Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Does Cinematic Diversity Right

The Little Mermaid was a dull exercise in box-checking. Spider-Verse uses its diverse cast as an opportunity for narrative delights.


It is perhaps fortuitous that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens just one week after Disney's lavish-yet-feeble remake of The Little Mermaid.

One might not think of the two films as having much to do with each other, but both are attempts to diversify beloved decades-old pop-culture properties, broadening the racial mix on screen, and, in theory, making these stories relatable to a wider array of viewers in the process. 

But only one succeeds. It's not just that Disney's update of its 1989 animated hit is lethargic and tepid, a dutiful-at-best slog that's the better part of an hour longer than the original. Its inclusion efforts feel more like mandatory H.R. training than any meaningful program of cultural expansion. Indeed, the movie's shallow approach to diversity ends up working against it, raising odd and frankly uncomfortable questions that cut against the mix of oceanic silliness and scariness that kept the first film afloat.

Spider-Verse, in contrast, uses its self-conscious displays of diversity as a portal into a wild and exuberant exploration of human individuality. It's a movie that finds joy and wonder in its portrayal of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-attitudinal world of Spider-Men and Spider-Women and Spider-Somethingelses, whereas The Little Mermaid treats its diversity updates as a cautious exercise in obligatory box-checking. 

The release of The Little Mermaid last week was cause for an amuse bouche of a controversy, a small bite of outrage over New York Times critic Wesley Morris' review, in which he lamented that the film "reek[ed] of obligation and noble intentions. Joy, fun, mystery, risk, flavor, kink—they're missing." 

Er, Kink? One might reasonably argue with the choice of word, given that this is a movie about teenagers targeted in large part at younger girls. But later in the review, Morris served up a more pointed gripe: The movie's attempt to diversify its cast, not only with a black Ariel, but with a multi-ethnic panel of mermaid princesses—all, somehow, from the same mother and father?—as well as a black Caribbean queen as the adoptive mother of the title character's object of princely affection, raised more than a few questions.

"With all these Black women running around in a period that seems like the 19th century, the talk of ships and empire, Brazil and Cartagena just makes me wonder about the cargo on these boats," Morris wrote, in a passage about the strangeness of the choices. "It's really a misery," he concluded, "to notice these things."

A misery is precisely what it is, especially in a film that makes no argument for its own existence, and works only as a 135-minute reminder of how much funnier, fuller, more frenzied and alive the 83-minute animated original was. 

Spider-Verse similarly populates its story with a diverse array of characters meant to broaden the superhero's horizons.

The main character, Miles Morales, is the biracial teenage son of an African American father and a Puerto Rican mother, but he's more of a Brooklynite than anything else. 

In the first film, 2018's Into the Spider-Verse, Morales was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man. He teamed up with the more familiar Spider-Man of comic-book history, Peter Parker, and encountered a cast of other Spider-Men—and Spider-Women, and Spider-Pigs, and Spider-Younameits—via a thematically convenient tear in the multiverse. 

The movie's animating idea was that every strand of the multiverse had a Spider-Person of some kind, and since there were an infinite number of strands, that meant there were also an infinite number of Spider-Men. This meant that anyone and everyone could be Spider-Man, that the character was an idea, a generalizable heroic concept, to be cast and recast, not a single specific story about the guy named Peter Parker. We are all Spider-Man, the movie seemed to say. Spider-Man is universal. 

Across the Spider-Verse takes this idea and builds on it, blowing out the Spider-Verse with an even wider and wilder array of Spider-Folks. There's an Indian Spider-Man who resides in a cross between Mumbai and Manhattan (Mumbattan); a British anarchist punk-rock Spider-Man who wields a guitar and wears pyramid spikes on his costume; and, as teased at the end of the first film, a futuristic Spider-Man—based on Spider-Man 2099—voiced by Oscar Isaac, who runs an elite team of multiversal agents.

Each one of these characters represents a type, a culture, an ethnicity, or an ancestral region—and yet each one is also a distinctive individual, a specific character with unique habits and quirks and ideas about the world. The movie touches on politics: the Indian Spider-Man tosses off a line about a museum showcasing all the stuff the British stole from his people; the anarchist Spider-Man makes a wry remark about a collapsing building serving as a metaphor for capitalism; Morales wears a Black Lives Matter pin on his schoolbag. Notably, however, his dad is also a cop, and the movie is in fact full of loving, doting, warm police officer father figures. Spider-Verse doesn't indulge in speechifying politics for the sake of speechifying politics; there's no speechifying at all. Rather, it amusingly showcases the ways that political ideas are part of these characters' lives and worldviews.

This is the opposite of treating diversity as a dull duty, a cultural-political requirement. Rather, it's an opportunity for weirder and more wondrous stories and characters, for stranger and sillier antics, for awe and the unexpected. It understands diversity as a way of exploring the infinite and dizzying delights of specific human individuals, even when every single one of those individuals is Spider-Man.

It's not a misery to notice these things, for it is never a misery to notice the quirks and kinks of fully-realized fictional characters. Like the movie itself, it's a joy and delight.