Among superhero films, certain ones embody the themes I have written about in this Hero Worship column more than others. I don’t mean the best superhero movies, necessarily (though it obviously helps if the movie is good), but rather the ones that best embody certain specific ideas. Iron Man, The Dark Knight Rises, Captain America: The First Avenger, Wonder Woman, and Richard Donner’s Superman are among these. But if I were to make a Top 10 list of the most Hero Wisdom-esque superhero films, there’s one that would definitely be among the very top few.
That film is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
There are so many themes in Spider-Verse I want to write about, but to keep this article a readable length I’ll focus on just four key ideas.
The first has to do with the movie’s primary theme of how anyone can be Spider-Man and what, in my mind, that actually means. The second involves how to live that idea in the real world in a way that’s feasible, no matter your current station in life. The third is about how to tap into the Spider-Verse mythos for inspiration. And the fourth is an optional extra idea I have for fans to come together as an Internet community and celebrate both our love of Spider-Man (every version) as well as our commitment to the value of serving others which is so central to the Spider mythology.
The mask always fits… eventually
“We all have powers of one kind or another, and in our own way we are all Spider-Man. And we’re all counting on you.” —Mary Jane, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
When I first started Pop Mythology in 2012, part of the basic premise was to help people to recognize their inner potential for heroism and, if that potential wasn’t already being lived, to help them awaken it. Over time the thematic scope of the blog expanded and so the Hero Wisdom section is now the dedicated vessel for this type of motivational content.
“There’s a hero in all of us,” reads a tweet from the official Twitter account for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Nowadays it seems like we see this idea expressed everywhere. It’s become so common that, to be honest, I’ve grown somewhat tired of seeing it. Here’s why:
It’s not enough to say or think that there’s a hero in all of us. It’s a start, but in itself it’s not enough. This is true for all thoughts or ideas, no matter how noble, exalted, or true. Yes, it’s true that anyone can be a hero. I’ve been writing about this idea for years so obviously I believe in it.
The problem with thoughts is that’s all they are: thoughts. Kind of like thoughts and prayers. Maybe some people really mean it when they say that, but in themselves these thoughts do nothing. Well, they can make the thinker of those thoughts feel good, yes, and that is something. But ideally that would only be the starting point. If it ends there, then as far as the world beyond the self is concerned, the thought does little.
Just because there’s a hero within us doesn’t mean that hero has fully manifested. To truly be a hero (especially a super hero) means to go beyond recognizing the potential for heroism. It means to actually live that potential. Because let’s face it, while it may be true that everyone can be a hero, not everyone really is. Otherwise the daily news wouldn’t be so grim and depressing. There’s no shortage of visible signs in the world that while there are many heroes out there doing good work, it’s still not enough to reverse the urgent crises we find ourselves in. There are so many people in the world that if more of us were truly living our heroic potential we could undoubtedly solve these crises completely.
For clarity, then, let’s define what it actually means to be a hero in a very simple way. Here, I’ll defer to one of my own personal heroes, Mr. Joseph Campbell:
“A hero properly is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” (The Power of Myth)
He also says:
“When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”
I agree with the “bigger than oneself” part. But there’s a problem.
Part of it is that the world we live in has a way of battering both body and mind such that at times it feels like it’s all we can do to just keep our own selves going, never mind going beyond ourselves. And care of self is obviously important.
Another part of it is that our highly individualist culture conditions us from birth to making us think it’s all about us. This, in combination with the innate suffering of living in the modern world, tends to make people contract into themselves rather than expand outwards towards something bigger than themselves. The secret that old philosophies and religions long ago understood, which the modern social sciences are now proving, is that part of the answer to individual suffering lies in reaching out and aiding others who are also suffering. The mechanics behind how and why this works is too complex to dive into this article, but they are real.
