Anyone can wear the mask.
That is the mantra uttered by Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film recently, becoming the first movie not associated with Disney or Pixar to win since 2011. Many viewers take this idea to heart, visualizing themselves as the character or their own version of Spider-Man.
The movie centers around 13-year-old Miles Morales, a half African-American, half Puerto Rican teenager in Brooklyn, New York who becomes the next Spider-Man — after meeting five alternate spider-men (and women) from other dimensions. Miles Morales was created in 2011, but this was his big screen debut.
Peter Parker, a high-school student struggling with many of the same things his readers did, was featured dealing with bullies, romance and other struggles that readers of the time could relate to. Comic book writer Stan Lee said he wanted to create the first “realistic” superhero — someone who worried about the things everyone worries about, such as family, school and money.
But the readers have changed since then.
Comic books are becoming increasingly diverse to match modern readership. New spins reimagine characters in a variety of ways.
To many, the mantle of Spider-Man still represents the average life experience.
“Spider-Man represents the daily struggles of a normal person,” mechanical engineering freshman Alejandro Ortega said. “He can be anyone.”
Ortega said Spider-Man was a relatable character since his inception and continues to be so today.
Pop culture and ethnic references are sprinkled throughout the movie, making it fuller and more credible, Kenton Rambsy, African-American literature assistant professor said. It captured the culture, diversity and present moment of today.
“This was like Spider-Man for a hip-hop generation, so to speak,” he said.
Growing up, Rambsy didn’t find many black characters when he watched cartoons. He said he identified with the few he encountered, such as Gerald from “Hey Arnold!”
A lifelong Spider-Man fan, Rambsy said he looked up to the hero in many ways but didn’t see himself in Peter Parker — a Caucasian male living through different experiences than Rambsy.
“While I was so in love with the character of Spider-Man, I couldn’t relate much to Peter Parker,” he said.
So when he watched Spider-Verse for the first time, it was a profound moment to see Miles Morales on the big screen.
“I could literally see myself in Miles, and also I could see some of my students within the same character,” he said.
The significance of the Spider-Man mantle is that it represents many of the same struggles young people face, math junior Giovanni Bocanegra said. For him, Spider-Man has been a role model since he was about 7 years old.
The oldest sibling in his family, Bocanegra said the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility,” taught him how to be an older brother.
Watching Spider-Man save the world and then go do homework created a character he continues to look up to, he said.
As a first-generation college student, Bocanegra said Peter Parker served as a role model for him attending university.
“It’s a really powerful message to see yourself reflected on the big screen or the comic book page,” Spanish professor Chris Conway said. “There’s no question that it’s a positive thing.”
Conway said the concept of a spider-verse allows multiple spider-people who are equally as real as Peter Parker — leaving room for both the original mythology and the new.
“That creates an opening for Spider-Man to become more than one thing,” he said.
Conway researches Spanish comic books and uses them to teach culture, language and history in his classes. Comics are an effective way to teach about culture, diversity, sociology and other important topics, he said.
After the movie’s release, #Spidersona trended on social media with hundreds of fans sharing their alter egos of their spins on the character. They imagined new versions of Spider-Man, featuring people of color, people with disabilities and people of other sexualities or genders.
“That concept is custom-made for people to use that idea to ‘Wear the mask’ and propose other identities for the Spider-Man concept,” Conway said.
Bringing Miles Morales to the big screen is good for all people — not just people of the Latino or black communities, Conway said. It provides new perspectives and can be personally fulfilling for people in those communities.
It also brings representation to Afro-Latinos, a group which is historically underrepresented, he said.
Rambsy said he tentatively hopes that this representation, coupled with the Oscar win, will help increase representation in general.
Introducing diverse spins on characters can sometimes be met negatively, but animation is a good way to introduce people to the concept.
A few years ago, actor Donald Glover was rumored to be in the running for Spider-Man. Rambsy said many people reacted negatively to the news, saying, “Spider-Man is white.”
But cartoons are accessible and can introduce these new versions of characters to a wide audience, he said. Introducing Miles Morales this way can place him in the public psyche and prime people for the idea of seeing him and other multicultural characters more.
“This isn’t just about representing one type of race, one type of gender,” he said.
Rambsy said the movie reminds him of the diversity at UTA and how it represents the real world.
“It’s a good thing that this kind of inclusion or diversification is happening in popular culture. Kids deserve to see themselves reflected in the culture they consume,” Conway said. “What’s the point in enjoying music, film or television if you can’t relate to it?”