In 2017, the journal Child Development published results from a study showing that young children worked more diligently at difficult tasks when dressed as Batman. Research like this can feel a little bit gimmicky, but the essential idea is easy enough to understand: Superheroes are simplified models for living, showing us what we can aspire to when we adopt their values and mindset.
There's a similar idea at play in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a Academy Award–nominated animated movie that works from the notion that anyone can be—or at least be like—Spider-Man. It's a movie that casts Spider-Man not as a specific, singular hero but as a symbol of a set of eternal values, and it's a pop-culture parable about choice, responsibility, and the power of individuals to construct their own identities.
Since his debut in 1962, the web-slinging comic book character has usually taken the form of Peter Parker, a nerdy white guy from Queens who was somewhere between a teenager and a 30-something. He split his time between the ordinary experiences of a struggling dweeb and a fantasy existence as a superhero with spider-like powers.
In one part of his life, he was a nebbish everyman who dealt with mundane problems—rocky relationships, paying the rent, a callous boss, demanding teachers. In the other part, he was a larger-than-life character in a red and blue suit who swung effortlessly through the urban canyons of Manhattan using wrist-mounted web-shooters that he built at home.
In his dual identities, Spider-Man was a stand-in for many of his readers, who tended to be young white men who felt alienated from the world and found a means of escape in superhero comics. Spider-Man was Peter Parker, a particular fictional character with a particular fictional history, but in another sense he was also you. Spider-Man collapsed the distance between character and consumer; to be a Spider-Man fan was to see yourself, at least a little bit, as Spider-Man.
Yet throughout his existence, Spider-Man has also appeared in a variety of other forms: as a clone created by a villainous biology professor; as a bearded, middle-aged post-apocalyptic survivor; as a black-suited duo, paired with a powerful alien symbiote, who eventually joined with a rival to become Spider-Man's dark nemesis, Venom. In at least one incarnation, the movie trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, his web shooters (and webs) were biological, part of his spider mutations rather than a scientific creation—a subtle but important change that emphasized the character's physical alienation.
These were slight variations on the classic formula, the Cherry Coca-Cola to the classic Spider-Man's red can of Coke, and they tended to be temporary and controversial. The original formula was too beloved to do away with.
But since 2011, Spider-Man has also taken the form of Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Dominican teenager who becomes Spider-Man in a parallel universe. (In comic books, you just accept these things.)
Like Parker, Morales is a New Yorker who gains spider-like powers as a result of a run-in with an unusual bug and then encounters a slew of super-criminals, some of whom are themselves remixed variants of the villains that Parker's Spider-Man has encountered over the years. From there, however, many of the details diverge. Parker's parents are dead and his closest familial relationship is with his Aunt May, while both of Morales' parents are still alive. Parker hails from Queens, while Morales lives in Brooklyn. Parker decided to become a superhero after the death of his beloved Uncle Ben at the hands of a crook he could have stopped; Morales takes on the mantle of Spider-Man after the death of his own universe's Peter Parker.
His origin story thus makes him a key part of Spider-Man's legacy, both inside his own fictional universe and in comic-book history. It also makes him a gateway for newer, more diverse readers who might not have seen themselves in Parker.
Morales' adventures were published initially in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man, part of a now-defunct secondary line from Marvel where well-known characters, from Captain America to the X-Men, took on alternative personas. Some of these remixes have influenced Marvel's recent run of wildly successful comic book movies. The character of Nick Fury, for example, was historically portrayed as a grizzled white man with an eye-patch, but he appeared as a black man who looked suspiciously like actor Samuel L. Jackson in the pages of The Ultimates. A few years later, Jackson—who was promised the role in exchange for his likeness—took on the part in Marvel's big-screen universe.
This sort of variation and substitution is common in the pages of comics, where Thor has appeared as a woman, Captain America has been replaced by his sidekick Bucky Barnes, and Superman once died and returned (sort of) as four different Supermen, all claiming the name. In comics, superhero identity is malleable, flexible, rather than fixed. Superheroes adapt to the times.
Yet on the big screen, variants like Jackson's black Nick Fury are something of an anomaly. Despite the near-takeover of Hollywood by superheroes—in 2018, six of the top-10-grossing movies in the U.S. were based on comic books—they have tended to be only lightly modernized versions of their most familiar, classic incarnations. There's a certain business logic to this: Hollywood prefers to develop properties with widespread recognition, and far more people know Peter Parker than Miles Morales. But this has meant that when it comes to superheroes, Hollywood has served up a lot of red-can Coke and not much else.
That's been especially true of Spider-Man, who since 2002 has been played by three different actors in three different sequences of live-action films. Several of these movies have been superior examples of superhero filmmaking, yet they've also had a tendency to feel repetitive. When Tom Holland took over the role for 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, the biggest apparent change was that both Parker and Aunt May were portrayed as somewhat younger. But otherwise, he was the same white kid from Queens he's been for decades.
That changed at the end of last year, thanks to Spider-Verse, which not only puts Miles Morales at the center of the story but matches him up with a slew of other spider-folks who have found their way into Morales' dimension. These include Gwen Stacy, or Spider-Woman; Peter Porker, the Spider-Ham (an animated pig); Peni Parker (a teenaged Japanese girl); and, weirdest of all, Spider-Man Noir, a black and white character voiced by actor Nicolas Cage.
This may sound bizarre, but it is, after all, an animated movie, one liberated from the ho-hum literalism of its live-action counterparts. And it works, partly because of the zippy animation and partly because it allows the movie to take the form of a conversation between multiple spider-persons about what the meaning of Spider-Man is. Morales has appeared in cartoons and comics before, but Spider-Verse is the first big-budget movie to fully embrace the dazzling multiplicity of superhero identity.
The film's answer to its big question is that Spider-Man isn't a person. Spider-Man is an ideal—a set of values, principles, and struggles that express themselves in varying ways for different people at different times yet always resolve themselves in the same adage that Peter Parker learned so many years ago: With great power comes great responsibility. Being Spider-Man means deciding to accept that responsibility, something anyone can do.
This might sound like something of a rejoinder to Spider-Man's co-creator, Steve Ditko, an Objectivist who went on to create a character named Mr. A, inspired by Ayn Rand's premise that "A is A." Spider-Man is Peter Parker as well as Miles Morales as well as Gwen Stacy and even, uh, Peter Porker.
Still, there's something fitting about the seemingly infinite variability of the character, which always returns to the same fundamental notions about power and individual responsibility and to the fundamental idea that people, regardless of their backgrounds and circumstances, are who they choose to be. In the case of Morales, Parker, Stacy, and the rest, not only are they all Spider-Man, but in their own ways they are models for the rest of us, showing how we can be Spider-Man too.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spider-Man's Real Secret Identity? You.".