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Across the Spider-Verse: How Spidey Beat The Little Mermaid in Introducing Reimagined Characters

(AP Photo/Marvel Comics)

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse slung its web across movie-goers, hitting a $120.5 million box office debut. The 2018 Spider-Verse movie only had a $35.5 million opener, but ended up with a $190 million run in North America. The huge success shows that the new film, with its refreshing style and characters, has won the hearts of longtime Marvel fans, and newer Spider-Verse fans alike.

In 2018, when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was released, they proclaimed: “This is not a political movie.” At the time, Marvel was debuting a black-Puerto Rican as the animated lead role, the new Spidey character Miles Morales (portrayed by Shameik Moore). And, the supporting role was a female spidey, the character Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld) also known as Spider-Gwen, or Ghost Spider.

The original web-slinging Spider-Man character, voiced by Jake Johnson, said in a 2018 interview:

This movie is not a political movie. It’s for everybody whatever side of the political fence you’re on. Unless you hate human beings! Because this is a multicultural world we live in, this is a multicultural movie. It’s a gender equality movie. And it should be a gender equality world. So in terms of that speaking to the times, it is. But outside of that, the movie is not addressing the ins and outs of 2018. Because who could figure that out?

I interpret that to mean that they are making characters that reflect more people. And way, way, back in the olden days of 2018, the concept of gender equality was still nomenclature that meant including female leading roles, as they did with Spider-Gwen.

Tuesday, the sequel, hit theaters with the same cast of characters. I saw the 2018 Spider-Verse and enjoyed it immensely, so opted to watch the sequel, too. It may come as no surprise to you that this movie-going was more catered toward my pre-teen son. But, I gave him a choice, including The Little Mermaid. He wasn’t interested, as I had suspected.

Little Mermaid ‘Back-splash’

The Little Mermaid made a splash for the casting of Halle Bailey, and maybe the Spider-verse lesson is that… Disney just did it wrong, and perhaps they wanted the notoriety for everything other than what Marvel was chasing by introducing Miles Morales. Both films aimed to introduce more diversity with reimagined characters, but only The Little Mermaid faced controversy.

Being from Irish lineage, I personally related to the original red-headed Ariel who debuted in the era I was born. I had a well-worn VHS tape throughout my childhood, so the character both holds sentimental value and represents heritage. However, my father despised his red hair and feared it would make him an easy, glistening orange target if he was to deploy to the Vietnam War. This background shaped my desire to shield my fire-haired youngest child from similar self-image struggles as well as foster a connection to cultural roots. While open to new interpretations, I feel attached to the original Ariel and find it challenging to relate to the new version, which doesn’t serve as a strong tool, in my family, for building self-esteem.

Seeing the Disney movie was an option, I wasn’t boycotting. I was just… disinterested. I would have gone to the Disney movie, if it had been selected, and squeezed every ounce of joy I paid for out of it by belting, “Part of that worrrlldd” like I was four years old, again.

Spidey Sense

In the Spider-Verse movies, versions of Spider-Man exist in an infinite universe of alternate dimensions. They didn’t replace any characters or just retell the storyline by plugging in a different-looking character as a virtue signal. Marvel gave audiences a true universe of characters, Peter Parker wasn’t “replaced,” he was multiplied, with unlimited constructions.

And, Marvel wins by another measure: by not doing another live-action. The graphics in Spider-Verse are dazzling displays of art, sometimes slightly psychedelic in varied genres with unexpected visual transitions. It’s… a marvel. I’m explicitly not saying there is something wrong with the looks of the new Ariel (um, I didn’t even see the movie) but, I am saying that I think people are sick of the live-action adaptations, and I have a theory about it. I hypothesize that the animations are giving viewers a phenomenon known as an “uncanny valley.”

Psychological Educator Kendra Cherry explains the phenomenon:

The uncanny valley is a term used to describe the relationship between the human-like appearance of a robotic object and the emotional response it evokes. In this phenomenon, people feel a sense of unease or even revulsion in response to humanoid robots that are highly realistic.

Androids, avatars, and animations aim for extreme realism but get caught in a disturbing chasm dubbed the uncanny valley. They are extremely realistic and lifelike—but when we examine them, we see they are not quite human. When a robotic or animated depiction lies in this “valley,” people tend to feel a sense of unease, strangeness, disgust, or creepiness.

My theory is that the uncanny valley isn’t some learned behavior, but a primally inscribed survival mechanism in humans. If something is human-like, but not quite right, it’s an existential situation to quickly decipher and react to this. I’ve even heard more fringe theories that this could have been rooted in an ancient predator that mankind once faced, and you can let your imaginations run wind from aliens to demons from there.