Still, even if we believe this intellectually, it can be so hard to put it into practice sometimes. Like Miles Morales in Into the Spider-Verse, we don’t feel “ready.” Or we feel like it’s all we can do to just keep our own selves going. Believe me, I understand this. I don’t want to use up space by going into personal details but I promise you that I truly, truly understand this. I’m not just saying these things because I’m in a good place and it’s easy for me to say so. I am saying these things because I am in a dark place and I know it is still possible to be a hero from such a place. Not only that, doing the things I talk about in this post will help you slowly crawl out of that place.
Or maybe even leap out of it.
That’s all it is, Miles, a leap of faith
“I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff, but… I can.” —Miles Morales, Into the Spider-Verse
“I see this spark in you, it’s amazing. And whatever you choose to do with it, you’ll be great.” —Jefferson Davis, Into the Spider-Verse
With respect to Joseph Campbell, personally I prefer to scale down the idea of heroism to make it achievable for more people. You don’t even have to “give your life” to a cause. You only have to commit to it in some small way (a big way is good too, of course). In a world that often feels so unsafe, to ask people to go against the most basic primal instinct of self-preservation by giving their lives to a cause is, frankly, too much to ask.
So to earn the name of Spider-Man, to wear the mask and have it fit, here’s all you have to do. Many of you may be further along this road already and that’s great. So I’m imagining that I’m talking to young people out there like Miles Morales who, despite wanting to do something good, for whatever reasons might feel unprepared, unworthy or just overwhelmed.
Step 1. Simply choose a cause bigger than yourself. More than one is great, but let’s start small.
Step 2. Commit to the cause in some way by taking some sort of ongoing action on behalf of it. At least now and then. It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to give your life to it (though some people do). And try to do something that requires “showing up” in person and not rely on just social media activities, though if that’s all you can do for now it’s a start. BONUS POINTS for finding a way to employ your unique talents for the cause.
Step 3. Go about whatever you do with a spirit of compassion. No matter how noble your cause, if you go about it aggressively or in a hostile manner, you’ll be doing just as much harm as good. Spider-Man is compassionate. He doesn’t help people and then chastise them for being stupid or careless. He helps them unconditionally.
Step 4. Trust and believe that what you’re doing, no matter how small, matters and is making a difference and that you are important. It takes faith. We all lose it sometimes but as Petey says, “No matter how many hits I take, I always find a way to come back.”
That’s it. That’s all it takes, in my belief, to be a hero. But for some, especially those who are struggling, even this may feel challenging which is why I’ve always emphasized small, everyday heroism (perhaps someday leading up to big heroism).
There’s enormous room for flexibility and personalization here. First, you can pick any cause(s), so long as they are based on compassion and bigger than yourself. And there are many causes. It should also go without saying that it doesn’t matter what your race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, or political affiliations so long as you desire to help people unconditionally. That means, I will help you just because you need it, period. Or, I will try to mitigate your suffering because you are a living being and you deserve it. It doesn’t mean, I will help you IF I think you deserve it according to my subjective standards.
Second, as I’ve stated, where I disagree with Joe Campbell is that I don’t think you need to devote your life to a cause. Simply give some time and energy to it, whatever you feel that you can afford. That might be a lot, that might be a little. Sometimes the level will fluctuate as your circumstances fluctuate. Don’t get me wrong, more is definitely better, but only you know enough about your situation to judge how much you can give in a given moment. And whatever that is, it matters.
I know you may not feel ready or capable of putting yourself out there. Maybe just getting out of bed and facing the days is a struggle these days. But I’m telling you that not only can you do it, it will help with your own pain and struggle. And because I know how hard it is to give of yourself when you feel like you have nothing left inside, I see part of my job as being: (a) making the task of being a hero as doable as possible, and (b) making it as fun as possible (“fun” and “serious” can go together) by offering as many imaginative and helpful ideas as I can. Just think of me as the fat, old Peter Parker mentor to your Miles Morales.
So here are a couple of ideas. Maybe they’ll help, maybe they won’t. You won’t know until you try.
Enter the Spider-Verse (in your mind)
“We need your help to stop a menace only an army of Spider-Men can beat…” —Miles Morales, Spider-Verse Team-Up #2
For me, personally, one of the most powerful tools I’ve used to transcend my own pain and give to others, even in the midst of that pain, has been and continues to be my own imagination.
