WARNING: This article may piss you off, but it’s the last in this particular series, so I might as well go out with a bang.
Once upon a time, there was a popular TV show called THE INCREDIBLE HULK. I don’t remember many of the episodes, and for two reasons. First, it wasn’t an accurate representation of the Hulk comics my mom gave me when she picked me up from preschool, and so I didn’t find it interesting.* Second – and raise your hand if you’re of this generation and experienced similar trauma – the show’s opening credits sequence terrified me. Once I finally got over it and stopped running into my bedroom to hide as this week’s installment began, I finally sat down to watch an episode in its entirety, all the while congratulating myself for being so grown up about it; the episode I saw that Friday was the one where Banner meets an old man who turns into an elderly, demonic Hulk due to similar gamma exposure. I began hiding in my room again, probably until I was about twenty.
I’d be tempted to call this particular two-parter – which is titled “The First,” for those looking to be seriously freaked out by a particularly horrifying example of the sort of shit that used to make it onto network television – an early example of Geriatric Representation, except for the fact that it seems designed to tap into our childhood fear of the elderly. There’s a reason so much folklore revolves around hags and little old ladies who inhabit domiciles constructed from gingerbread. This seems an untapped minority, but old people don’t seem to care about seeing themselves onscreen, punching robots and shit, so whatever.**
The legacy of THE INCREDIBLE HULK – beyond the many psychiatric professionals currently living in comfort thanks to their Gen X patients who watched it – is barely felt in the comics.*** Only one element has survived and prospered, and not because the show created it, but rather, Stan Lee tasked his staff with creating it because of the show; I’m referring of course, to She-Hulk. At a time when THE BIONIC WOMAN was a simple and profitable way for the producers of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN to simply reheat a successful franchise, it made sense that CBS would do the same with their Hulk property – and most importantly, own it outright. Thus we wind up with Female Representation for the sake of male ownership in an industry that’s traditionally been a Boy’s Club.
Yes, I’m using a capital R when referring to Representation. Sci-fi and Fantasy are genres best known for white dudes punching other white dudes, and then fucking the helpless, devoted damsel in distress in the end.**** While there have been few breakout characters of color, the homosexual demographic has been forced to endure seeing themselves onscreen as The Gay Best Friend (see CATWOMAN for the most nauseating example of the this character trope). Again, Banner was given a new name in an attempt to avoid gay associations, and he was the star of the show. If that’s not a Fuck you to marginalized community, then what is…?
So this brings us to SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE, which was received in much the same way as BLACK PANTHER, but in a way that felt less like it was speaking directly to a specific demographic. I’ll state right up front that I loved BLACK PANTHER, but I knew that while it was playing for an across-the-board audience, its primary goal was to give African-Americans and all people of color a film that spoke to them. It presented an idealized hero and an idealized version of what a united community – or country – could make for themselves. Like any other film of this sort, it wanted to inspire, and speaking as a pasty white guy, I found it inspiring as well, but likely for different reasons. I loved that it gave me a vision of being the Martin Freeman of the piece, who can go into the room and be eyed suspiciously, and walk out again an ally. I loved that it showed a less historically-represented group a hero that could inspire them the way Spidey inspires me, and would give kids a Halloween costume that allowed them to be themselves, while also being someone else, who was like them. Being a Dad in Baltimore has taught me a lot about race relations, and perhaps the concept of unity has a specific place in the garden of my heart that I welcome the chance to cultivate.*****
That must mean I love Miles Morales and INTO THE SPIDERVERSE, right? Well, yes…and no.
It’s a great movie. It’s everything I want from a Spider-Man flick: it has infectious humor, exciting set pieces, and characters I’m rooting for. It’s something I can watch with my (almost) seven year-old son, his best friend and female peer, and we can all love it together. It’s Pop Art come to life, and a visual feast of mixed media, and experimental frame rates and shutter speed. If I were to lick a sheet of The Dreaded Lysergic, INTO THE SPIDERVERSE is the movie I’d put on as I downed a carton of orange juice.
But it comes back to Representation, and a personal opinion that I hope is communicated and received as intended, and not misconstrued or interpreted as something along the lines of Kathleen Kennedy is ruining STAR WARS cuz women and black people. My issue with Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen/Ghost Spider, and other Spiderfolk is that 1) endlessly Xeroxing a one-of-a-kind character to sell more product dilutes what makes Spider-Man so special in the first place – namely his singularity; and 2) I want to see marginalized, unrepresented (or misrepresented) groups properly showcased in the form of characters who are inspiring because of who they are, and not because they’re girl versions of Spider-Man, black versions of Spider-Man, or whatever else.
