Taking my children to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a no-brainer. My son is a high school junior with a strong interest in graphic arts and animation. My daughter is a dancer and self-professed B-girl who is equally interested in drawing and takes computer coding electives. Bookending a year that began with the Afro-futuristic excellence of Black Panther with a visually stunning, five-fingered helping of New York-centered heroism was an easy choice.
So, when I first screened Into the Spider-Verse for work and was introduced to not just Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino honor student from Brooklyn, but the ballerina-turned-hero, Spider Gwen, and robot pilot Peni Parker, my resolve to make this film a family outing was cemented.
From the first beat I knew that my instincts were spot on. My daughter bobbed her head along to the hip-hop score and pantomimed DJ scratches throughout. We spent the next two hours laughing at the gags, marveling at the animation and whispering about the loving but stern relationship between Miles, his parents and his uncle. The movie was a hit with them, as it was with most kids judging by $100 million+ domestic gross.
While no film is perfect, I have seen some critiques of Into the Spider-Verse that find “challenges” for parents of Black kids seeing this film. One from The Washington Post, “Into the Spider-Verse diversifies the Multiverse, presents a new challenge for black parents," attempts to unpack the privilege our kids have growing up in a time where films like Black Panther and Spider-Verse are their reality—something I addressed in a Tweet of my own—but as problems go, it is a good one to have. It’s important to make our children aware of the struggles that made the things they now enjoy possible, but we can’t rob them of that joy in the process. Creating a life that shields our children from racism while making them aware of its history is a constant push-pull for parents of Black children. This Christmas I had an awkward moment when James Brown’s “Santa Claus Come Straight to the Ghetto” started to play on the Soulful Christmas playlist and my youngest asked with all sincerity, “Daddy, what’s a ghetto?” How do you answer that within the context of the song without perpetuating the stereotype that "Black" equals "ghetto"? That’s another piece for another time, but safe to say I’m sensitive to the plight of the author, but I don’t agree that Spider-Verse should bear the weight of explaining institutional racism and it feels like, despite all of its inclusion, the film is being penalized for daring to bloom in this country's tainted soil.
The piece I take more issue with ran in the New York Times, “A Father Confronts His ‘Spider-Verse’ Problem,” where the author took us through the concern he had after seeing the film with his children.
“Miles Morales, the first Afro-Latino Spider-Man, was the focus for the first half of the film, but, thereafter, he became a Spider-Man among Spider-Men. He was no longer the focus, and that puts me in a tough place as a father of young children.”
He goes on to sight the racist portrayals in films like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and the historic erasure in Pocahontas as examples of films targeted at kids that he took issue with. It was easy to take these films away from his children because they were 1) bad and 2) of no interest to his kids. But Spider-Verse posed a problem because—gasp—his kids actually liked it, as did he. I read through the article searching for more flaws that he wanted to address but found none. Miles not being the sole focus was it, which makes me question why being part of a team was deemed a flaw.
For arguments sake, if he took Miles being joined by the other Spider-People (Spider Ham and Spider-Man Noir round out the quintet) as a flaw, it pales in comparison to the examples he posited in Pocahontas, Transformers and other problematic films he was allowed to enjoy as a child, like Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. It’s short-sided at best and dangerous at worst to equate the racial insensitivity and xenophobia of the aforementioned films with anything Miles Morales experiences in Spider-Verse. He is an intelligent, awkward, self-aware, biracial teen growing up in NYC surrounded by a loving family who wants to see him excel. It's the imagery that should thrill any comic book loving cinephile who suffered through well-meaning but subpar fare like Blank Man and Meteorman. There is rarely a moment on screen where Miles Morales isn't present, and, by the final act, there is no question about who is the hero of this film.
Furthermore, the fact that Miles has the opportunity to meet other special people like him of different genders, ethnicities and ages should be celebrated, not seen as a problem. For Black children in particular, growing up in this world will require cooperating with like-minded citizens from around the globe. We are privy to seeing Miles grow into his powers both with his adopted family and on his own. If Thor and Captain America can benefit from an ensemble cast of heroes (in Civil War and Ragnarok respectively), why can't Miles Morales?
Lastly, as a parent of Black children attending a similar school to Miles with very few classmates who look like them, I was relieved to see their challenge in building a tribe reflected on screen. No child should be asked to face the challenges of this world alone, even one with superpowers.
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Animation