This weekend, I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, a Marvel Comic-based film about Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino New York teenager who takes on a villain with supercollider, with the help of five other spider-people from alternative timelines, and eventually becomes Spider-man after the death of Peter Parker. Hot take: Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse is about urbanism (ok, Spider-nerds, I’m not saying it’s ONLY about urbanism–it just has strong themes throughout). What is a great coming-of- age-story and superhero epic is also a great dive into some of urbanism’s biggest (and sometimes most problematic) themes.
Environmental Justice is an issue throughout: Miles gets infected by a toxic spider after hanging out in a grimy subway where pollutants and trash abound. The enemy of the script is a huge technologically-forward mega-project that sounds good, but whose impacts will disproportional effect unsuspecting citizens in a marginalized neighborhood (The Bronx). The six multiverse spider-people suffer chronic and recurrent health problems from exposure to the device (they are constantly ‘glitching’ a digital-like seizure), and their mission in life is to shut it down before it affects more people. Does this sound like an environmental justice to anyone? Since it is well-documented that those most likely to suffer the impacts of environmental degradation are people of color, the superhero by-way-of-environmental-contamination storyline has a dark subtext.
Ghosts of Urban Renewal haunt the Neighborhood: Miles’ neighborhood and family plays an important role in his motivations, and it is a space haunted by old conflicts with familiar themes. While the movie never gets into the original cause of a tense relationship between Miles’ uncle–a professional criminal–and Miles father, a policeman, and how they went their separate ways, it is strongly suggested that both men grew up in a tough environment, and that each did what they needed to survive. Miles uncle, who encourages his nephew in his love of hiphop and graffiti, remarks that his father (the cop) used to love looking for spots to paint. (The architect Mike Ford has documented the link between hiphop culture and urban renewal). Finally, Miles mother mentions to him that, even in hard times, their family “doesn’t move” and won’t retreat from the neighborhood. This discussion of holding ground and holding out, of the neighborhood as a battlefield, comes to a head when (spoiler alert) Miles uncle is killed by his gangster boss. Here the violence of the past rises to haunt the present, fracturing families and leading to social instability and loss.
The Story of a City’s past is also it’s Future: In the movie, Miles has to defend the Bronx from a megabillionaire that wants to activate a device that will wipe out all his family members and friends as he knows them, replacing them with alternate reality versions of themselves (or, in some timelines, making them disappear all together). The villain’s quest is to totally rewrite the history of the city using a time machine, so that he can exist in a reality where his wife and child are still alive. As many urbanists contend, one of the chief facilitators of gentrification is the total exclusion of or replacement of local histories with newly proposed identities and stories (See the real-life attempted renaming of “South Haarlem” to SoHa, for example). It is in the interest of those who benefit from the new story to re-write or destroy the old–in Miles case, he is literally fighting the erasure of his family’s history.
It’s true, as some of my more intense Spiderman Fan friends have pointed out, that these are themes that can be extracted from most Spiderman movies, and indeed most superman movies (or rather, I’m not disagreeing, since this is the first superhero movie I’ve seen in over 5 years and it’s just a typology I’m unfamiliar with as far as beats and formulas go). If that is the case though, it would suggest that all superhero movies have a strong themes of and questions about urban life–who gets to control and police city space, whether certain projects that might be for the good of all human kind (eventually) are worth sacrificing the well being of those directly effected by its development, and so on.
Urbanist themes aside, this movie has established an entirely new standard for animation, has a great soundtrack and has a fantastic story. Ultimately, it is about a young Afro-Latino man successfully taking on the mantle of defender of the city, and NOT because the Senior Spiderman bestows it upon him, but because he channels his family’s support and love, and the power of a bigger network that invested in him. In fact, the multiple spider-people from alternative universes, despite their diversity, have so little faith in Miles new spider-abilities that they tie him up in a chair, to keep him from ruining the mission and doing harm to himself or others (insert something here about low expectations for PoC). While Miles ultimately proves himself, it is not because he followed the dominant narrative, but because he carved his own path with his family’s values at heart. While the other spider-folks in the end see him as one of their own and help remind him he’s not alone, he isn’t Spider Man for them, but for the regular folks in his universe–those just trying to get by in the mean streets, while the speculations of entrepreneurs and technocrats roils in the land beneath their feet.