Miles Morales: A New Hero for a New Generation
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
By Ruth Kramer
Stan Lee created Spider-Man with the idea that the hero could be absolutely anybody--that anyone could be behind the mask. This simple act, of making Spider-Man masked and unknown, is embodied in Into the Spider-Verse, the first Spider-Man movie in which the hero is not a white man named Peter Parker. Instead, into the Spider Verse brings audiences a whole new brand of hero: Afro-Latino high schooler Miles Morales. Miles Morales changes what a superhero can and should be. He’s approachable and likeable. He’s young, he’s trusting, he’s awkward. His ability to appeal to wide audiences is crucial to his importance in society. Though anyone could be under the mask, historically Spider-Man is always white, bulky, stereotypical Peter Parker. And now it’s Miles Morales. And from his identity to his background to his Spider suit, he is a different type of hero.
The excitement Miles brings to audiences of all ages is apparent. Into the Spider-Verse brought in over $370 million in the box office and was in theaters for an incredible four months. Audiences of all races and ethnicities came out to support the newest addition to the Marvel world. The first thing people noticed about the movie is that it’s animated, making the film more accessible for some, and less appealing for others. Biracial artist and writer David Betancourt wrote an article in The Washington Post about how he originally felt alienated by the film. Miles Morales was exactly like him, a young Afro-Latino artist, yet Miles Morales, who Betancourt says “is all the things that [he is], plus a superhero,” is animated. This makes Miles seem less tangible and less realistic, like he exists in some far away world unlike Betancourt’s. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is primarily filled with beautiful live-action films, some of which have gone on to be nominated for, and win, Oscar awards, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier which was nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and Black Panther which won for Best Achievement in Costume and Production Design and was nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year. Because of these achievements in the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was no reason for Into the Spider-Verse to be animated. It made Betancourt question the entire movie because, “in an era of cinema where live-action superhero movies are now the norm, an animated movie about Miles seemed like a letdown.” Other questions soon followed: why is the voice actor (Shameik Moore) not Afro-Latino, and why are there other Spider-people on screen during what should be Miles Morales’s moment? But, for Betancourt, the actual film changed his mind completely. He “connected with Miles instantly” because of the “strong, heartfelt, and authentically crafted moment” that connected Miles to his culture. Betancourt goes on to say that “however Miles hits the screen, [he’ll] be right there” to support him. In live-action Spider-Man: Homecoming, Donald Glover’s character speaks of his “nephew,” presumably Miles Morales. This could be a hint at a possible live-action Miles Morales. But, for now, Betancourt and other skeptics agree, animated Miles Morales is still an incredible win for representation. Many other Latinx critics have also praised the film, citing Shameik Moore, the black, non-Latino voice actor for Miles, as their only issue with the film, and even that wasn’t a deal breaker. Their focus, rather, was on how Miles didn’t “have to choose to exist as either black or Latinx” because “he blends all the parts that make him unique and interesting.” The movie wasn’t about the man behind Miles, but the hero in front of him.
The adult support for Into the Spider-Verse is important, but the film, animated and rated PG, was aimed at younger audiences and found enormous success among kids as well. A new generation of comic readers are coming up--a generation hungry for heroes that look like them, that experience the world in the same way they do. Miles Morales is in the company of Miss Marvel, real name Kamala Khan, who identifies as Pakistani-American, Miss America, who is a lesbian Latina, and of course, Black Panther, an African man from Wakanda. Black Panther was wildly popular, earning more than $1.3 billion in the box office, making it the biggest solo superhero movie ever, and the highest grossing film from a black director. The success of Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse show us that audiences are looking for more than just straight, white, male characters. This, however, should not be misconstrued as filmmakers alienating white audiences. The success of Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse is due to all types of audiences, of all different backgrounds. White people are still showing up to these films because it is a world they enjoy; they aren’t protesting Marvel because it’s becoming a more inclusive franchise. White audiences are receiving these films just as they have in the past, with excitement. Now, however, communities of color are beginning to enjoy these films with the same levels of anticipation. White children want to dress up as Black Panther just as black children do. The only difference is that now there are more options and role-models for children of color now. Shuri in Black Panther gave little girls a role-model to look up to, and young boys can look at Miles Morales or T’Challa and see themselves. Recently, after a little boy was hit by a car, he said that he was lucky to be Miles Morales or else he wouldn’t have survived. One of the Marvel writers reached out to the family and asked to send the boy the Miles Morales comics, to which the family happily accepted. It is moments like this, in which children are given confidence, that matter when creating characters like Miles Morales. Into the Spider-Verse has been out for less than a year and it is already changing how young kids of color view themselves. Though Into the Spider-Verse has yet to see its first Halloween, it’s safe to say many kids, specifically many black and Latino boys, will be dressing like Miles Morales for the holiday. When Black Panther was released, the Black Panther suit was a top-selling Halloween costume, proving the hero’s popularity with kids all over the country. Miles Morales, when given the chance, is predicted to live up to the same expectations, as Into the Spider-Verse proved extremely popular among kids and adults alike.
