Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gets a lot of things right. So right, it’s now Oscar-winning, or really, more importantly, the coveted Best Movie of the Year 2018. But with the film now finally available digitally, rewatching it recently reminded me that it embraced another tried-and-tested comic book concept that most superhero movies tend to forget.
At some point in the superhero movie era we find ourselves currently living in, superhero films kinda stopped caring what the public thinks about superheroes. Or, at least, they stopped caring what the locals think about their superheroic neighbours.
As cinematic universes have expanded and muddled over the past decade with DC and Marvel alike, the scope and scale of the conflicts and conversations these films want to have about their heroes have dramatically increased in turn. We’ve gone from saving cities to saving planets to saving the entire known universe, and along the way, what the average Joe and Jane on the street thought of the Avengers or Superman just stopped being a thing comic book movies were intrigued by.
And that’s not to say that those conversations weren’t being had — hello, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War — but the scales of those conversations were so far removed from the typical scale of public perception, and made into globe-spanning dialogues about the role superheroes play on an international level. The impact of Superman’s arrival on the scene in Man of Steel, and how that informs the world of Batman v Superman, is not restricted to Metropolis (or rather what’s left standing of it), but how the world at large reacts to this alien being.
Civil War, likewise, interrogates how a team of superpowered individuals operating without jurisdiction from any nation should even exist in a modern world. These are the concerns of politicians, of generals, of presidents and diplomats—they’re not really about what everyday people think of these larger-than-life figures flying around above their heads.
But it’s exactly that theme which has been one of the most enduring constants throughout Spider-Man’s comic book history — whether it’s the cries of “threat” or “menace” from Daily Bugle headlines, or just Peter, Miles, and the myriad other wearers of the mask being Spider-Men (or -Women or -Pigs, etc.) of the people and down to Earth. The public perception of Spider-Man, and what Spider-Man means to the citizens around him, has become an indelible aspect of the character.
Through highs — Spider-Man 2's iconic train sequence — and lows — Amazing Spider-Man’s infamous crane-swinging climax — this also mostly applied to the character’s cinematic history too. Even Spider-Man: Homecoming (while primarily focused on more intrapersonal relationships for Peter) has moments where it plays with Spider-Man’s wider public relationship, while the larger cinematic universe it’s part of has really stopped caring outside of an accord or two. But Into the Spider-Verse goes so much further, and in an age where fewer and fewer superhero movies are enamoured with that relationship, it really stands out.
The driving theme of the movie is the mutability of Spider-Man — that anyone care wear the mask — as a character concept, but part of that mutability is because Spider-Verse also clearly presents just how much Spider-Man as an icon means to the public around him, constantly. We see glimpses of it in Miles’ father Jefferson, complaining about Spidey zip-zapping his way into crimefighting before swinging away again, but it really comes to the fore in two of the most emotional sequences of the entire movie — one that speaks to the wider public appreciation of Spider-Man in New York, and a second that personalizes the importance of that acceptance to Miles specifically, setting him on the path of having to navigate that push-and-pull of himself as the Ultimate Spider-Man.
The first of these, obviously, is the death of Earth 1610's Spider-Man — or RIPeter, as the creative team behind the film knew him. The way the movie pulls from the initial reaction of Miles’ family, Jeff and Rio, watching the news unfold on TV, back out to a sea of New Yorkers flicking out their phones and holding their hands to their mouths in shock, is the most effective and simple way the movie shows us just how much Spider-Man means in this universe, the tragedy of a city united in grief as it mourns own of its own.
But the second and perhaps ultimately more powerful moment might be my favourite in the entire film, and happens just before it: Miles, scared and heartbroken of what he saw go down below the streets of Brooklyn, looks up at his father in distress and asks him if he really hates Spider-Man. Which — with the awakening of his own Spider-powers — now becomes a question that the audience realises is really Miles asking “Can you hate someone like me?”
It’s an incredibly sad moment, but it’s also the moment in the film that really hits home just how much a part of Spider-Man’s entire identity, whoever is underneath the webbed Spandex, is wrapped up in how the public sees them. Whether it’s the heartbreak of loved ones you can’t reveal your secret to lashing out at a figure they don’t think they know, or the power of the public rising up in acceptance of them, identity matters in a way to Spider-Man as a hero more than it possibly could for any of Earth’s Mightiest or the World’s Finest.
So in a way, it makes sense that Spidey’s latest, and most triumphantly comic-book movie outing, celebrates that aspect of superheroism a lot more than its superheroic cinematic counterparts do.