I’ve already discussed how to go beyond the idea that anyone can Spider-Man and turning it into truth by committing to a cause. Now let’s talk about creative ways to motivate ourselves to do just that.
We’re going to imagine that we’re Spider-Men, not just metaphorically but actually.
How? Obviously, we can’t literally be Spider-Man in real life. But we can literally be Spider-Man in our imagination.
The easiest way to clarify this seemingly paradoxical point is to cite the craft of acting. When an actor is on stage playing a character she isn’t thinking, “I am this character metaphorically.” She employs the full power of her imagination to feel that she truly is that character. Of course, no matter how vivid her imagination, she is still not literally that character in real life, but in her imagination (which is like an alternate universe in itself) she truly is that character. At least until the play is over, the curtain falls, and she takes her bow.
In Into the Spider-Verse, during Mary Jane’s eulogy she says, “It’s up to you.” Miles then thinks out loud, “It’s up to me.” A stranger leans over and tells him, “Probably not you specifically. I think it’s a metaphor.”
Actually, I’m here to say, it is you specifically, and that it’s not just a metaphor. It’s up to you because each person’s growth and transformation contributes to the collective evolution of society in more ways than you can imagine. Each person’s growth is therefore crucially important.
So we become Spider-Man literally not in the objective physical world where there are limitations but in our imaginations where there are no limitations—much like how there are virtually no limitations in animation and comics.
But you might wonder how, even in the imagination, can everyone be Spider-Man? Everyone in the whole world? Even for fiction that seems like a stretch. Herein lies the liberative function of the multiverse trope that’s often used in comics.
If you’ve read any stories that explore the multiverse concept in various ways, you know how bonkers it can sometimes get. And it’s fiction so it’s allowed to get bonkers. But as we know, the idea of multiverses is something that’s been looked at seriously even within the realm of science. Despite there being no way to empirically test the multiverse hypothesis, highly esteemed physicists like Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have gone on record as proponents of the idea that multiple universes could potentially exist.
In Greene’s “quilted’ multiverse theory, within an infinite amount of space every possibly conceivable permutation of an event that could exist can and does exist. I’m not trained in physics or astronomy and don’t pretend to understand how that could actually work, but I enjoy taking the basic premise and playing with it in my imagination.
Infinite means infinite. Even a hundred trillion or any ridiculously large yet finite number means nothing compared to infinite. If you’ve read the Spider-Verse comics you’ve seen how many Spider-Men there were. And those were just the ones we saw. Technically, within the fictional construct of the Marvel multiverse, there are an infinite number of Spider-Men (which is why the vampiric Inheritors can hunt them down across ages and never be finished because there’s a limitless supply).
In fact, while in some ways I felt the movie was a more emotional experience than the Spider-Verse comics, it’s the comics that really make your mind reel at the idea of all these Spider-Men. SO MANY SPIDER-MEN!
So within an infinite number of universes within infinite space, with infinite possibilities being realized, imagine that there’s one universe in which our real-life Earth becomes the base for millions—no, billions—of Spider-Men. Everyone currently alive on earth, basically. Doesn’t matter if you’re nothing like Peter, Miles, or Gwen. If there are universes where a pig and a monkey (in the Spider-Verse comics) are Spider-Man then there’s a universe where you are Spider-Man.
In the Spider-Verse comics, Earth-13 becomes a sort of gathering place for all the different Spider-Men of various universes to mobilize and strategize against a common threat. Let’s imagine that our own real-life Earth is a nexus point where millions of different Spider-Men from different universes have become situated together. You can fill in the plot details of how that happened yourselves. All that matters is that due to some imaginary pretext, everyone on this Earth is a Spider-Man. Also, due to a certain series of events (again, you can fill in the details), none of us Spider-Men have any preternatural powers on this Earth. We might’ve had some back where we originally came from but here, on this Earth, we don’t. So it’s up to us to use our natural human skills and abilities to save ourselves and the world.
