As mainstream superhero films go, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an odd duck, visually flamboyant and tonally brazen, snarking repeatedly about intellectual property law and the dangers of franchisedom. Though it’s steeped in comic book lore - and winks at the films, television programmes, and other subsidiary products - it rarely feels like the kind of film that its corporate parents would want it to be.
Something similar could be said of the story’s protagonist, Miles Morales. The son of a Puerto Rican nurse and an African American cop who can’t stand Spider-Man, Miles turns out to be a second Spider-Man. At first, he’s confused, and then he’s afraid, but soon enough he’s hanging out, in secret, with a crowd of alternate-dimension Spider-People.
He is, in short, a vividly queer character: not in terms of who he desires, but in the way he learns to live as a member of a stigmatised minority. This isn’t to say that Miles, a cisgender boy with a crush on a girl, is LGBT within the scope of the story, or that a homosexual perspective is necessary to enjoy the film. Further, as minority representation goes, what’s significant is the film’s depiction of a non-white superhero.
It’s notable, though, that the structure of Miles’ development maps on to that of many queer people. The film’s success suggests that the key elements of his distinctly queer relationship to society - his ambivalence toward his nuclear family, his attachment to a tribe of secretive mutants - do not arouse the suspicion they once would have. It marks a new frontier in the sort of outsider an audience will, at least at the movies, cheer for - and pay for.
Spider-Man’s origin has often been read as an allegory for puberty, and superheroes at large have frequently been endowed with a queer significance. Like the non-normative sexual and gender identities we call queer, superheroes’ relationships to each other and the world - from clandestine bands of marginalised X-Men to the cosmopolitan cabals of the Justice League - clash with traditional units of social organization, the heterosexual family and the nation state most of all. Spider-Verse engages with those subtexts of its source material, as well as the familiar archetype of the extraordinary child. Such children - from Lewis Carroll’s Alice through Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and on and on - have long been points of queer identification. So, too, have numerous eccentric villains, the Jokers and Ursulas exuberantly obsessed with their beautiful same-sex rivals.
What sets Spider-Verse apart is the specificity with which it treats Miles’ evolving sense of self, rewriting the familiar beats of the superhero origin story into a story of separation from - and easing of hostilities with - both his family of origin and mainstream society. Fiction’s extraordinary children generally have imposturous families (Harry Potter’s Dursleys) or temporarily unavailable ones (Dorothy’s Auntie Em from the Wizard of Oz). They rarely need to reconcile the charmed worlds to which they properly belong (Hogwarts, Oz) and the one in which they were raised.
Miles does experience that need, and the course he follows is so thunderously resonant with actual queer experience that you could, as an exercise, translate it into gay terms. When our young hero first experiences his superpowers, he tells himself that it’s just normal puberty stuff until it’s clear that it isn’t. That leaves him in the position of a pretty typical gay teen, fretting about urges that he can’t process as normal or express without courting disaster. He knows he may be saddled with an identity that would put him at odds with his family. A gay boy might at this point ask a parent, “Will you still love me if I’m gay?”; Miles asks his father, Jefferson, “Do you really hate Spider-Man?” The answer is yes.
Miles has other family, though: His bachelor uncle - a familiar type in the literature of queer narrative - estranged from Jefferson on account of some never-fully-specified deviance. Uncle Aaron teaches Miles how to flirt by roleplaying with him - they take turns being the man, administering seductive “shoulder-touches” - then gets him bitten by a radioactive homosexu- uh, spider. While mourning the one person he knows to be like him, the dead Peter Parker, Miles encounters numerous alternate-dimension Spider-People, all without their Mary Janes, intimidatingly adept at detecting their kind. (Apparently the tingling of their spider sense works a lot like gaydar.) Miles falls out of touch with his parents as he spends more time in Aunt May’s Spider-Man basement, a space that is part kitschy closet, part dimly-lit gay bar.
Early in the film, Miles’ native-dimension Spider-Man advises him that he doesn’t “have a choice” when it comes to his superpowers, offers to show him the ropes, and dies. That Spider-Man’s replacement - a sad sack with a dad bod, dumped by his Mary Jane - takes on Miles, reluctantly teaching the first-timer some basic Spider-Man skills: You have to “relax,” “be in the moment,” and “just let go” (in order not to stick to things). Then they swing through a forest on strands of synchronously-emitted white goo. There is a villain, and a henchman, both occupying an ambiguous realm of seedy prowlers, between normies and superfolk, that we might as well call rough trade. After Miles discovers that the henchman is in fact Uncle Aaron - an outsider hunting outsiders - he doubts his own ability and desire to hack it in his newfound community of . . . outsiders.
The last act of the film is queerest, and its most excruciatingly poignant, in its handling of Miles’ half-reconciliation to his father. It starts with Jefferson’s admission, on the occasion of Aaron’s death, that he wishes they hadn’t drifted apart, a wish he extends to his relationship with Miles. At the beginning of the movie, Miles’ father demanded over a police car loudspeaker that Miles return his “I love you”; this time, he exempts Miles from having to “say it back.” Three things happen here: Jefferson tempers his judgment of Aaron, endorses Miles’ agency, and relaxes his literal policing of the conventional parental bond. The liberalisation is enough to lift Miles’s dark night of the soul.
Still, it doesn’t fully close the gap between father and son. Miles never explicitly comes out to Jefferson, who bears witness to his climactic triumph with awe. Instead of revealing his identity, Miles, still costumed as an anonymous Spider-Man, drops affectionate hints (a hug, a voluntary “I love you”). In queer terms, he’s reconfined himself in what’s sometimes known as the “glass closet,” that state in which everyone knows what you are, but no one talks about it. Here, as in so many real families, the two men agree to a tenuous working relationship: “I don’t approve of your methods,” Jefferson says, but he’ll tolerate them.
Thus Miles’ arc: the recognition that you’re a freak; the isolation of the closet; the discovery of freaks like you, who might come to stand in for biological family; the play of identification and shame within a stigmatised group, of revulsion and self-acceptance, initiation and competition; turning freakishness into a weapon against adversity; and perhaps the eventual reintegration - of some part of yourself - into mainstream society, or at least into the family.
That arc can be translated into specifically gay terms, but it doesn’t have to be. The broad pattern of experience has become common enough that a mass audience can see themselves in it, as hero rather than villain. When Miles marvels at the proliferation of Spider-People around him, his Spider-Daddy tells him to “save it for Comic-Con.” Comic-Con isn’t an extreme and daring event by any means, but it’s a subcultural gathering in its own right, one of the many little tents a viewer of this big-tent blockbuster can reasonably be expected to inhabit.
That’s nice-but it’s also a little troubling, as it is whenever disconformity is repackaged for commercial use. Even as it nods to subversion, Spider-Verse is an extremely canny act of corporate self-justification. Its grounding metaphor for diversity is the heterogeneity of properties within the corporate Spider-Verse; the stripes of its rainbow flag are franchises: Spider-Ham and Gwen Stacy and Miles Morales. They’re all, ultimately, comfortable in their own skin, as outsiders, as teammates, and as legitimate embodiments of the Spider-Man brand.
This is about as radical as corporate media can get. Like the Emerald City itself - a queer utopia if ever there was one - the Spider-Verse is all at once an aesthetic delight, a vision of freedom, and a shrine to the industry that produced it.