursorily familiar with the character.
Most people are going to be most familiar with the film versions of Spider-Man (or any other character), and in every film save Spider-Verse, the version of Spider-Man portrayed is Peter Parker, the first character to take on the alter-ego way back in 1962 in the pages of Amazing Fantasy. Peter Parker is a white male, orphaned and adopted by his aunt and uncle, and raised in a Christian household in Queens, New York. He is almost always struggling financially, if not outright broke, and is usually fairly unpopular, and unlucky in work, love, and life in general. From the beginning, his crusade against crime in New York City has been about responsibility—selfishly passing up the opportunity to stop a thief, Peter inadvertently lets walk free the man who would go on to kill his uncle, Ben Parker, so he vows to use his incredible superpowers for the greater good, to prevent further tragedies such as the one which befell him and his aunt.
All of this is to say that Peter is widely accepted as one of the most relatable comic book heroes for his down-to-earth motivations, and workaday problems (money, romance, etc.). Indeed, part of the reason creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko elected to entirely cover Peter Parker’s face when in costume as Spider-Man was so that any reader, of any age, gender, race, or ethnicity might imagine themselves under the mask.
And that’s wonderful…
… but Miles Morales makes it truly resonate. How much does “anybody could be behind that mask!” mean when the overwhelming majority of costumed heroes are white males? Lee and Ditko’s intentions were good, but intentions are only part of the equation.
Miles Morales was introduced in the comics in 2011, eight years before Into the Spider-Verse was released. He’s a young kid with a Black dad, Jefferson Davis, and a Puerto Rican mom, Rio Morales. (Of course, Miles is not the first popular non-white superhero, nor is he even the first successfully adapted to the screen.) The character has already proliferated through Marvel’s many branches of entertainment, from the animated film to the animated series Ultimate Spider-Man and Marvel’s Spider-Man to the Sony/Insomniac videogames Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
But the film Into the Spider-Verse is without a doubt the most widely-consumed piece of media to feature the character, and, to finally get to the point, it is a remarkable example of inclusivity in popular media.
The main character, Miles, is, as mentioned, of mixed black and Puerto Rican heritage, and is voiced by African American performer Shameik Moore; in the film, Miles teams up with several other spider-powered people. Peter Parker from Miles’ dimension as well as two other versions from other dimensions, Peter B. Parker and Spider-Man Noir, are white males, voiced respectively by Chris Pine, Jake Johnson, and Nicolas Cage (all white actors); Gwen Stacey, or Spider-Woman, is voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, a young white female performer; Peni Parker, a young Japanese American girl, is voiced by Kimiko Glenn, herself of Japanese descent; and finally Peter Porker, or Spider-Ham (literally an anthropomorphic pig version of Spidey) is voiced by John Mulaney, another white male.
While it is (sadly) uncommon in most major motion pictures to see such a diverse cast of characters portrayed by an equally diverse array of actors, the film goes further. It takes the original intention of Spider-Man’s face-covering mask, makes it its explicit theme, and runs with it.
Throughout the film, Miles is unsure of his place in the world—as a son, as a student, as a young man, and eventually as a Spider-Man. But when he finally accepts that his life is his to live, and embraces what makes him Spider-Man, he rejoins his team of Spider-friends, sends them back to their own dimensions, and defeats the Kingpin.
The film ends with Miles saying, in voice over, “Anyone can wear the mask; you can wear the mask!”
And for the first time, for a global audience, that message is true.
We don’t have to like characters that look like us. And we don’t have to like characters because they represent a minority group which has historically been underrepresented, or represented poorly.
But diverse characters have to exist. We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell.” It’s one thing to tell people that “anybody can wear the mask,” to say “I don’t care what color X, Y, or Z is;” it’s entirely another thing, and it is an infinitely more powerful thing, to show anybody wearing the mask, and for characters from all backgrounds to exist in all spaces across popular media. (Say what you will about The Fast and the Furious series, but as far as diversity goes, they’re nailing it, and frankly, they’ve been taking it straight to the bank for two decades now.)
All of this to say, it doesn’t matter if your mom didn’t like Captain Marvel, or if your Chinese friend thought Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t funny. It doesn’t matter if your queer co-worker hated Love, Simon, or if your black neighbor isn’t into Atlanta. None of these opinions are right, and none of them are wrong—they don’t validate or invalidate the media or the group of people those media seek to represent; they’re just opinions.
What matters is that the characters in those stories, and millions more, exist, so that the people who do like them, and the people who see themselves in them, can enjoy those stories, and feel seen.
Paul A. Viebranz is a graduate of Southern Connecticut State University’s secondary English education program, and currently an MFA candidate for creative writing at the same institution. He spends most of his time outside of school with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.