“You’ll believe a man can fly,” promised the movie poster. Back when Richard Pryor was the funniest black man in America and “Le Freak” by Chic topped the pop chart, a Loews theater stood at the center of the Parkchester projects in the Bronx. With my eighth birthday fast approaching, my parents made a wintertime date night out of Superman: The Movie, starring the late Christopher Reeves as the big blue boy scout. Adults giggled when Supes used X-ray vision to tell Lois Lane her panties were pink; whatever else he was seeing never dawned on me.
Up past bedtime, I flew down the snow-lined block afterward, adrenalized over the first real superhero blockbuster. I’d never felt more like Superman in my young life, with senses on high alert and gas-guzzling cars gunning out the parking lot, kicking up grey wet slush. That’s when my mother said five words, a beam of green kryptonite from her lips. “Be careful. You’re not Superman.” No paraphrase necessary; when your heart sinks that far and that fast, you remember it exactly.
Now, imagine the opposite of that feeling. Almost 40 years to the day after Superman dropped, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse put Afro-Latino teenager Miles Morales in the Spidey suit and sent a new message to black and brown youth: You, too, are Spider-Man.
Like everyone who once raised me, I get excited whenever there are heroes and sheroes of color to expose my sons to, even in the aftermath — especially in the aftermath — of Barack Obama’s terms as the first black president.
We ’70s babies are only one generation removed from the black folks who rang each other’s landlines whenever other African Americans appeared on the small screen. Diahann Carroll on Julia, Bill Cosby on I Spy, Motown acts on The Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand — they all warranted a phone call because black images on television (and mass media in general) were fleeting. ABC, NBC, and CBS (the three major networks of the time) normalized cultural representations with Good Times, Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, and more by the time my TV addiction started. But I still remember my grandparents being pleased with the presence of Cosby and Morgan Freeman on children’s programming like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. They smiled at stuff like The Jackson 5ive cartoon because black representation mattered, especially back then. As a black dad, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gave me the same pride last December.
Like everyone who once raised me, I get excited whenever there are heroes and sheroes of color to expose my sons to, even in the aftermath — especially in the aftermath — of Barack Obama’s terms as the first black president. My own mom and dad were far more tolerant than they needed to be about the hundreds of comics littering my bedroom most of the time, but they still served up some cold food for thought about the racial makeup of the superhero universe. Like Giancarlo Esposito going on about the lack of brothers on the wall of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing, they made me consider the lack of black costumed crusaders and the quality of those who did exist. Why, for example, was Luke Cage written as an ex-convict who asked for money to fight crime while speaking blaxploitationese? Why was there Black Goliath, Black Talon, and Black Panther but no White Wolverine?
Known as the House of Ideas, Marvel eventually evolved its superheroes of color past the “black” honorific (see Falcon, Blade, etc.), but black women outside of the X-Men’s Storm were always another weak point. Lately, the company has served up beloved correctives — 9-year-old Moon Girl, described as the most brilliant character in Marvel’s universe, and teenage Ironheart, genius heir to the Iron Man legacy. Young black female fans have role model options that didn’t exist for guys my age back then. (We tried convincing ourselves that the Brazilian mutant Sunspot was African American.)
What makes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse the gift that keeps on giving isn’t only that the new friendly neighborhood Spidey is a biracial black kid — after all, Morales showed up in the comics as far back as 2011. Those behind the scenes of this Oscar-winning animated adventure also took pains to make Miles Morales the first true hip-hop superhero. My 14-year-old insisted on starting high school in September with the Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG “Origin Story” Nikes that Miles rocks in the movie. He’d never even heard of Jordans, but because Nike made a real-world version of the onscreen shoe, he just wanted to walk through classes like Miles Morales. (#DadFail: I didn’t make that happen.)
At his private school, Miles hangs a poster of the Marvel Universe version of Chance the Rapper, who wears a “4” on his ubiquitous baseball cap, not a “3.” Instead of Peter Parker’s native Forest Hills, Queens, Miles hails from Planet Brooklyn, just like a multitude of MCs from Big Daddy Kane to Pop Smoke. And — like he emerged out of 1978 instead of 2018 — he goes bombing trains with his uncle and a sack of Krylon spray paint. That all these little hip-hop Easter eggs made it into the Spider-Man mythos is a victory; that they suffused a $90 million movie starring Marvel’s most beloved character is downright subversive.
Miles Morales’s Spider-Man didn’t have to feel organically hip-hop in order to get my stamp of approval. More importantly, the character just felt culturally true to a 13-year-old black kid in 2018. Though a Public Enemy poster made its way into Black Panther earlier last year, the movie didn’t introduce homegrown Wakandan hip-hop in order to make it more relatable to a black audience. (Admittedly, Kendrick Lamar curated the Grammy-nominated soundtrack.) As a cinematic Christmas present, Into the Spider-Verse felt like the perfect bookend to Black History Month’s Black Panther because, as an animated film, it effectively played with whimsy and levity instead of the more gravitas-laden approach of the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Just last month, Sony Pictures announced that a sequel would swing through in April 2022; meanwhile, a planned spinoff reportedly assembles a team of female characters from the same radioactive arachnid world (Spider-Gwen? Black Cat? Spider-Woman?). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, coming in February 2021, will do its part for diversity in the MCU when the Master of Kung Fu makes his silver screen debut. Anyone whose love for Miles Morales as Spider-Man came out of cultural pride as much as great storytelling will empathize with female and Asian fans alike when those projects drop. As for my mom’s “you’re not Superman,” I named my own son, now 12 years old, after Kal-El (the Man of Steel’s government name back on Krypton) so that he’ll always know what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also teaches us: that young black boys are the superest of us all.