Wednesday, December 19, 2018

In Laman's Terms: How Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse Captures Intimate Parts Of The LGBTQA+ Experience

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!


"And whenever I feel alone, like no one else knows what I'm going through, I'll remember my friends that do." - Miles Morales reflecting on his new Spider-hero friends.

None of our identities are shaped in a vacuum. Frequently without even realizing it, external factors help shape who we are as a person  Just ask Miles Morales, a Marvel comics superhero who's also the star of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, one of the best movies of 2018. The films central story involves all kinds of delightfully over-the-top elements ranging from alternate universes to gigantic goblins to a pig superhero but at the base of it all is the intimate story of a boy growing into and embracing his identity as a Spider-Man like no other. It's a touching tale that garners extra levels of poignancy because of how well it works as an allegory for the experience of growing up as a member of the LGBTQA+ community.

Now, the concept of a Spider-Man origin story being a parallel to real-world experiences is not exactly a fresh one. The 2002 Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie particularly leaned into the idea of Peter Parker suddenly gaining superhuman abilities being a process that evoked the experience of going through puberty. Why wouldn't the characters origin story so often be tied into experiences from the real world given that so much of the characters enduring appeal is rooted in his ties into reality? Peter Parker struggles to keep a roof overhead and juggle personal responsibilities with his Spider-Man duties, he's someone who faces difficulties that readers or viewers of his adventures can relate to. Reality is so entrenched into the character of Peter Parker that it's no wonder his superhero alter-ego would also be evocative of real-world experiences.

Like Peter Parker, the superhero saga of Miles Morales is one informed by the real world, though he's got vastly different circumstances to grapple with. Whereas Parker, from the first time he showed up in Amazing Fantasy #15, was solidified as a nerd with a capital N, Morales is a teenager going through the process of figuring out who exactly he is. His passion for painting New York City with his stickers and spray-painted artwork clash against the desires of his police officer father while trying to fit into his new preppy school is a form of torture. It's a terrific set-up for the journey Miles will soon go through, one that revolves around Miles coming to terms with his own individual identity in a manner that can't help but feel evocative of real-world LGBTQA+ experiences.

This journey Miles goes on gets kicked off with (what else in a Spider-Man origin story?) a bite from a radioactive spider. The super-human abilities Miles gets from this spider-bite send Miles into a panic as he realizes what's happening to him. This is where the parallels between the story of Miles becomes Spider-Man and an LGBTQA+ coming-of-age story become as clear as a bell. His internal monologue that only he and the viewer can hear have Miles wondering if the other kids think he's weird and even going as far as to wish he was just a normal kid. The realization that he may be a superhero is daunting to this kid, just as it is for anyone going through the process of coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Considering that the current President of the United States is trying to erase the existence of Transgender people themselves from legal definitions of gender, no wonder people coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity may be overwhelmed by the struggles ahead of them. This is not an easy process of immediate acceptance but rather a complex road of personal discovery, the exact kind of road Miles travels down as he becomes Spider-Man.

That road leads him to encounter his dimensions Spider-Man, the ideal version of the Peter Parker Spider-Man. He's kind, heroic and the only other person who knows what Miles is going through. "I don't think you have a choice kid" is what Peter Parker gently tells Miles once he hears the kid's understandable reluctance to be a superhero. Both the radioactive spider-bite Miles experienced and one's sexual orientation or gender identity are not occurrences that are done by choice, instead, their occurrences beyond one's control. Sometimes our lives get shaped by those kinds of external factors (OK, maybe not the radioactive spider-bite) that we can't evade and in the wake of his dimension's Spider-Man perishing, Miles knows destiny has played its hand, he must use his super-powers to help save New York from The Kingpin and his Super-Collider machine.

Trying to live up to his potential involves Miles trying to be as much like Peter Parker's Spider-Man as possible, right down to wearing a store-bought Spider-Man costume and taking cues from comics based on the character's exploits. But Miles will soon realize the importance of establishing one's own identity through some extremely stylized means, by which I mean encountering other variations on Spider-Man from alternate dimensions. The likes of Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham allow for plenty of opportunities for hilarious bits of comedy but it also allows Miles to realize that trying to constantly adhere to what people say you should be (in this case, adhering to what the other Spider-heroes consider to be an ideal superhero) isn't a path to self-fulfillment.