I mentioned She-Hulk earlier. Jennifer Walters wasn’t a woman suffering from a shattered personality, the pieces of which manifested as different-colored monsters; she was a hot chick with green skin, prominent boobs, and she ran around in Barely There spandex. She gained a following some years after her comics debut, but it took her temporary membership in The Fantastic Four to boost her profile. In other words, she only drew your attention because she was borrowing the name and general appearance of a white, male character you were already familiar with, and she was likewise given prominence and readership via her inclusion in a pre-existing Marvel super team, also populated by White People. Would the average reader have given any notice to Jennifer Walters had she been blue and called Lady Roar, and stripped of any association with The Hulk? Or, under the guidance of a creative team, might she have become more popular had she been given a unique backstory that was all her own, and not simply exist because Bruce Banner infected her with a blood transfusion…?
INTO THE SPIDERVERSE is a very loose adaptation of Dan Slott’s comic arc, in which we learn that there are numerous dimensions containing a seemingly endless array of Spider-People. Merged with this tale is a condensed version of Brian Michael Bendis’s decision to murder the alternative-continuity Peter Parker of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and shake things up by passing the mantle to the half-black, half-Latino Miles Morales. And shake it up he did. The character – existing separately from the ongoing Marvel continuity in his own universe of reconfigured but recognizable heroes – became a fan favorite, and the only ULTIMATE book that didn’t wither quickly on the vine. The solution became clear: cancel the ULTIMATE line, and move Miles into the 616 Marvel Universe proper.
The problem is that once you have two Spider-Men running around, they cancel one another out. Even the current Miles-specific comic has the character constantly dismissed by heroes and villains alike as “the other one,” almost as if Marvel editorial knows they need to make a joke of the fact that the two characters have the exact same name. The only thing that differentiates them in the suit is the color – the one Miles wears is black, as if to drive the point home – and a few variations on the Spider Powers in the younger version. That’s it. The Ultimate Peter Parker was specifically created to negate the issue of allowing Peter to age, while confusing potential new readers who only knew him as the high school student seen in any of the three live-action film series; by having an alternate universe doppelgänger still in the movie mode, Marvel could have its cake and eat it, too. When Bendis killed Peter, Miles slid into his place, and was the same relative age, facing the same relative problems, but with the added ingredient of the social issues faced by minorities. Given his dual heritage, it gave him an additional boost in that regard. Having them co-exist in the same universe makes neither one in any way special.
SPIDERVERSE doesn’t have this specific issue (at least not yet; we’ll see what happens in the inevitable sequel), and it still sets out to show a minority figure designed to inspire, but does so by piggybacking on an established icon — one made famous as a white guy. It’s not hard to find Miles Morales likable, particularly in filmic version, but at the end of the day, we’re only watching this film and giving him a chance because of the Spider-Man brand. Why can’t we be falling in love with Miles Morales, a guy with his own tailor-made alter ego? It’s the same issue that renders the final scene between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson in AVENGERS: ENDGAME somewhat troubling where it ought to inspire.****** Black Panther was embraced because he’s Black Panther, in the same way that Black Widow is there to inspire the female audience, and Captain Marvel…was originally a guy, so wait, never mind.
But there’s more. In both the pages of Marvel’s Spidey spin-offs and now an animated film, there exists a character who was originally called Spider-Gwen, and now goes by “Ghost Spider,” but was, is, and always will be an alternate universe Gwen Stacy. One can presume that it’s a YAY FUN TWIST situation, but cheapening one of the defining moments in Spider-Man’s history is baffling in every sense. Yes, there’s been a Spider-Woman, and a Spider-Girl, but there have always been unnecessary female translations of male characters, going all the way back to that time Superman became aware he had a cousin; this is the product of another time that we in the twenty-first century should absolutely be better than. But Spider-Gwen is taking things too far, as she isn’t just unnecessary, and incredibly backwards in forced relevance by association with male branding, she devalues the original Gwen Stacy.
There’s the argument that because of the notion of “Fridging” a hero’s girlfriend — basically, killing her to motivate him to take action — it’s important to allow the original Fridged Girlfriend the opportunity to stand up, wear a white variation of said boyfriend’s uniform, and…play drums, for some reason. There’s room for this argument. But I think anyone would rather see an alternate version of Karen Page kicking ass, or any other deceased Love Interest, than a cheapening of the iconic tale that radically affected the kinds of stories comic books were allowed to tell, and the topics that were fair game. To add insult to injury, it isn’t just Gwen’s death that is suddenly less important to us; it’s less important to Peter once he is able to see, hear, and speak to someone he (only!) thought he has lost forever, even if she’s a version from another universe.
