Thrilled to share this review from superhero expert Jeremiah Lawson:

Last week, Into the Spider-Verse won the Oscar for best animated feature film. Of the contenders, even though I loved Incredibles 2, I would be willing to say that for sheer fun Spider-Verse deserved its win. The film is a high-octane sugar-buzz film with a dense, complex array of characters from the Spider-man comics of the last fifty years. The film brims with complex, intertwining stories told swiftly and efficiently enough that you don’t need to have seen any other Spider-man films to know what’s going on or to understand the cheeky range of callbacks to films you could watch later if you want.

What Peter Parker discovers as he tries to save the day is that there is a new Spider-man in town, a teenager named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Miles has been bitten by a spider from the Alchemax Corporation, which is a front for unorthodox experiments being conducted on behalf of Wilson Fisk. Peter Parker figures out that Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) wants to capture versions of his family members from an alternate universe so that he can get them back, having lost them when they died in an auto accident. Parker confronts Fisk who, in fury, kills Parker, leaving the newly empowered Miles Morales shocked that his hero has died and stuck having to deal with a Kingpin who is set on saving some form of his lost wife and son even if it means jeopardizing the earth. First adventure for a new Spider-man is saving the multiverse. So far, so normal for Marvel stories.

What makes the story work is that Miles Morales gets a crash-course in how to be Spider-man from Spider-people from other dimensions (in lieu of Peter Parker, who is not alive to train him). There’s Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), a Spider-girl from an alternate universe, who is the first web-slinger Miles runs into. Then there’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a middle-aged slacker Spider-man who has largely given up crime-fighting after his Aunt May died and his marriage to Mary Jane ended. There are other Spider-people, too, such as the Spider-man Noir voiced by Nicholas Cage in full Adam West homage mode. All of these web-slingers have in one thing common: there is someone they loved who they couldn’t save from dying. For Gwen, her friend Peter Parker became the Lizard and died in a relentless battle with her. For Spider-man Noir, he couldn’t save his father. Miles Morales discovered too late that the Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) he admired almost as much as Spider-man was the supervillain mercenary known as the Prowler, who secretly worked for Wilson Fisk. When Aaron won’t kill Miles Morales at Wilson Fisk’s orders, Fisk shoots him.

As fun as the film is, it’s poignant on the fact that not even superheroes can save the people they love most, despite their best and most passionate efforts. That is, in sum, one of the core elements of any Spider-man or Spider-person. The difference between a Spider-man and a Wilson Fisk is what they do with their grief and guilt. Peter Parker and Miles Morales internalize their grief and loss and vow to do what they can to make sure that, if they can, they will save the next person they can save. Fisk turns his grief and loss outward to manipulate, if need be, space and time itself to bring back those he lost. That heroes recognize their guilt while villains transfer it or reject it is a theme that doesn’t just show up in this film; it’s a prominent element in the more memorable superhero films of the last decade or so.

One of the mottoes of the film is that “anyone can wear the mask.” It’s an admirable admonition that people be the best people they can be. It’s also clear that no one can be a Spider-person alone. You need all the help you can get, and only by working together can the day be saved. But there’s a question underlying the film’s motto, which the action seems to constantly undercut. Can anyone really wear the mask of Spider-man? What about swinging by webs through the skyscrapers of New York? What about crawling up walls to save people from dying in a building fire? What about devising tracking devices to monitor Doctor Octopus? Can just anyone do those things? The answer, we know, is that, no, not just anyone can do those things, even if anyone can go to a costume shop and buy an ill-fitting Spider-man costume (like Miles Morales does in an amusing final cameo from Stan Lee). There’s no returns or refunds for this role once you take it on!

Miles Morales was bitten by a spider from Wilson Fisk’s Alchemax Corporation, not unlike how Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-man franchise was bitten by a spider from Oscorp. Very often the superhero is born of a serum or a catalyst that was created by or initially given to their nemesis. Even though Spider-man is often the underdog, he is still, in the end, a superhero. He can climb up walls and run along them. He can become invisible to hide himself from danger. He can emit electrical shocks to stun his enemies. Of course, like a spider can, he can spin webs. He can do all these things after having been bitten by just the right spider. Anyone can wear the mask but the mask is, in the end, the least important element about what makes a Spider-man a Spider-man.

Miles Morales has a lot of talent and privilege and power and isn’t so sure he deserves it. He’s not so sure he deserves to be in an elite school even if he tested well enough to get into that school, a fact his father reminds him of insistently. His uncle Aaron tells him he’s the best in the family and that he’s got a future. The Peter B. Parker Spider-man tells him he’s a natural at web-slinging and jokes that this superhero thing is always best learned in life-threatening situations where you sink or swim in the moment. Fortunately, Miles Morales is up to the task of saving the multi-verse. This is a superhero movie so, naturally, that’s how things go. The film is a lot of fun, full of humor and character moments that fans of Spider-man will be sure to enjoy.

But this message, that “anyone can wear the mask,” just flies in the face of everything we know about the superhero genre, because the superheroics of a superhero are never just about the mask. The superhero genre can be pretty easily understood in the age of criticisms about the “one percent.” If there’s inevitably going to be a “one percent,” these stories let us reflect on how we want that one percent to behave.

We want elites who are not elitist. Bruce Wayne might be part of Gotham’s elite, but he’s not an elitist in the sense that he sees himself as born to rule Gotham. The villains in these kinds of stories are elitists, even if they have come up from squalor—they see themselves as born to a greatness they have to force the world to recognize. If Superman can be thought of as the America we would like to live in, Lex Luthor is a depiction of the America we realize we live in. For Miles Morales, the Peter Parker who offers to train him but dies trying to stop Wilson Fisk is the ideal of how power should be used, while Wilson Fisk is a kind of Lex Luthor, showing how the rich and powerful tend to use their resources, to try to cover up or paper over losses and damages that can never truly be fixed but that they hope can be swept away.

“Anyone can wear the mask” is a call, but we know from the superhero genre that even if many are “called” few are “chosen.” Only so many people are able and willing to take on Wilson Fisks and they might burn out and give up on the idea of heroism, like a Peter B. Parker. Sure, they can learn to be heroic again, as happens in the film, but we’re still looking, in the end, at stories of the chosen few that can rub against the “anyone can wear the mask” motto that threads throughout the film. Not that it isn’t a lot of fun, but things get a bit murkier when you think about how a motto like “anyone can wear the mask” might play out in the real world.