The other night my son and I went to go see Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. It's the latest installment in an animated, feature-length Spider-Man series that exponentially expands the storyline across, you guessed it, multiple universes.
With the obvious aside (that this gives Marvel and Sony endless possibilities for spin-offs and multifarious revenue streams), this movie is genius and deeply provocative.
Note: SPOILERS AHEAD
And... I am a nerd but not a comic book nerd. So my observations are from a layperson's perspective. Read on if you want a deeper-meaning take on this magnificent piece of pop culture.
Best of Humanity on Display
There is so much in the news these days that remind us of humanity's capacity for horror. War, greed, exploitation. It's everywhere.
Watching this Spider-Man movie is a refreshing reminder of the best that we are capable of as a species. The artistry of the animation is spell-binding.
Seamlessly weaving together various illustration styles makes a statement without any words. From the dotted traditional comic book look to anime, watercolor, and many more that I don't even know the names for, this tapestry layers human representations of storytelling across cultures and time. Such elegance was no doubt extraordinarily demanding to pull off. After all, this sequel debuted five years after the original.
Beyond the visual masterpiece, I think of the people responsible for making it possible– the collaboration required, the patience and endurance, and the collective vision that must have been necessary to keep everyone aligned. And, what a supreme example of how humans can leverage technology to create something constructive for our world, rather than destructive, which seems so front and center in our minds these days with the dubious burst of AI on the scene. I love being surprised by humans doing good things.
The "Good Guys" Become the Bad Guys
So, once the audience is let in on the fact that there are thousands, if not millions, of Spider-People who have a secret society hub, we are introduced to Miguel, the Grand Poobah. His tough exterior is softened with a backstory that hearkens Liam Neeson's dad-loses-a-daughter-and-becomes-ruthlessly-hardened trope. To Miguel's credit, he is trying to preserve the multi-dimensional integrity of all existence, for god's sake.
So when Miles Morales from Earth 1610B, the central Spider-Man character in this series, dares to attempt to save the life of his father on his home planet, Miguel is no happy arachnidan human. Should Miles succeed in preserving his dad's life, there would be a rupture in the Spider-Verse causing the deaths of untold millions or billions of people... according to historical precedence and well, Miguel.
This reminds me of how institutions often have humble beginnings with authentic good intentions but can end up being the antithesis of what they claim to be. The Church universal is a prime example. Back in the ancient Roman-occupied Mediterranean where the institutional religious leaders of its time and locale had become obsequious to its overlords and oppressive to its own people (according to the Christian New Testament), any news that an individual had sanctity over oneself was ravenously devoured.
You don't need established religion. Just connect with the divine directly.
Some of you reading this may not recognize that synopsis of Jesus's message but I went to a liberal seminary that contextually interpreted ancient texts. So, in a nutshell, relative to Jesus's time and place, he was basically telling people, "You don't need established religion. Just connect with the divine directly, as I do." Anti-establishment messages like this upset people in power. Think Martin Luther King, Ghandi, or Nelson Mandela.
But the problem creeps in when humans, being our complicated selves, overtake something life-affirming and evolve it into something death-dealing. You need look no further than the Catholic Crusades, Islamic Jihads, or rising Christian Nationalism* in the United States today.
But back to Miguel & Miles.
Miguel had rallied an army of well-meaning, purpose-driven Spidey-folks to hunt Miles down. The masses believed they were doing the right thing– "sacrifice the one to save the many" type of mission.** Miles had the Spidey-balls to stand up to Miguel, historical precedence, and the "way things have always been" claiming that he could both save his dad and preserve the integrity of the multiverse. His subversive thinking revealed the institution for what it had become (concerned with staying in power) and teased out those who were willing to honor their own inner voice to do what was right to them.
I don't know about you, but from my vantage point on this Earth, we've got a parallel power struggle going on in our own world right now.
Canon Events Define Us For Better Or Worse
Before Miguel goes entirely rabid, he explains to Miles that life is comprised of canon events– essentially milestone happenings that are destined to happen no matter what. These punctuated events can't be tampered with because they define who we are. In the Spider-Verse, the death of Captain Morales, Miles' dad, was one such event and it happened in every singular reality even if the details varied a bit. This was exactly what Miles refused to accept as an unwavering fact.
Here on our Earth, we have canon events too, the most basic being birth and death– of ourselves and others. The gap is filled with things like coming of age, love, loss, success, failure, aging, and so on. The circumstances vary from person to person but the root human experience remains.
Painful and elated events are necessary to shape who we are.
What I love about the messaging in this film regarding canon events is that both painful and elated events are necessary. They mutually shape us into who we are. They cannot effectively exist without the other.
Granted, Miguel was explaining this to Miles trying to justify why Miles needed to sit back and just let his dad die back on Earth 1610B. Miles listening to his inner voice that gave him the strength and courage to stand up to this principle illustrates how there is a transcendent tension that we all must live with. More aptly put, we all must live within this tension.
Knowing when to accept things as they are and when to command change is an arena of spiritual discernment that comes with openness, intention, and practice. It is in this space that we are connected to the divine– a Greater Force that compels us toward goodness and life and can't merely be explained by facts and figures or authority figures.
Perhaps the great irony of our place in the cosmos is that, no matter how insignificant we seem in the scale of our Universe, we as individuals are the arbiters of who we become. We have the power to allow both our painful and ecstatic canon events to shape us toward light or darkness. Our greatest fight is against the ghostly forces in our minds that often seek to destroy us.
Much like Miles Morales at the end of this fantastical testament of a movie, we must face ourselves. The question is, which version of us will win?
The Fine Print
* The Pew Research Foundation published a report in October, 2022 regarding America's views on Christianity and American identity. Sixty percent of Americans believe the founders intended our country to be a "Christian nation." Thirty-three percent say it is now a "Christian nation," and 45% say that it should remain a "Christian nation."
** This is another parallel to Christianity. I believe the average Christian is not a power-hungry manipulator. They are normal, good people who seek meaning and purpose through their faith, and often do what they genuinely believe to be the right thing because a person in authority tells them so. Even those who claim the Bible is their authority are really recycling the message from men in authority who claim the Bible possesses ultimate authority.