While the audience was a crucial part of Into the Spider-Verse’s successful release, the film ultimately does speak for itself. Cinematically, the film is beautiful and accomplishes the goals it set out to fulfill, the final test of this being the film’s Oscar win earlier this year for Best Animated Feature Film. The film’s hidden messages are crucial to fully understanding Miles Morales and the universe around him. The directors of the film stated that the number ‘42’ is hidden throughout the film, their way of paying homage to another black icon: Jackie Robinson. Robinson was the first African-American baseball player, his number was 42, and he quite literally changed the game of baseball. However, Jackie Robinson, while influential and brave, was African-American, not Afro-Latino. While this piece of black inclusion recognizes a piece of Miles’s identity, filmmakers also ignored a whole other side of Miles: his Latino identity. There is a whole league of baseball players, and a whole tradition of silence needing recognition, that this film ignores by only including homages to Jackie Robinson. Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso was an Afro-Latino baseball player who played in the segregated leagues (see photo below). As an Afro-Cuban, he faced a specific type of racism during the era of Jim Crow and, in 2006, when the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted 17 players from the segregated leagues into the Hall of Fame, Miñoso was still left out of the conversation due to his “ambiguous” racial and ethnic identity. He made his first MLB appearance in the late 1940s and continued to play until 1980, becoming one of the mid-20th century’s most famous athletes. While he broke down significant barriers in the Major League, and was an all-around excellent player, he never made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the United States (Burgos 2009). While he wasn’t the first player of color to play in the MLB, Miñoso made a significant impact on the teams he played with and the fans he played for, so much so that he is well known by his other title “Mr. White Sox.” No, he wasn’t the only one to make a difference, he wasn’t the first player to change the face of baseball, but to ignore his impact would be a mistake. Miles Morales is a groundbreaking character in many ways. Minnie Miñoso, in many ways, is similar to Miles. Moreover, Miñoso isn’t even the only player to do this. There are many other players from the segregated leagues that are Afro-Latino that have been erased from the narrative around baseball. While filmmakers did honor Miles’s blackness with the Easter Egg of the Jackie Robinson’s “42”, they denied him a piece of his Latino identity at the same time.
Other hidden messages throughout the film give even more meaning to Into the Spider-Verse. When Miles goes to buy a Spider-Man costume after being bitten, it’s far too small and doesn’t fit right. This is very similar to Miles’s control over his new Spidey powers—they don’t fit him right yet. He doesn’t know how to control his powers yet and he’s lost in the new realities of being a hero. But, the store owner, who is very obviously supposed to be Stan Lee, Spider-Man’s creator, tells Miles that the suit “always fits…eventually.” The following image in the scene is of a sign next to Stan Lee that reads “No returns or refunds ever!”, indicating that Miles can’t give his powers and their responsibility back (Into the Spider-Verse, at the 32:02 mark). He can’t trade them in to anyone or for anything. Eventually, Miles has to make it work and embrace his new powers, just as he has embraced other pieces of himself. His blackness throughout the film is obvious, as the color of Miles’s skin is the first thing audiences notice about him. And at the end of the film, even after everything he’s been through, Miles is still proudly black. He takes a Spider-Man suit (one that actually fits him this time) and begins to spray paint it. After leaping around the city, finally comfortable with and in control of his newfound powers, Miles’s Spider-Man suit is revealed. It, too, is proudly black (Into the Spider-Verse, at the 1:23:19 mark). A young, black Latino man, quite literally wearing his blackness with pride, is destined to become the world’s next hero. Miles has no issues with his Afro-Latinidad. Audiences see him speaking Spanish with his mother and his friends. Miles’s Afro-Latinidad is subtle, yet it’s purposeful. The film isn’t about Miles’s race and ethnicity, it’s about his becoming a superhero. His Afro-Latinidad is a piece of him that he brings to his new role as a hero, yet it is not his whole being. The directors and writers decided that Miles was to be a new brand of hero. Unlike the first Spider-Man, both of Miles’s parents are present. The struggles Miles faces are unrelated to his race, rather they are attributed to Miles’s awkwardness or naivety. These decisions, along with Miles’s race and ethnicity, distinguish him from other superheroes, especially the first Spider-Man, Peter Parker. Miles has the bravery and the courage and the compassion of the Spider-Man before him, yet he brings a new background and identity. He is unique, yet he is still a hero people can love and support. Miles’s identity, however, is never a point of conflict in the film, he never has to defend his race or ethnicity, which he does in the Marvel comics multiple times. This purposeful neglect of intense racial issues and prejudices in the world could be seen as a form of willful colorblindness. Yet, signs point to a different outlook. There are no Spanish subtitles when Miles speaks Spanish and there is no “explanation” of his Afro-Latinidad because it was crucial to filmmakers to not make Miles and kids like him feel like an “other.” There are no subtitles because it is Miles’s life, just as it is the life of many other kids. To outwardly address Miles’s race and ethnicity in the film is, in some ways, to question it and make his identity seen as something that must be justified to be valid in the world where he exists. Filmmakers did not address Miles’s identity in a negative or difficult way because Miles’s race and ethnicity simply are. Miles need not justify himself to be himself.
Into the Spider-Verse opened a whole new world for Marvel movie lovers to enjoy, regardless of skin color. As Marvel comic books and the Marvel Cinematic Universe shift towards more diverse characters and casts, moments that involve heroes like Miles become more common. Miles is the beginning of this shift. His adult critics saw their youth, his audiences saw the joy in his identity, and his filmmakers saw a chance to create a world for a different type of hero. Stan Lee championed the idea that anyone could be under the mask. And that idea has finally become a reality. Miles Morales likes to draw, he wears Jordans to school, he stutters when speaking to pretty girls at his high school, and he is proudly Afro-Latino. Oh, and he also happens to be Spider-Man.
Burgos, Adrian. 2009. “Left Out: Afro-Latinos, Black Baseball, and the Revision of
Baseball’s Racial History.” Social Text 27(198): 37–58.