Into the Spider-verse: Family and Loss

The 2018 animated film Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse is a film about loss, and how we deal with it. Loss is obviously a major component of just about any text – there are always setbacks and failures as part of the broader arc towards a given goal – and it’s even arguably part of the process of change, as characters develop from one state at the outset into something different by the end. That transition will involve loss in one form or another – even simply the loss of innocence by virtue of growing and maturing. However, Spider-verse takes a more pointed interest in the theme of loss, setting up the hero and villain as examples of how you should or shouldn’t deal with loss – essentially modelling different responses to loss, and using the simple hero-vs-villain framework to indicate which one it thinks is the better path.

So the setup of Spider-verse is that Kingpin is trying to get his family back. Part of the broader Kingpin mythos is that he has a wife, Vanessa, who variously does or doesn’t know about his criminal dealings, depending on the incarnation. Sometimes she finds out and asks him to stop, sometimes she decides to become part of his team. In Spider-verse, she discovers him beating the shit out of Spiderman, and, horrified, she flees with her son, dying almost immediately in a car crash. Kingpin is trying to resolve that loss by finding another Vanessa in an alternate reality, so that he can have a family again. He builds an alternate-reality machine, there are hijinks with alternate-reality Spidermen (and women), and – that’s the general plot of the film. I guess in the abstract trying to find loved ones in an alternate universe isn’t necessarily a bad thing – one of the alternate Spidermen apologises to a bewildered Mary-Jane Watson, who he’d alienated in his original timeline – but the way that Kingpin goes about it is exclusively destructive. His alternate dimension portal is dangerous, and he’s warned that if he uses it again, it might destroy the city (he doesn’t care). When the original Spiderman tells him that his mission is pointless (“They’re gone”), Kingpin murders him in a fit of rage. And when fighting the new Spiderman, Miles Morales, Kingpin shouts “You took my family. And now I’m going to make sure you never see yours again.” He deals with his loss through violence, destruction, and by reproducing that loss in others – as in the example of Uncle Aaron.

Uncle Aaron fills the role of cool uncle to Miles Morales, with the twist being that he moonlights as a villain for Kingpin. About two thirds of the way through the film, there’s a confrontation between Aaron and Miles, where Aaron realises that it’s his nephew under the mask. When he hesitates to kill Miles, he’s shot and killed by Kingpin, cementing his place as this universe’s version of Uncle Ben. During this encounter, Aaron is holding Miles up by his shirtfront, in a shot that mirrors the way Kingpin was holding Spiderman back when he was discovered by Vanessa. The physical posture mirrors the emotional stakes – both Kingpin and Aaron are in a moment of realising that a family member has seen them committing violence. In Kingpin’s moment, he stops and hesitates, and calls after his wife as she flees. When Aaron hesitates in the exact same way, Kingpin shoots him, in what seems like an act of displaced self-loathing. Kingpin lashes out against his own hesitation, against his own moment of loss, and in doing so creates a second moment of loss for Miles, who sees his uncle murdered.

This mirroring sets the scene for the final encounter between Kingpin and Miles. Both have lost family, both have experienced loss, and the question is how Miles, as the hero, will model a better way of dealing with that loss. The resolution more broadly brings together a number of threads that all line up in a really satisfying way – for example, throughout the film, Miles has been trying to gain control of his powers – he can turn invisible and zap things, but he can’t do it at will. So, naturally, in the climactic moment he demonstrates that he’s mastered his powers and come into his own, zapping Kingpin and saving the day. Miles demonstrates his understanding of the principle that Spiderman always gets back up, struggling to his feet after getting flattened by Kingpin, and there’s also a cute resolution of the ‘shoulder touch’ device. This is one of those classic ‘rule of three’ moments – back at the start of the film, when he’s hanging out with Uncle Aaron, he learns about the shoulder touch, where you put your hand on a girl’s shoulder and go ‘Hey,’ in a very smoldering kind of way. It’s meant to be a technique to pick up girls, except Miles is a huge dorky klutz – it’s kinda part of establishing the whole cool uncle thing. There’s a reminder a couple of scenes after that, when Miles tries to use the shoulder touch to hit on Gwen Stacey, and it just goes terribly, and then at the end of the film, it comes back for the zinger – Miles has come into his own, mastered everything – he puts his hand on Kingpin’s shoulder and goes ‘Hey’, and zaps the hell out of him and blasts him into space. He basically Team Rockets the guy.

This moment encapsulates the film’s heroic and villainous philosophies of how to deal with loss. Just before he tries to death-punch Miles, Kingpin shouts that line from before: “You took my family. And now I’m going to make sure you never see yours again.” There’s the punch, and then Miles gets up and replies: “I’ll always have my family. You ever hear of the shoulder touch?” It’s violence versus commemoration, the toddler’s ‘If I can’t have it neither can you’ against the mature conception that our family is always with us, that even after loss we carry their memory and the traces that they left on our lives. The placement of those lines at the height of the conflict between the two characters shows that really, Miles defeated Kingpin because he had the better approach to loss. The physical conflict is almost incidental – it’s the emotional conflict that underwrites the way these characters win and lose.

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