Narrative Themes In Modern Media: Spider-Man

“With great power comes great responsibility.” -Stan Lee

Recently, I had the opportunity to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and unlike previous Spider-Man movies that followed the adventures of Peter Parker, the main character of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is Miles Morales. The basic premise of the film is that Miles Morales attains the abilities of Spider-Man and must assume the mantle of Spider-Man after the death of Peter Parker in Miles’s fictional universe. Consequently, he must master his new found abilities and defeat the primary villain whose plans could destroy the city. During the course of the film, Miles is joined by the Spider-Man characters of other universes who assist Miles on his journey and provide him with training, guidance, mentorship, and support. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it, it was a fantastic film, and I would go as far as to say it was my favorite Spider-Man movie.

Even though the main character of the movie wasn’t Peter Park, there was no doubt in my mind that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a Spider-Man movie. The film did a fantastic job of narrating the Miles Morales’s story and interweaving the same aesthetics, the same tone, the same elements, and the same themes that define the story of Spider-Man. In many ways, watching a Spider-Man story focused around Miles Morales instead of Peter Parker really helped bring into focus the parallels and themes that are reinforced by the Spider-Man narrative journey. And it was thinking about the journey of Spider-Man that forced me to think about the fundamental nature of the Spider-Man character. What are the defining features of the story of Spider-Man and why do so many people find it compelling?

Peter Parker

The basic outline of the Spider-Man origin story is a young person inherits superhuman abilities mostly by random chance and through circumstances beyond his control. However, unlike other superheroes, when the young person inherits those super powers that person does not inherit the moral code, emotional stability, and sense of duty that is oftentimes inseparable from the super powers of other superhero characters. Instead, the story of Spider-Man is a story of a young person learning how to wield his enormous gift responsibly and managing the demands of protecting others against the demands of the personal relationships he has with his friends and family.

In the standard Peter Parker Spider-Man origin story, after gaining his powers Peter Parker uses his powers for superficial and self-gratifying purposes. There are different variations to how Peter Parker initially uses his powers — confronting and humiliating a bully, winning prizes and money in events and competitions, generally goofing off. However, the underlying commonality of these variations is that Peter is largely using his newfound abilities selfishly. And this selfishness almost invariably leads to the death of Peter’s surrogate father, Uncle Ben. In most depictions of the Spider-Man origin story, Peter almost always has the opportunity to prevent Uncle Ben’s death. However, Peter chooses not to act and the downstream, indirect consequence of Peter’s inaction is Uncle Ben’s death. Moreover, what is often included in the standard Spider-Man origin story is that Peter’s justification for not acting is typically for selfish, self-centered, or spiteful reasons. And I think that this is a very important feature of the Spider-Man story because it highlights the fact that not only was Peter able to prevent his Uncle Ben’s death, but he chose not to prevent his Uncle Ben’s death by acting in a selfish and self-centered way and failing to do what was morally and ethically called for.

The tragedy of Uncle Ben’s death and Peter’s sense of culpability for Uncle Ben’s death leads Peter to assume the role, responsibilities, obligations, and duties of being Spider-Man. Uncle Ben’s influence on Peter’s transition to becoming a hero is demonstrated by Spider-Man’s guiding principle, a principle that is best summarized in the the iconic quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The story of Spider-Man is enormously engaging not only because it examines the tragedies that can occur when we fail to use our talents and abilities responsibly; it also examines the challenges of negotiating our personal needs and desires against our responsibilities and adhering to our principles.Peter Parker’s relationship with his Aunt Mae is severely strained not only for Peter’s guilt over Uncle Ben’s death, but also because Peter must conceal the pressure and the struggle and the burden he faces as Spider-Man from Aunt Mae. Peter Parker’s desire to be with Mary Jane is another relationship that Peter must negotiate between his two identities. There is the personal desire to be with someone else that you are attracted to and care for deeply, but there is also the disheartening realization that Peter’s devotion to Mary Jame will always compete with his devotion to being Spider-Man. And in that context, Peter must wonder how could he or if it is even possible for him to have a full relationship with Mary Jane. And all of the tension Peter experiences in his personal relationships is compounded by the tension within Peter Parker’s personal life first as a student, then as a photographer, and then in trying to find a career/profession.

Often times, the duty of being Spider-Man affects the personal relationships that Peter Parker values in his life. In some instances, the consequences of being Spider-Man threaten the people that Peter Parker intimately cares about and feels personally connected to. And although this fictional illustration is far more extreme than what we experience in our own lives, it reflects a reality that we all experience and we are all conscious of — the reality that our passion projects, our careers, our professional endeavors, and the responsibilities we have often put a strain on our familial relationships and friendships and can even detrimentally impact and hurt the people we care about.