In our all too real world, members of the LGBTQA+ community deal with all kinds of similar pressure that influences their identity. Is one acting "gay enough"? Is one acting "too gay"? Am I adhering to certain gender expectations correctly? Does one even deserve to belong to the LGBTQA+ community if they don't act a certain way? This kind of internal conflict is one that Miles grapples with in his own personal quest to figure out who he is as a person throughout Into The Spider-Verse. His realization that he'll define what it means to be Spider-Man, and not the other way around, is something LGBTQA+ individuals also tend to come around to in time. The LGBTQA+ community is informed by a limitless amount of perspectives, voices, personalities and so much more, it's the differences between people that serve as the blood that pumps the heart of this faction of humanity.

There isn't just one way to be a certain sexuality or gender identity just as there isn't one way to be Spider-Man.

Miles Morales learning to embrace what makes him different isn't the only way Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse evokes real-life LGBTQA+ experiences though, fascinatingly, numerous other elements of the film echo this part of reality. This includes the excellent realized relationship Miles has with his father, a man who dislikes the vigilante nature of Spider-Man. This distaste for Spider-Man leads to one of the most quietly heartbreaking scenes of the film involving Miles, shortly after realizing he has no choice but to become Spider-Man, quietly asking his dad if he actually hates Spider-Man. Tiptoeing carefully around a parent figure to figure out if they'd actually accept you for who you really are is an imposing scenario for superpowered teenagers as well as closeted members of the LGBTQA+ community. Yet again, we see how Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse tactfully grounds its wonderfully stylized story in real-world experiences, allowing audiences to see themselves in specific situations Miles finds himself in throughout the story.

It isn't just the anguish of LGBTQA+ coming-of-age experiences that Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse captures so beautifully though. Happily, this is also one of the most impressive depictions, albeit allegorical, of LGBTQA+ friendships in modern American cinema, a feat it accomplishes while making sure Miles Morales and his super-powered pals are differentiated from other superhero teams out there. Though the six Spider-heroes that end up teaming up to save the day at the end of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse may evoke The Avengers or Justice League on the surface, the way the movie differentiates these characters from other superpowered teams makes them a sublime stand-in for the close-knit camaraderie between members of the LGBTQA+ community. The assorted members of The Avengers or Justice League may be pals with each other, but they don't express to one another relief at no longer feeling alone like the six Spider-heroes of this film do. Each of the members of this group have been informed by the sense of loss that serves a crucial part of Peter Park's origin story and the chance to be around other people that understand these experiences is an immensely cathartic one. The bond they develop with one another is deep enough at the end of the movie that Spider-Man Noir, just before traveling back to his dimension, tells his fellow Spider-heroes "I love all of you guys", a platonic expression of love all too common in the LGBTQA+ community.

This experience of finding comfort in the company of other understanding human beings who make one feel less solitary is the sort of experience that many American movies about queer characters tend to miss out on completely but it's one that Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse embraces full on. Typical American films about queer characters are traditionally about queer characters experiencing anguish in isolation, even a romantic drama like Brokeback Mountain has the two lead characters separated for much of the runtime with no other queer characters in sight. Stories about lone queer characters aren't inherently a bad thing, plenty of high-quality individual films are about said stories. But said stories are part of a larger trend that sees queer American cinema be fixated around stories about queer characters enduring hardships alone, they're only defined by the anguish they suffer and not also defined by other aspects of the queer experience, namely developing friendships between other members of the LGBTQA+ community. Such LGBTQA+ friendships that provide solidarity in day-to-day life are rare to come by in the American film scene beyond the occasional exception like The Miseducation of Cameron Post. 

Though the characters in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse are stand-in's for members of the LGBTQA+ community rather than actually queer themselves (though there's a brilliant subtle implication that Aunt May may have been married to a woman at one point), the story of Miles Morales, from his initial experiences at learning he has super-powers to his embracing of what makes him different  the friendships he develops with his fellow Spider-heroes all ring as realistic depictions of parts of the LGBTQA+ experience that don't tend to get explored much, if ever, in American cinema. While live-action dramas like Bohemian Rhapsody dish out retrograde depictions of queer individuals that focus exclusively on queer hardship, the animated family movie Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse masterfully translates intimate LGBTQA+ experiences into its superhero story with as much success as it beautifully translates the art style of comic books into computer-animation.

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