Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse throws more than a few eye-catching supervillains at Miles Morales as he races around a kaleidoscopic multiverse trying to outrun a fleet of other Spider-People. But out of all the conceptually inspired adversaries Miles clashes with in Sony’s latest animated feature, the most fascinating out of the bunch isn’t a reimagined version of a classic foe — or even a traditional character at all, really.
It’s an insidious, pernicious, and — this is especially important — racist idea that has thrived in segments of the Spider-Man fandom ever since Miles first appeared in Marvel’s comics, and the way Across the Spider-Verse subverts it to deepen Miles’ lore is one of the movie’s most spectacular feats.
This post includes major spoilers for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, so proceed with caution if you’ve not yet seen it.
Between Across the Spider-Verse currently tearing it up at the box office, Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2 hitting the PS5 later this year, and Beyond the Spider-Verse swinging into theaters next March, Miles Morales is finally having the sort of cultural moment that was hard to imagine the character ever enjoying before Into the Spider-Verse.
Miles’ 2011 debut in the pages of Ultimate Fallout — the miniseries that relaunched Marvel’s Ultimate comics universe following the death of that reality’s Peter Parker — was a momentous one that remixed the classic Spider-Man origin myth for a modern generation. Like Peter, Miles was just a young, unassuming kid from New York City whose life was forever changed by a bite from a radioactive spider. Rather than watching his beloved uncle die at the hands of a petty criminal, though, Miles instead found himself facing off against his father’s brother Aaron — the Ultimate Prowler — and working hard to hide his Spider-Man identity from his still-living parents.
In Miles’ earliest days, his having taken up the mantle of a fallen hero was one of the larger focuses of stories about him, which made sense for a young, new character trying to find their place and establish themselves in a world full of more experienced costumed vigilantes. But as time went on and Marvel’s plans to keep Miles around for the long term began to come into focus, it also became clear that as keen as the publisher might have been about having a Black, Puerto Rican Spider-Man, it hadn’t put the most energy into building out an especially interesting, deep personal canon for him.
In Miles himself — a bilingual, Black, Puerto Rican teenager from Brooklyn — you could see the desire of his creators, Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, to create an all-new, all-different Spider-Man whose heroism speaks to the idea that anybody could be under the mask. But in (the lack of) major story arcs centering Miles, the way his Puerto Rican identity was seldom touched upon in a meaningful way, and the fact that the character had been written by a white man for most of his existence, you could also see Marvel resting on its laurels.
None of that was enough to stop Miles from developing a dedicated fanbase who believed in what their Spider-Man could become in the hands of writers like Saladin Ahmed, Jason Reynolds, and Cody Ziglar. Those fans and their continued interest in Miles are a big part of why Sony’s decision to place him at the center of Into the Spider-Verse made so much sense after years of the studio cranking out one live-action Peter Parker Spider-Man film after another. But — aside from it being such a drastic stylistic deviation from the Marvel features audiences had grown used to — another major reason Into the Spider-Verse felt equal parts audacious and necessary when it was first announced was because of how much hostility there’s always been to the very idea of Miles Morales being Spider-Man.
The idea that Miles isn’t really Spider-Man is still easy enough to find in segments of the Spider-Man fandom
New superheroes adopting the same codenames as their predecessors is a long-standing tradition in comic books, but when Miles first became the new Ultimate Spider-Man, there was such a pointed backlash from some readers that Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso, felt the need to state that Miles’ creation wasn’t “a politically correct move.” Alonso’s assurances were well meant, but in his insistence that ultimately it’s Miles’ “heart that matters, not the color of his skin,” the former Marvel executive was also glossing over the degree to which the color of Miles’ skin in addition to the substance of his heart was defining people’s reactions to him on both sides of the conversation.
None of the “Not My Spider-Man”-ism that’s cropped up in response to Miles in certain segments of the larger Spider-Man fandom has been able to stop the character’s rise in prominence. But the idea that Miles somehow isn’t really Spider-Man or “as good as Peter Parker” is still easy enough to find in certain segments of the larger Spider-Man fandom, and the most impressive thing about Across the Spider-Verse’s story is how it takes that concept to task.
Though a villain with grotesque, universe-hopping powers is what puts Across the Spider-Verse’s Spider-Society on high alert, it’s Miles’ (Shameik Moore) unauthorized tampering with the canon-defining events of another Spider-Person’s life that puts him at odds with Miguel O’Hara / Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). Throughout the film, O’Hara repeatedly emphasizes how the Spider-Society works to maintain the multiverse’s stability by ensuring that Spider-People’s canon events — things like their uncles or police chief fathers dying — unfold the way they’re meant to.
Even with all these new Spider-People, Miguel’s assertion that Miles doesn’t belong still lands with weight
Even after Miles sees firsthand how messing with canon events causes entire realities to start disintegrating, when he realizes that his father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is fated to die, he rushes off intending to keep that from happening. As the Spider-Society’s leader, O’Hara takes it upon himself to lead the charge to catch Miles in one of Across the Spider-Verse’s more dazzling chases, and while the visual majesty of the sequence is breathtaking, it’s what Miguel says to Miles that really comes as a punch to the gut.
Despite the Spider-Society being composed of seemingly nothing but cool, weird Spider-People born out of unbelievably improbable circumstances, Miguel tells Miles point blank that he himself is a dangerous multiversal anomaly — the original one — due to his having been bitten by a spider from another universe in the previous film. By becoming Spider-Man, Miguel explains, Miles deprived another universe’s Peter Parker analogue of their chance to become a hero, and the implication is that an entire universe crumbled as a consequence.
Another one of Across the Spider-Verse’s more spectacular feats is how, even after introducing you to so many new Spider-People like Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), Spider-Byte (Amandla Stenberg), and Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), who clearly aren’t just different versions of Peter Parker, Miguel’s assertion that Miles doesn’t belong still lands with weight. It isn’t just that Miles is Afro Latino, or that he’s from another dimension, or that he’s caused chaos in places he’s not supposed to be — it’s that he’s not the Spider-Man a universe was “supposed” to have, and in the context of the scene, it’s strongly implied that person was meant to be a Peter Parker.
In almost any other circumstance, turning an objectively cool character like Spider-Man 2099 into the mouthpiece for a toxic, distasteful segment of comics fandom would likely be a mistake that did a story little good. But here, Miguel’s views on Miles aren’t really just off-base challenges to his legitimacy — they’re the trials this specific Miles is facing as part of one of the biggest, most far-reaching stories Marvel’s Miles Morales™ has ever led. Whatever credence Across the Spider-Verse’s Miguel might seem to lend to the anti-Miles sentiment, it’s all in service of the movie’s larger goal of encouraging audiences to think more expansively about who Spider-Man is and what a superhero movie can be — all with Miles being front and center.
Whether Miles is “really” Spider-Man has never legitimately been up for any debate of substance because the answer’s right there in the titles of the comics, TV shows, video games, and movies he stars in. If nothing else, Across the Spider-Verse is a signal that reality isn’t changing anytime soon.
Correction June 7, 2:40PM ET: An earlier version of this story claimed that Beyond the Spider-Verse hits theaters next June, rather than on March 29, 2024.