Kids’ movies often have pretty black and white morality. The good people are good, and the bad people are bad. I enjoyed Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse a lot as a grown adult, and one reason the movie stands out is its portrayal of a more complex system of morality in a film geared towards a younger audience, especially with regard to Miles’s relationship to his Uncle Aaron.
Spider-Verse is a heartfelt, beautiful movie, and maybe the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. It has multiple villains, and in characterising each of them, the movie doesn’t just rely on a simplistic “bad people are bad” portrayal. Even the major villain, The Kingpin, has his own emotional journey that lasts throughout the movie and shows his actions in a different light.
Miles’s Uncle Aaron is unique, even in a movie that shows more details about its villains. At this start of the movie, after Miles gets his spider powers, he’s chased by a villain named the Prowler. Later in the film, when he’s feeling emotionally low, he goes to his uncle’s apartment looking for advice or comfort, only to discover that his uncle is the Prowler. In the next scene, Kingpin takes the fight to Miles, and the novice Spider-Man ends up in a standoff with his Uncle. During this climax, Miles takes off his mask to reveal his identity. Once he sees his nephew’s face, Aaron is unable to kill Miles. He steps back in horror, and in that moment, the Kingpin shoots and kills Aaron.
This death hurts in part because of all the unanswered questions about Aaron’s life. Conversations between Miles and his other family members throughout the movie imply that Aaron and Miles’s father used to be quite close, but something drove them apart: either Miles’s father becoming a cop, or Aaron’s illicit activities. The audience doesn’t learn how Aaron became the Prowler or why. But we do know that he loves Miles, deeply.
Even before Miles got bitten by a radioactive spider and saw his life turned upside down by his newfound powers, he faced a lot of pressure from all sides. At the film’s outset, he is a new student at a school for gifted kids. His parents want him to do well but don’t seem to see how anxious those expectations have made him. Aaron’s apartment was a safe place for him to go and just be himself, and to be vulnerable about how he feels about his life. Aaron helped Miles express himself, pushing Miles to do good in his own way.
The plot turn of Aaron turning out to have been the Prowler doesn’t reveal him as being evil all along. It just makes him complicated. That’s a hard pill for kids or even adults to swallow, that people you love and who love you can do bad things. That’s the lesson that Spider-Verse offers, though, and even after death, the film and its characters treat Aaron with love and respect.
As Aaron dies, he tells Miles, “You were the best out of all of us.” It’s not a lie; it’s not a manipulation. That’s how Aaron feels about his nephew; like so many other people in Miles’s life, Aaron sees in him a huge potential to put some good into the world. Miles doesn’t denounce his uncle, either. He cries at his death. There’s no anger there, just regret, on all sides. People, it turns out, are multifaceted. The people who inspire us can have dark secrets. When you love someone like Aaron loves Miles and vice versa, you have to also accept that they may disappoint you, and also learn to forgive them.
At the end of the movie, Miles paints a memorial mural of his Uncle as his father looks on. It reads, “Rest In Power.” Even knowing Aaron’s secret, Miles still loves him. Aaron took a path in life that lead him to an ignoble death, but that doesn’t make what he meant to Miles any less.