Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Great Expectations

Imagine a world…

A world changing fast, and faster, a world of machinery and
innovation. A world where the rich and powerful want nothing more than to
expand their empire at any cost… yet even in the grimiest hearts of the cities,
heroes rise up from the common people.

Imagine a cemetery in the dead of winter. Imagine that,
within that cemetery, a scared young kid meets a man on the run. This encounter
changes both of their lives forever, witnessed by one particular headstone. The
headstone bears the name of one of the very-much-alive men.

Pop quiz! Are we talking about Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, or Into the Spider-Verse, released by Sony Animation and directed by
Peter Ramsey?

The answer? Both. We are talking about a conversation
between a Victorian novelist and a 2010s’animation team, and the way that the
latter builds upon the former.

Now, if you saw Into
the Spider-Verse
, and I hope you did, you may remember that Great Expectations is the novel that
Miles Morales, our hero, is reading in English class at Visions Academy.  Now, the writers could very well have taken Great Expectations at random off your
list of top ten boring, over-assigned novels. But they didn’t, and I can prove
it.

There is a conscious thematic connection between Spider-Verse and Expectations. Early in the film, Miles attends a physics class, and
though his focus is elsewhere, the topic of the day is parallel dimensions,
thus laying the groundwork for the main plot of Spider-Verse. I will prove that the literary allusion is no
accident, either.

I will be discussing endgame plot points for Spider-Verse and Great Expectations from here on out, so, spoiler alert. Go see Spider-Verse. As for Expectations, maybe read the Cliffnotes
version.

Meet our underdog protagonists. Dickens’ Philip Pirrip,
called “Pip,” is a working-class orphan. He will follow his brother-in-law into
the rough but respectable trade of blacksmithing. Pip grows to resent this station.
How lucky for Pip, then (it would seem), when he receives word that an
anonymous benefactor is going to fund his education, allowing him to move into
the “gentle” class. If Pip is a timid but good-hearted little boy, he grows
into a cold and snobby young man, whose good fortune has gone to his head. He
lives in the nineteenth century, in London.

Pip’s story begins when he is alone in the graveyard,
stealing some time away from his abusive older sister and guardian. He is
regarding his father’s gravestone, which bears his own name—Philip Pirrip. An
escaped convict accosts Pip, shakes him and threatens him unless Pip should
return to the graveyard with food and a file, to remove the manacle on his
ankle. The convict’s memory of Pip will later be important to the boy’s
destiny; however, unlike Miles’ destiny, it does not lead to a breakneck chase
scene in rush hour traffic.

As for Miles—brace yourself, because Spider-Verse’s plot has enough characters and elements to satisfy
even Dickens’ twistiest narrative…

Miles Morales – Into the Spider-Verse

Miles Morales lives in our time, in Brooklyn. He is an
Afro-Latino teen with a tentative place at a ritzy school, Visions Academy, and
his parents are happy for his opportunity. But Miles doesn’t feel like he
belongs at Visions. He would rather be a normal kid in his home turf, but an
encounter with a radioactive spider changes things. Then the plot kicks into
gear:

Miles, trying to handle his new superpowers, meets
Spider-Man. Spider-Man, with his dying breath, gives Miles a charge—shut down
the dimension-snagging super-collider, foil the nefarious Kingpin, save the
world. As New York City grieves, Miles comes to the grave of the unmasked,
posthumous Peter Parker, to apologize—he’s lost and overwhelmed. But there, he
meets another Peter Parker—Peter B.
Parker, Spider-Man of a parallel universe, out of space and on the run.

It’s not long before other dimension-swingers show up.
Diverse in era, personality, even animation style, they all have one thing in
common: they all took up the charge of saving their city under the spider
insignia. And now, all their worlds are in peril.

Phew. That’s the heroes. Pip Pirrip and Miles Morales.

Now, they say that a great hero is defined by a great
villain. Dickens penned Miss Havisham, she of the decaying wedding dress, the
obsession with revenge, and the supporting role in Jasper Fforde novels.
The main villain of Spider-Verse (that is to say, the guy who sets the
other bad guys in motion) is Kingpin. Kingpin is an apt villain of the moment,
being a white, super-wealthy New Yorker with criminal ties and just enough
legitimacy to keep himself out of prison. He’s the poster boy of entitled,
violent, toxic whiteness-maleness-wealth. And when all else fails, he’s
enormously big and strong.  

Now, I say that Miss Havisham and the Kingpin, if they sat
down to tea, would have a lot to bond over. Both of them represent the
establishment, the social classes and structures that keep themselves on top,
and would keep Pip and Miles in their place. Both of them carry their privilege
visibly, in their clothes. The Kingpin, in his perfectly tailored, spotless
black suit. Miss Havisham, heiress to a brewing fortune, remains shrouded in
her bridal gown, decades after she first donned it. None of her grasping
relations, hoping for a slice of the pie, talk sense into her and tell her to
get a grip and move on.