I thought about this phenomenon during the previews, observing a trailer for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and being grateful that it was a cartoon version, and not live-action or… whatever the hell they did last time. I thought about how Sonic the Hedgehog had to be delayed and reworked after audiences reacted, nearly universally, knowing they disliked the look of the character, but hardly being able to explain why. Because it gave them the uncanny valley feeling if you asked me.

So, while using a new cultural character, Miles Morales, the fact that Marvel did not use the type of hyper-realism that can also give people the creeps in their 2018 debut, was solid work. Better yet, the Spider-Verse movies have compelling visuals in all the right ways.

Social Commentaries

While I agree that using multi-cultural and female characters isn’t inherently “political,” because being a person isn’t a political statement in itself, I would characterize it as a modernization of media. But, there were some, albeit few, socio-political commentaries I noticed in the film.

I don’t intend to spoil the plot but will be discussing some scenes.

Near the beginning of Across the Spider-Verse, Miles and his parents have a meeting with a school guidance counselor. The counselor emphasizes that for the purpose of college admission, Miles’ “story” should be that he’s a talented kid from a marginalized community. She suggests that fitting himself into the stereotype of a struggling immigrant would greatly benefit his future and be advantageous for everyone involved.

Feeling uneasy about the counselor’s perspective, Miles quietly voices his objection, saying, “Having a ‘story’ sounds gross.” Both of his parents object, too. His mother states that contrary to the suggestion that she was an immigrant, she’s “from Puerto Rico, which is part of America.” Miles’ father reacts to the economic implication (he is about to be promoted to police chief) and tells of the fact he owns the property. I didn’t catch the line as the audience reacted to the scene with laughter. I recall the guidance counselor saying something like, “You’re all marginalized now.”

This, of course, is comedic relief about racial issues in college applications and acceptance, and the “oppression Olympics” of our society. It was well done. In the scene, Miles does have a “#BLM” patch on his school backpack, but the associated ideology doesn’t make an appearance.

Another notable scene is a corner grocery store robbery, where a Marvel villain known as The Spot begs the store clerk to make the robbery easy on him:

The Spot: Sir, please, just let me rob you! Woah! There’s no reason to bring wood into this! I’ve never robbed anybody in my life. Please don’t make this a bad experience for me.

Clerk: Bad experience? I’m trying to run a business here!

This is a clear commentary on the state of criminal justice in American society, where it appears we are supposed to be letting criminals do their illegal acts without interference. Recently, Lululemon employees were fired for calling the police on a thief.

Read More:

Lululemon: Please Steal Our Stuff—We’ll Fire Anyone Who Tries to Stop You

Movie Review Sites Shield ‘The Little Mermaid’ From Negative Criticism, Revealing a Double-Standard in the Process

Pop Culture

In the school guidance counselor scene, below, there is a moment where Miles’ Hispanic mother criticizes him for his “Spanglish.” This is relatable to many first-generation Americans and Latinos. My mom is a Cuban immigrant, and I do not claim to speak Spanish. I use an online translator tool often when receiving messages from my Grandmother. It was social commentary, but not pushing the envelope or trying to impress social virtues. Just, a pure-hearted relatable cultural scene.

 

In another part of the movie, the creators make a pop-culture reference to a popular meme where several Spideys are standing in a circle and each pointing at one other. Here, the movie is “of the times” without having to be the arbiter of opinion. A non-political crowd-pleaser.

I found another pop-culture reference in an early scene, where an on-screen version of Jeff Koon’s high-value “balloon dog” sculpture is broken, and contains many smaller versions of the balloon-animal sculpture. A real-world incident happened earlier this year, where such an art piece was shattered, and collectors purchased the broken shards of glass. There is so much to say about the implications of that art world microcosm, while I’m sure all of that was over the heads of the youngest viewers, it was a reference I appreciated.

The overall theme of the movie is that Miles is writing his own story, not following an imposed script on what his life is supposed to be. It’s about self-determination, which is a theme we can all get behind.

In conclusion, yes, it can be done. We can introduce new characters with ethnic backgrounds and include commentaries that don’t aim to shame, stigmatize or indoctrinate audiences. Instead, it is possible to have a popular series on the big screen, make new characters beloved without alienating fans, and make social references that don’t require rebuke.

My son and I gave the movie an 8.5 out of 10 rating, if you’re here looking for numbers grabbed out of thin air by an adult who hardly watches any television and a child inclined to “like” superheroes in any form. If you are looking for a family summer movie, I can say that this one doesn’t have scenes that leave viewers uncomfortable, although there was one use of the word “ass” that I didn’t even notice and my vigilant child recalled it later on. The good news is, there are still movies that don’t polarize us, even while everything from sports to the military draws social issue lines in the sand. 

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