Middle Aged (Spider)Men in Lycra

Stephen McAlpinestephenmcalpine.com

Saw the new Spiderman movie last night.  Loved it.  What a way to freshen up what was threatening to become a stale franchise.  Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse sloughs off the tired old exoskeleton and wriggles free to create new webs of intrigue.

Its use of animation, mashed up with some real-life footage, and a montage of colour, abstract art and anime, is superb.  There’s a gritty graffiti thing going on too, a Brooklyn that has the hypermodernity of the future, but the seedy undertone and cocky swagger of John Travolta’s opening strut in Saturday Night Fever.

And talk about daddy issues!  Yes, let’s talk about daddy issues. Every Marvel movie of the past few years is replete with daddy issues and the new one is no exception.  Perhaps it’s hanging a thread on the Jordan Peterson juggernaut, but the archetypes are not subtle.

Spider-verse cuts to the chase about how Spiderman becomes Spiderman.  Or more to the point, contrary to the classic Highlander, how there can be more than one Spiderman without blowing the universe apart.

Though in this case it seems that because there are numerous Spider-people the universe will be blown apart. There’s a glitching multiverse with infinite variables, over-laps and extensions that keeps fouling the system.

So there’s Peter Parker, blond and mysterious.  And there’s Peter B. Parker, dark-haired, three-day growth, over-franchised to the point of saturation, whose spidey-sense went haywire over some disastrous financial and relational decisions, and who is rapidly acquiring a dad-bod under that lycra suit, and sweatpants over it.

Throw in a Spider-Gwen, a porcine superhero, a Nazi-era Dick Tracey type and something to keep futuristic Japanese anime fanboys happy, and you’ve got the best – and worst – of all possible worlds, as Gottfried Leibniz might say, (if indeed he could possibly conceive of a world in which Spiderman existed in the first place).

Having said that, there’s enough reality going on in this world for our latest hero, Miles Morales, a young Afro-Latin boy whose PDNY (NYPD in another universe, geddit?) father, and nurse mother, want the best for this bright boy of theirs.  Miles ends up in an uber-funky, uber-high-achieving, uber-high school, where the only way is up.

Of course there’s another way, isn’t there?  Down.  Miles’ uncle, the transgressive, mysterious Aaron, takes his nephew down into the abandoned track of the underground subway, where he and Miles indulge in some creative graffiti, something of which the young man’s father would not approve.  How far down will Aaron go?  And how far down will Miles have to go to meet him?  There’s some intrigue there.

The villain of the piece is Kingpin, a behemoth of a man-figure with all the menace of Al Capone on steroids.  And he has reasons to find a way into a multiverse; reasons connected with loss and love.  And reasons that, like so many other tales, lead him to take unreasonable measures to recover those he loves, with nary a thought for others who he either uses or dispenses with.  When you open the Pandora’s Box, be careful what comes out, you might just not like it.

Miles’ journey is plagued with the doubts familiar to all super-heroes. He’s not worthy.  He’s not ready.  He’s not capable.  He’s not sure.  A familiar trope today.

Long gone are the alpha-male types, or even the mild-mannered Clark Kents.  Today’s super-hero must fight as many demons within as villains without.  It’s the interior universe that is referenced in this age of identity, dysphoria and authenticity.

And the constant need to reveal yourself!  I was brought up in the era of Sesame St when Mr Snuffleupagus was hidden from all but Big Bird – and us.  And how we longed for the big reveal!  How we angsted when someone just walked past at the wrong time, after Mr Snuffeupagus had ducked out for a minute, leaving Gordon or Marie or Mr Hooper perplexed and bemused by Big Bird’s vivid imagination.

Nothing is left to the imagination now.  Oprah’s couch has seen to that. Full reveals are the order of the day.  Anything less is inauthentic.  This is the age of HD everything.   So we move from (two) shocked Spiderman reveals in Homecoming, to the almost blasé reveal of this latest movie.  Hey, your school roomie needs to know you’re Spiderman, right?  I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t tell you everything about me.

Having said that, there’s that daddy issue in the background, keeping it real.  Well, a little bit real.  Because we’ve moved on in this trope too.  Once it was how sons loved their dads, wearing themselves out saying how they loved them in a failed attempt to coax the “L” word out of the stiff-as-cardboard emotionally suppressed old codger.

Now it’s completely flipped.  Dad’s broadcasting his love for you to the whole world (or in this case, literally to the whole school), and you’re staying mum about it. Goodbye Boomers, hello X-ers!

In this age when love is love, a mere mobius strip of a slogan turning in on itself, there’s a push to give the word its weight back again.  It’s telling that the love interest that threatens in this movie, disappears below the surface fairly quickly; sinking into another universe altogether, perhaps to be re-explored at a later day.  Suffice to say, it’s good to have a woman on board who doesn’t need a man. Indeed this fledgeling of a man needs the wisdom, wit and work of a woman more than he realises.

In the end, as these movies tell us, we all go back.  Back to school, back to our universes, back to our dads.  But we go back changed.  We go back not merely to conquer the villains with superpowers, but to conquer the demons with super insights.  There’s something thoroughly modernist about it all, something that tells us – as it assuredly does – that we’re all capable of being Spiderman.

Well, maybe.  Maybe in an alternate universe I’ve got all the resources I need to conquer the demons within and the villains without.  I just have to tap into them.  Problem is, I live in this universe.  I get one shot at it in a non-transcendent world.

In the end, Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse opens up the possibility of transformation, but only if something from outside of us can come to help us.  Our culture celebrates the fact that we live in an interior world, and promotes that as the path to authenticity. But we’re quickly coming to the realisation, like Miles, that something, someone needs to break into our world, if lasting change is ever going to happen.

Reel Dialogue review of Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse

Article originally published on 19/12/2018 on stephenmcalpine.com

Steve McAlpine is approaching an age which would be a more than useful Test batting average. He is a pastor of Providence Church in WA, is married to Jill and together they have two children, Sophie and Declan. Steve grew up in Northern Ireland, but apart from rolling his “r’s”, and talking too fast, is a West Aussie through and through. He has degrees in journalism and theology and enjoys combining the two through writing and blogging, especially on matters of church planting and cultural negotiation for Christians in the increasingly complex West.