Is “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” the Antidote to Toxic Masculinity?

By Katharine Strange

“That’s not the real Captain America. The real Captain America is White,” my son declared upon seeing a coloring page of Sikh Captain America.

At six years old, Adam is both very literal and very obsessed with superheroes. When Adam and his four-year-old brother play, they yell, “Hulk angry! Hulk smash!” They adopt Batman’s gravelly voice and the stoic attitude. They gravitate toward Halloween costumes with plush muscles sewn onto their tiny chests and arms. My husband and I try to speak openly with our kids about race and racism, about gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity, but I worry that our kids’ obsession with superheroes may be undermining what we are trying to teach them.

Those of you with daughters who’ve been sucked into “Princess Land” can perhaps relate. But while Anna and Elsa and The Paper Bag Princess no longer need a prince to rescue them, role models for boys have remained stuck in a very narrow definition of masculinity. Superheroes are (almost universally) White. They have big muscles. They don’t cry and they’re never scared.

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When Adam begged me to take him to see “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse,” I did it only on the condition that he would sit through “Mary Poppins Returns” with me. I expected to grit my teeth through another cartoon chocked full of violence greeted by a stone-faced protagonist.

I was wrong.

This Spiderman opens with our protagonist, a Black Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales. He is drawing on name tags and singing along (badly) to a pop song. His mom kisses him and fusses over him. His dad embarrasses him in front of his classmates. Even from the opening shot he is already a powerful counternarrative to what a superhero is. (spoilers ahead)

Through the course of the film, we see Miles be embarrassed by his affectionate dad. We see him experience adolescent insecurity. We see him fail at being super (a lot!) We see him cry when his uncle dies. When he’s facing down Kingpin at the end, he admits that he’s scared. What’s so delightful about this portrayal of a superhero is precisely how real he feels.

The premise of the film is that Miles sees the original Peter Parker/Spiderman be killed when the evil Kingpin opens up a portal into other universes. It’s up to Miles to close the portal and save the world. But, before he can do that, five new Spidermen appear: a schlubby Peter B. Parker, blond teen girl Gwen Stacey, a young Japanese-American girl named Peni Parker, Spiderman Noir, and even a Spider Pig! Each hero possesses their own powers and their own ways of being super.

When we returned from the movie theater, Adam found the aforementioned coloring page and decided that Captain America could be Sikh, because, of course, there are alternate universe superheroes.

And that’s perhaps the most important counternarrative of this film. As Aunt May declares at the end, “We all have powers of one kind or another.”

With stunning animation, a tight plot, great jokes, “Into the Spiderverse” was a fun and exciting film that Adam declared, “the best movie I ever saw.”

Bottom line: While there is a fair amount of cartoon violence (rating: PG), I can recommend this movie for the little superhero fan in your life. It’s a great counternarrative that there is more than one way to be powerful.