Miles Morales

In Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, the audience is told Miles Morales’s story, which follows very similar themes as Peter Parker’s story: a story of a young person learning how to contend with the obligations and duties placed on them. Miles Morales inherits his superpowers in much the same way as Peter Parker and must learn how to control and use his newfound abilities. However, I think that Miles Morales’s story adds 2 important elements to the coming of age story that is not examined in the Peter Parker story. The first element is learning to assume the roles and responsibilities of those that came before us. The second element is the importance of the guidance and experience of those that came before us in learning to assume their roles. Taken together, there is something paradoxical and contradictory about these two themes — that we are inadequate in filling the shoes of those that came before us but that we can be made adequate by the guidance and tutelage of those that came before us. But I think the dissonance of these broad themes is something that Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse illustrates so well in Miles Morales’s story through Miles’s internal struggle, the interpersonal dynamics, and the external crisis.

The first element is learning to assume the roles and responsibilities of those that came before us — those whose shoes we wonder if we could ever adequately fill. Unique to Miles Morales’s story, in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Miles must not only learn how to control and use his newfound abilities responsibly, but he must take up the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker’s death in the film. Not only must Miles’s learn to control his powers, but if he fails to do so, the villain will prevail and the city will be destroyed. And on an implicit level, both the audience and Miles feel that if circumstances were different, the Spider-Man Miles is being asked to replace would have succeeded if Miles were to fail. This is something that strikes a resonate chord within the hearts of so many viewers. The expectation of becoming a great person in whom people can place their hopes adds an urgency and seriousness to Miles’s efforts to control his new abilities; it adds a nuance that makes Miles’s coming of age story more compelling and more intimate to the audience.

Many of us have been where Miles is, and it allows us to engage with Miles with greater depth and more seriousness. Within the more mundane boundaries of our own experiences, almost all of us have encountered scenarios where difficult situations were thrust upon us to manage and navigate — regardless of whether or not we had asked for such responsibility. Almost all of us have found ourselves in a place where how successful we were at managing and navigating this new endeavor impacted not only ourselves but other people. Many times in our own lives, we embark on our adventures or set ourselves to Herculean tasks not because we want to, but because we have to. Because bad things could happen if we do not, because good things and improvements would not occur if we did not act, because people could be hurt or discouraged if we didn’t try to move forward. So often we find ourselves in situations where the the task of mastery and growth seems impossibly difficult and the stakes associated with success and failure are crushingly elevated. So often in the hero’s journey that is our own life do we feel the burden of others’ hopes and well-being. And so often in the hero’s journey that is our own life do we feel inadequate to the task that we are called to.

The second element that Miles Morales’s story adds is the importance of mentors and role models in guiding our development. During the course of the film, Miles is joined in his journey by the Spider-Man characters of other fictional retellings and universes. Though these other characters actively assist Miles in thwarting the villain of the film, their most significant and consequential impact is felt in how they guide Miles. They share with Miles their failures, their loses, and their vulnerabilities. They demonstrate to Miles what is demanded of him and what being Spider-Man entails. They exemplify the principle of responsibility to Miles as a defining principle of Spider-Man. But most profoundly and most importantly, they tell Miles the truth: you will never be 100% sure if you’re ready, there will always be doubts, and at the end of the day you have to take a leap of faith.

In our lives, we all experience our own trials and tribulations that seem impossible to navigate. And we can often feel incredibly isolated during these tumultuous periods because it’s difficult to find others that have been through the same experience or have held the same feelings. And it can be very easy for us to become lost in the journey. But somehow, more often than not, we find a way to make it through. Because somehow we got the right advice and the right guidance to help us resolve our challenges; because somehow we got the right push or we were turned in the right direction to find a way forward; because somehow we were inspired to take a leap of faith and believe in ourselves despite our self-doubts.

“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.” -Stan Lee

The most difficult challenge in personally identifying with many comic book characters isn’t suspending the disbelief surrounding their extraordinary abilities and powers. The most difficult challenge in personally identifying with a fictional character is feeling an understanding and connection with the internal motivations and struggles of the character. A character that only contends with external challenges and obstacles will become boring over time because that character is not easily relatable. Do we all face external challenges? Of course! But a fictional character whose only struggle is with the exterior difficulties of the problems of the world will lack an internal complexity that the character’s story unique and compelling. If questions of internal complexity and internal struggle don’t form at least a part of the conflict experienced by a fictional character, then the audience can only assume that the character is immune to this conflict — a character that doesn’t experience doubt, that always knows what the right thing to do is, that doesn’t struggle compromising and competing priorities, and that never questions themselves or their self-confidence. And holy shit would that be boring.

At its core, the story of Spider-Man is a coming of age story. But what makes Spider-Man such a compelling coming of age story is its honesty in detailing Spider-Man’s flaws, mistakes, shortcomings, and the consequences of Spider-Man’s immaturity in his own life and in the lives of those he cares about and in the lives of those he seeks to protect. How will my actions affect myself? How will it affect others? Am I so sure that what I am doing is the right thing to do? Am I so sure that I am even able to do what is rightly required? What about what I want out of life? Am I ok with sacrificing my own happiness? Will things be made worse if I try and fail? And do I event want to put myself through something so difficult? Who am I going to be letting down and who am I going to be doing something positive for? These are questions we ask ourselves every day and a character — no matter how fantastic — that doesn’t contend with these questions just lacks soul and conscience. -GP

Living My Best Life

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store