A character like Spider-Man Noir doesn’t do much for me unless he’s voiced by Nicholas Cage and used for comic relief; Spider-Ham was always there for kids, battling crime alongside Captain Americat and dating Mary Jane Waterbuffalo. The less said about the weird anime thing with the robot, the better. They’re completely inoffensive, though, because in the end, who gives a shit? Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen do matter, because people do give a shit. They’re FIGURES OF REPRESENTATION. But what are they actually representing, beyond an ability to squeeze the Spider-Man brand for all it’s worth, and delivering an admittedly inspirational message while doing it, but one that leaves me confused, because I’m not sure exactly how inspirational it is, exactly? And that’s coming from someone who loves INTO THE SPIDERVERSE, who wants to see African-American heroes, wants to see Latino heroes, wants to see female heroes, wants to see homosexual heroes, and on and on and on. I just want original heroes. Don’t take away from what makes Spider-Man special but duplicating him…and don’t take away from what makes you special by saying that the only way anyone will notice you is if you look like me.
Anyone can wear the mask, we’re told. I agree with this. I love the message. It’s something I want my son — who is in an underrepresented minority, himself — to grow up knowing: that he too can be anything he chooses. He’s literally my hero, and inspires me, every single day of my life, through what he’s achieved, and what he continues to achieve. Anyone can wear the mask, indeed. But in a fictional universe built on the concept of Super Icons, and one to which we turn for our own personal inspiration, I’d rather see heroes who wear their own masks that represent who they are — not who Peter Parker is, and always will be.
*THE INCREDIBLE HULK, in its aim to be more “adult” in the same fashion as THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, focused on mundane criminals rather than the typical aliens, monsters, and guys in long pajamas seen in the pages of Marvel comics. As such, it followed the format of THE FUGITIVE, with Banner on the run from an investigative journalist looking to uncover whether he was indeed the perpetrator of a crime he didn’t, in fact, commit. We get him going from town to town and Hulking out just in time to save the Guest Stars of the week from local Bad Guys like corrupt small-town mayors and fixed Bingo organizations. The most interesting part of the show was the strange and homophobic decision to rename the mild-mannered scientist Robert because Bruce was deemed “too gay.” I’ve heard this factoid many times, and always phrased as such; whether or not it’s a direct quote is unknown to me.
**The FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN comic currently in publication recently introduced a costumed hero called The Rumor, who’s a snappy old woman who feigns the effects of age when not in uniform. It’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to work as an example of Representation, or if it’s being played for laughs; because it’s a Spidey comic, the stories allow for either response, or a comfortable, unpretentious mixture of both.
***The current title Marvel is publishing, retitled THE IMMORTAL HULK, not only seems to be leaning into the show in a way that’s never been attempted, but it’s also an all-out horror comic at this point. It’s a lot like Alan Moore’s SWAMP THING and an EC Comic had a baby that was designed by “Ghastly” Graham Ingles. I cannot recommend it enough, as it’s unquestionably the best product Marvel is turning out in years.
****Not that “end,” unless, of course, we’re referring to KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE.
*****Having a Special Needs Child has put me at the mercy of wherever the Baltimore City Public School System tells me he has to attend to receive services. As such, I’ve met and worked with people I never would have otherwise met, and watched my son develop friendships he might not have otherwise experienced. Baltimore may be associated with racial tension thanks to the death of Freddie Gray and THE WIRE’s portrayal of our class system, but there’s beauty to be found anywhere you look for it, so long as you’re willing to do so.
******The biggest “twist” in ENDGAME is the willingness for Marvel Studios to risk the wrath of Angry Conservative White Guys by allowing an African-American to wear the red, white and blue (to say nothing of the de facto Iron Man that War Machine has not-so-subtly become). Technically, both Sam and Bucky have take up Captain America’s shield at one time or another, and while Barnes is more suited in the MCU role solely by virtue of having enhanced abilities that Wilson does not, we can all agree that Sam has the heart. The problem with this is that while it’s theoretically exciting to see an African-American as the living embodiment of the United States, he has to be given the opportunity by a Caucasian who no longer wants it. A far more inspiring epilogue would have been seeing Sam take the shield, try it on, and then give it back, saying: “Thanks, Steve. But I think I’d rather follow in your footsteps my own way. After all, in order for people to have a reason to look up, there has to be something up there to see. And I want Falcon to be that something they look up to.”
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)