SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE - Official Trailer #2 Miles Morales in front of colorful background

Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube

The messy politics of ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’

'Across the Spider-Verse' has a troubling relationship with copaganda, valorizing the NYPD even as it casts Spider-Man as an outlaw hero.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 8, 2023   Updated on Jun 7, 2023, 10:49 am CDT


Across the Spiderverse’s animation is so stunningly accomplished that it’s easy to miss the film’s weaker points. But among the razor-sharp character design and visual worldbuilding, there linger some familiar thematic flaws—in particular, the superhero genre’s fraught relationship with copaganda.

Both Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy were raised by police officers. In a story that revolves around law enforcement, Miles’ dad Jefferson Davis is characterized as a warm, morally upstanding family man, while Gwen’s father is more intimidating, attempting to arrest Gwen when he discovers her secret identity—a subplot that some viewers interpret as a trans coming-out allegory.

In the original comics and Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Jefferson Davis inspired criticism both for his tone-deaf name (which he shares with a Confederate president) and his role as a cop. The latter issue is a recurring point of controversy in superhero media, as audiences struggle to reconcile the reality of police corruption and racism with the genre’s valorization of law enforcement.

Marvel Comics and copaganda

At the extreme end of the scale, Marvel has had to contend with the Punisher’s far-right fanbase, which directly links his logo with real-life police brutality. Elsewhere, there’s been pushback against the way certain Black superheroes are cast as military/law enforcement figureheads.

In the MCU‘s politically incoherent The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Avenger and military contractor Sam Wilson battles a poorly-explained terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers, culminating in an action sequence where gun-toting NYPD officers help to save the day. Around the same time in the comics—less than a year after the height of the Black Lives Matter movement—Marvel rebooted Luke Cage as a police commissioner, sparking criticism as a tone-deaf failure to engage with Black audiences.

miles morales across the spider-verse
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse/Sony Pictures

Following the first Spider-Verse movie, some viewers had qualms about the depiction of Miles as an Afro-Latino boy who is torn between two paternal role models: His cop father as the good guy, and his criminal uncle Aaron as the bad influence. Across the Spider-Verse doubles down on this theme, introducing an alternate timeline where Jefferson dies and Miles turns to a life of crime.

Even after her father held her at gunpoint, Gwen describes him as a good cop when they finally reunite, comparing her Spider-Woman mask to his police badge. By mentioning that she’s proud of him wearing the uniform compared to less-worthy cops, the film tacitly acknowledges the existence of police corruption. Likewise, Miles wears a BLM badge on his backpack.

Yet these subtle references are outweighed by the largely positive depiction of police onscreen, playing into the conservative 1950s guidelines of the Comics Code Authority, whose logo is semi-ironically displayed at the start of the movie.

The role of the Spider-Society organization, meanwhile, sends a rather different message.

Across the Spider-Verse’s anti-authoritarian subtext

Across the Spider-Verse embraces a genre-savvy view of the Marvel multiverse, starring a team of superheroes who prevent alternate timelines from veering off course. Led by the gritty Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099, they intervene whenever a so-called “canon event” is interrupted—for instance, a defining tragedy in a Spider-person’s origin story.

across the spider-verse spider society
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse/Sony Pictures

When Miles saves someone’s life in Pavitr Prabhakar’s universe, he derails Pavitr’s destiny and creates a black hole that the Spider-Society cordons off like a crime scene. Later, Miguel O’Hara explains that certain events must be left to play out, like the recurring trope of a Spider-person grieving the death of a police captain they admire.

Realizing this could mean his own father’s demise, Miles is horrified. Before this, he was keen to join the Spider-Society, yearning for a sense of community and a way to hang out with Gwen. He only really thinks about what the Spider-Society is doing when it impacts his own family.

As a law enforcement allegory, this positions Miles as a naive recruit who realizes too late that he’s joined a fascist organization. After he breaks the cardinal rule of the Spider-Society, they pursue him through the streets and arrest him, labeling him an “anomaly.”

Despite the fact that all these Spider-people have similar origins as vigilante heroes, the act of joining the Spider-Society transforms them into an army of rule-followers, criminalizing one of their peers for stepping out of line. Rather than being a tough-but-fair leader, Miguel is revealed to be violent and inhumane, pinning Miles to the ground and telling him he’s an outsider who shouldn’t exist.

miguel spider-verse
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse/Sony Pictures

Of course, this police allegory is complicated by the fact that Across the Spider-Verse depicts “disrupting canon” as a truly apocalyptic event, suggesting that Miles really could destroy his own universe by preventing his father’s death. But choosing between saving a relative and Saving The World is a classic superhero trope! And we have a whole other movie to see how that pans out.

Miles’ rebellion against the Spider-Society reflects the clash between authoritarian law enforcement and individual moral choices. It also feels like a critique of the way Marvel has treated Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, absorbing the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man into the military-industrial complex.

When superheroes start to work with government agencies, they become less relatable and more conservative, sometimes to the point of being Pentagon-endorsed propaganda. Across the Spider-Verse rejects this kind of storytelling, with Miles refusing to be constrained by Miguel’s rigid view of “canon”—which doubles as a metaphor for the filmmakers’ own creative freedom.

Across the Spider-Verse gives us a lot to chew on here, but I can’t help thinking there’s a gap in quality between its sophisticated animation and its rather self-contradictory political themes. There are a lot of loose ends drifting in the breeze—and not the kind that can easily be wrapped up in a sequel.

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*First Published: Jun 8, 2023, 6:00 am CDT