Film & TV

Into the Spider-Verse’s Tangled Web

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
Marvel traps ‘people of color’ and their supporters in political deceptions.

The idea behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is to make it the most comic-book of comic-book movies. The directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman take a surfeit of animated techniques — from comic-book panels to cartoons to video-game graphics — and detonate them in a barrage of nonstop, sensory-assaulting visual flashes, accented with hip-hop music cues and self-reflexive nods to the Marvel Comics Universe.

The goal is to indoctrinate more viewers more deeply into the MCU commercial process. Whoever says Into the Spider-Verse is about “fun” doesn’t understand movies or anything about how 21st-century media operates — particularly the exhausting Marvel franchise. Millennials, and others, delude themselves by accepting market promotion as part of a larger cultural narrative. They are seduced into the Spider-Verse just like Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), the black teenager who is looking for a role model and who shares the same bitten-by-a-radioactive-spider transformational dilemma as the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker (an alternative-universe version is voiced by Jake Johnson).

The movie first establishes Miles’s Afro-Latino ethnic family and then shows the kid’s socialization as an education-lottery winner in a high-achieving, multiracial public school (a fashionable Brooklyn academy with a touch of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant). Essentially, it’s an elite induction into the fantastic world of Spidey, the legendary Marvel Comics vigilante who challenges the principles of the boy’s policeman father. Assorted superheroes brought in from the MCU teach Miles and remind us of the different types of copyrighted cartoon “diversity” — a comic-book approach to modern political identification.

Marvel and Sony gamble on Miles to meet the identity-politics fashion that now dominates contemporary culture. (Consider that Spider-Man’s example overwhelms Miles’s school assignment, Dickens’s Great Expectations.) But this is not just freewheeling, imaginative, and progressive capitalism, as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One; it’s the worst social, artistic, ethnic, and political engineering.

The Disney Corporation had flubbed an attempt at people-of-color suasion with its first black animated heroine in the lamentable and understandably unpopular The Princess and the Frog (2009). Marvel and Sony are cagier here, starting with the Miles Morales concept that first came about as a response to Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy — a normalization that turned into an MCU idealization.

The Black Lives Matter notion that kids need to see themselves “represented” by “people who look like me,” rather than practice empathy or learn from vicarious experience, damages self-awareness and judgment and distorts individuality. It is indoctrination through race. Miles’s Boondocks hair and his black Boris Kodjoe–style father (sonorously voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), with his massive physique, jutting jaw, large lips, and tiny ears, use ethnicity as subtly manipulative traits. This catches the Obama electorate and its progeny like flies in Marvel’s spider web.

So many gaudy, multihued characters and onomatopoeia flash by on the screen during Into the Spider-Verse that a worn-out viewer might vow to never again use the political label “people of color.” Instead of referring to a visual artist’s idiom, “people of color” is exposed as a synonym for “minority,” the term that British-Pakistani screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, in his essay “The Rainbow Sign,” decried as a common substitute for ethnic variation that actually, insidiously determined someone’s lack of political power. Think of “people of color” as a curse.

Into the Spider-Verse employs “people of color” as just the latest digital bright-shiny-thing. Its stylistic potpourri copies the Teen Titan look and combines Peter Max psychedelia with the candied rainbow hues of Speed Racer. Sometimes the images ingeniously carry a chromatic bleed, evoking the misprint in old comic books. During climax number 97, featuring Dr. Ock’s moblike attack in Aunt May’s living room, viewers are simultaneously subjected to at least six different styles of animation.

State-of-the-art animation disguises Into the Spider-Verse’s political domination as pop-cultural inclusion. The temerity of retelling a Spider-Man tale by pandering to the nonwhite demographic (and those who flatter themselves for condescending to it) reveals how brazen the media have become. The film’s ultra comic-book effects resemble Edgar Wright’s video-game extremis in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but I miss the humanity of that film and will not settle for animated substitutes.

Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its original publication.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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