As diversity slowly finds its way into studio blockbusters, 2018 has been an exceptional year for those who are not used to seeing themselves represented on the big screen. After last year’s Wonder Woman and Coco, we started 2018 with Black Panther, then the summer saw the first release by a major studio with a majority Asian-American cast in 25 years with Crazy Rich Asians. We now finish the year with the one-two punch of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Aquaman, which push for diversity in superhero movies in ways not seen before.
On the surface, you wouldn’t normally put Aquaman and Spider-Man together unless you’re talking about their box-office earnings in that Entourage episode. One is an animated film featuring multiple universes and a pig with spider powers; the other is a live-action, 80s throwback, underwater adventure that features Pitbull covering Toto’s “Africa.” But underneath all that, both movies feature the first biracial superheroes to hit the screen (in live-action and animation), and they do so in meaningful ways and not just as a gimmick. Both movies use the mixed-heritage of their protagonists to show how it influenced who they are as heroes, yet they portray them in very different ways.
Into the Spider-Verse introduces us to a teenage kid named Miles Morales, who lives in Brooklyn with his mom and dad. He spends his weekdays buried in quantum physics and advanced math at an elite private school, but his weekends are devoted to posting stickers with his original art around town and blasting Post Malone through his headphones. He also happens to be the son of African-American police officer Jefferson Davis (played by Brian Tyree Henry), and Latina nurse Rio Morales (Lune Lauren Vélez). Yet Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t make a big deal out of this. There’s no conflict made out of Miles’ background, no comment made about the color of his skin invalidating him being Spider-Man. The biggest and most noticeable difference between Miles and Peter Parker is that Miles’ family is alive and well, and one of the film’s standout scenes is simply the family getting ready for a new day of work/school. We see Miles sitting at his desk, wearing headphones and mumbling lyrics to a song, oblivious to his dad yelling at him from outside his bedroom, until his mom begins to shout to him in Spanish and he snaps out of the song.
It’s a simple and short scene with no real importance other than to establish his regular and uneventful life pre-spider-powers, yet that is exactly why it is so significant. Co-director Peter Ramsey tells us this was essential to the movie’s portrayal of Miles, as they didn’t want to draw attention to what makes Miles different, but instead “pay attention to detail in trying to show what a kid in his situation would look like and how his family dynamic would be.” This extends to the look of the family’s Brooklyn apartment, the music Miles listens to, the code-switching when he walks down the street and talks to his neighbors, to the lack of subtitles when Miles and Rio speak in Spanish. “None of us ever thought of adding subtitles,” Ramsey tells Collider. “It’s supposed to feel like a natural part of their daily flow, it makes perfect sense for them to sneak a little Spanish into their conversations. It’s nothing new or innovative to a huge part of the audience, but when you put it in a big superhero movie it does feel kind of new.”
Instead of using Miles’ background as a reason to find conflict, the film chooses to focus on what he has in common with the other characters, namely being Spider-Man and a desire to help people. According to Ramsey, an early draft was going to have the superheroes fight amongst themselves before being forced to work together as a team. Thankfully the writers decided against it, “We started realizing that the story was really about people finding commonality instead of people clashing because they were different,” Ramsey says.