Whether you realize it or not, you all have skills and abilities that are perfectly suited and sufficient enough for solving the world’s problems (I’ve already written about this numerous times so I won’t do so again, but you can go through the Hero Wisdom archives if you need additional encouragement in this area).
The problem is that many Spider-Men on this Earth don’t know or have forgotten that they are Spider-Men. So I am calling on you to wake up to who you are, and to come with me and join me. Because there are grave dangers that threaten us all, and the only way we will survive them is if we band together as a Spider-Army.
At the highest level, let’s imagine that the collective danger we all face is a shadowy cosmic entity that feeds off the misery caused by human (i.e. Spider-Men) suffering. And suffering, as we know, has many different causes. There are more than enough of us Spider-Men to eradicate all these individual causes (i.e. the “larger than yourself” causes I talked about earlier), but first we must break free from the paralyzing illusion that we’re powerless individuals when we are anything but. We are Spider-Men.
Next, as powerful as each of us are, we can’t defeat this malevolent cosmic entity on our own. We must come together as a Spider-Army, for when we do so our individual power becomes amplified into an unstoppable force.
Let’s become #TheSpiderArmy
“When I feel alone, like no one understands what I’m going through, I remember my friends who did.” —Miles Morales, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
“It’s kinda nice not being the only spider person around.” —Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
“Nice to know we’re not alone, right?” —Penni Parker, Into the Spider-Verse
It’s fun to imagine an epic multiverse story in which a billion Spider-Men from a billion alternate universes end up together, without their powers, on a single Earth, our Earth. But I want to take it further. I want there to be an actual community of people who like the idea of a real-life Spider-Army and who want to celebrate this together. Because few things are as powerful as community, both in terms of offering a support system to lift you from your suffering and also in terms of mobilizing joint effort towards various “bigger than yourself” causes.
That’s why I want to try something. It might turn into something, it might not. That’d be up to you.
I want to start an Internet-based Spider-Army. An unofficial one not affiliated with Marvel, Sony, or Disney, obviously. It’s a fan thing. (UPDATE: I’ve started a Facebook group for this. Consider joining us here.)
Since there’s a good chance no one will be interested, and I don’t want to spend time or resources building something up unless there’s interest, we’ll start small with just a Twitter hashtag and see if it goes anywhere.
Here are the instructions:
- If you want to be part of this Spider-Army, anytime just tweet a photo of yourselves in any Spider-related apparel or cosplay: Spider-Man, Spider Gwen, Miles, whoever. Even just a plastic Spidey mask or Spider-Man t-shirt would be fine. Your own alternate universe Spider character would be terrific. You could be at a con, a charity event, your own home—anywhere.
- This part is optional, but if you like, in a few short words tell me about a compassionate thing you’re doing. It can be as small as “writing a get-well card to my sick friend” or as big as “handing out sandwiches to the homeless.” You don’t have to be doing it in the photo. Just tell me about it.
- Tag @popmythology and use either of these hashtags: #TheSpiderArmy or #WeAreSpiderMen. As long as it’s in good taste, I’ll retweet it. (No, I don’t have a lot of followers so, yeah, it’s not a big deal or anything. But maybe it can become a big deal if we do this together.)
- Retweet each other if you’re a part of #TheSpiderArmy. Check the hashtag sometimes and retweet others who use it. This will help generate momentum and, who knows, when it comes to the Internet, lord knows weirder things than this have caught on.
So that’s it. Consider it a small experiment in cosplay activism and let’s see if it goes anywhere.
At the end of Into the Spider-Verse, Miles says, “Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before. I hope you do now.”
Regardless of whether #TheSpiderArmy goes anywhere or not, I hope the other parts of this article will help you to see how “anyone can wear the mask” is not just a thing to say that sounds nice. It can be a profound living and breathing truth. You just have to take that leap of faith.
Or as Miles’ uncle tells him, “You’re on your way. Just keep going. Just keep going.”
See you around, Spider-Man.
Join the Spider-Army here.
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