But what really ties these two together is, both Kingpin and
Miss Havisham are utterly trapped in the past, in the exact moment when their
lives broke. None of their wealth and power saved them from losing what really
mattered. Miss Havisham’s prison is her wedding day, when she received the
letter telling her that her fiance had jilted and robbed her. She created the
rest of the prison around herself– stopping the clocks, closing the doors,
letting the dust pile up.

As for Kingpin, Mr. Wilson Fisk, we see, in impressionistic
flashback, that as he was on the verge of murdering Spider-Man, in walked his
wife and son. They saw that the man they loved was a criminal and a killer. They
fled into the night, and died in an accident. It’s hard to say which one dealt
a greater blow to Kingpin: their deaths, or their disillusionment. He puts his
money and clout to work retrieving parallel-universe doubles of Vanessa and
Richard.

The Kingpin does not give up his criminal empire, nor does
he want to undo the car accident with time-travel; he doesn’t call up a
necromancer to recall their souls (and Dr. Strange presumably exists in this
universe). He wants his wife and son back exactly as they were, when they were
unaware, when they were his.

And Miss Havisham, with her #iconic wedding gown, makes
herself an exception to Time. A wedding dress should be a symbol of one
special, set-apart day, and Miss Havisham still wears hers, even as it rots,
rather than move on. She and Kingpin are both artifacts of the old order. Their
privilege and status sustains them, for now, but if you took that away, they
would crumble. There’s nothing left within the shell.

And that’s where Miles Morales and Pip Pirrip enter the
picture. Peter Ramsey and Charles Dickens create antagonists who are relics of
the past, and their heroes are forces of the future. Admittedly, Great
Expectations
is not an optimistic work, focusing on Pip’s corruption,
despair, and angst. But let’s focus on Spider-Verse, which I think has
something more interesting to say.

The opening monologue of the movie is Spider-Man, the self-assured
Peter Parker, promising his listener that he always gets back up, no matter how
many times he’s knocked down. This is a familiar theme for kids’ movies–
“never give up!” But the writers are canny enough to complicate this refrain.

Peter B. Parker, when we meet him, is from a timeline some
twelve years advanced from Miles’. He doesn’t give up fighting, but there’s a
definite sense that he’s given up hoping. What happened in his past twelve
years? His Aunt May died. His finances sank. His marriage strained, and then
split up. No wonder he’s depressed and lonely. He’s going through the motions
of superherodom. What’s he even fighting for anymore? Well, the people of New
York, yes, but without the Spider-Man mask, Peter’s another guy, a divorced
loser with a second-rate hustle.

The thing is, this is human stuff. This is leagues away from
vats of bubbling green ooze and nefarious ninjas from Neptune. There’s nothing
Peter could have fought, caught, or outwitted to prevent death by old age, to
easily solve difficulties between him and his wife. It’s the day-to-day living
that’s defeated him.

Just as Kingpin does, Peter B. Parker carries his grief around
with him. If Peter isn’t as omnicidally destructive as Kingpin is, that’s only
because Peter is somewhat better-adjusted (and I think he turns his destructive
feelings inward– notice how he doesn’t mind the prospect of staying in a
universe that will horribly kill him in a week, tops, guaranteed). Likewise,
Gwen Stacy, Spider-Woman in her own verse, carries her failure like a shield
beneath her cool exterior. She couldn’t save her own ‘verse’s Peter Parker, and
she can’t open herself up to the chance of that grief again.

And then, balanced between these established heroes,
delicate as a spider between two thorns, enter Miles Morales, the New Kid,
bungling his way to learning the webs—er, ropes.

Miles, for all his doubts in himself, is a young man bursting
with promise. His family sees it. His uncle confides in him, “You’re the best
of all of us, Miles… just keep going.” That phrase tells Miles that he can
trust himself to know what’s best, rather than look to outside authority. By
the movie’s end, Miles is able to incorporate the methods of his father and
uncle, brothers who fell out. Miles carries their love and pride in him, the
best of both. He assumes the Spider-Man mantle, but he runs-flies-swings
through New York in his own way, with his own twist on the art. He’s not going
to crumple up, close himself off, or give up. Miles Morales creates his own
expectations.

And he inspires his more experienced counterparts. Peter
will talk to Mary Jane again, maybe mend bridges. Gwen will open herself up to
new friends, new connections, without fear, just as, at the end of Expectations, Pip has reopened a
connection with an old frenemy, another healing, hurting soul. The headstone
with a living man’s name becomes a reassurance, a symbol of the happy paradox:
even when it seems impossible, life goes on. There’s always a way—find it, or
make it. A better future is waiting.

One last note:

The last bit of narration, coming from Miles himself, assures
the audience that “anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask!” This echoes a chilling poem by the
African-American laureate, Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.” Dunbar
talks of the need to disguise his anguish as a black man, as part of the
demands of white supremacy, and to salvage what he can of his pride. “With torn
and bleeding hearts we smile—we wear the mask!”

Again, I would bet that
this is not coincidence. Miles Morales, voiced excellently by Shameik Moore,
takes this lament and remixes it into an anthem. Wear the mask, live with
courage, do what’s right… save the world. It could be you.

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