Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Star Wars: The Last Jedi represent a new era of movies that confront their franchises and deconstruct their legacies.
We are living in the midst of a sprawl. A franchise sprawl, to be more specific. Over the last decade, major cinematic universes have taken hold of the box office and changed the international landscape for movies and movie-going everywhere. With Disney’s Star Wars takeover and fixation with live-action remakes of classic cartoons on top of the industrial line of Marvel and DC properties, studios are allocating more time and money than ever of their yearly slate to franchise films.
Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios have released 20 different superhero movies that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This has contributed to the increase in cinematic serialization. In other words, there is no such thing as a standalone superhero movie. They are all intricately, and at times haphazardly, tied together in increasingly convoluted ways.
To make matters worse, false starts and inconsistencies (in plot, characterization, and mythologies) have complicated these cinematic universes. For example, after Sony tried and failed to relaunch Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield, they finally caved into Marvel’s desire to have the web-slinger appear alongside the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War.
There are a few notable consequences of this production line approach to movie-making. First of all, most franchise installments lack any unique or discernible style; it doesn’t matter who is in the director’s chair because, at the end of the day, they have to ensure that the movies flow together by using and reusing similar styles and formulas.
Second, the responsibility is on the audience to keep up with the various installments and sequels if they’re going to really understand what’s going on. This is a pretty obvious moneymaking scheme by studios — masked by the excuse of world-building — that helps guarantee people will show up to the theater to watch their new movies.
Lastly, these franchises have backed themselves into a corner, constrained by the weight of their own mythologies, the surplus of characters and conflicts, and the constant need to sustain themselves for the sequels to come. As such, these movies frequently leave me feeling fatigued; what purpose is there in investing oneself in the conflict of a single franchise film if it only exists to lead to a greater conflict in another film two or three years down the road?
Thankfully, two recent movies have reinvigorated my hopes that there may be a brighter future for franchise films. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Star Wars: The Last Jedi are game-changing installments that challenge the legacies of their “cinematic universes” while rewriting the rule book on what a franchise film can be.
Both movies manage to accomplish an impressive feat: Deconstructing the legacies that have been the centerpiece of their worlds since day one.
Spoiler alert: The rest of this article will discuss plot details of both Into the Spider-Verse and The Last Jedi.
Ask any stranger on the street what Spider-Man’s real name is and it’s a safe bet they’ll say “Peter Parker.” The Peter Parker character has defined the Spider-Man property for decades, inextricably tying people’s conception of who and what Spider-Man is with the identity of Peter Parker, a high school student with an all-too-familiar origin story.
How refreshing it is that the newest Spider-Man movie, an animated feature that exists outside of the laborious and installment-driven MCU, Into the Spider-Verse makes its central motif the deconstruction of the myth of Spider-Man as Peter Parker.
Into the Spider-Verse opens on Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager from a working class family in Brooklyn, New York City. Miles is bitten by a genetically engineered spider that gives him all the powers of Spider-Man. He is initially confused by these skills, as Miles himself has only ever known one Spider-Man and is unable to believe there might be another.
The film crafts a smart commentary on the pervasive consequences of decades of Peter Parker-dominated Spider-Man stories. If someone only ever sees a specific type of person as a superhero, it’s natural that they would believe only that person could be a superhero. Into the Spider-Verse crushes that sentiment into dust by creating a story with a central motif about separating the myth of Spider-Man from any one person’s identity.
The villain in Into the Spider-Verse is Wilson Fisk, whose experiments with a particle accelerator grant him access to parallel and alternate universes. Fisk’s reckless use of the machine causes these universes to collide, bringing multiple Spider-people into Miles’ world.
At first, Miles just meets a different version of Peter Parker. After Miles witnesses the death of Peter Parker, the arrival of a new Peter excites him, but this is not the same Peter; he’s divorced, depressed, and disenchanted with his superhero legacy. This is a particularly effective use of the character, as he helps Miles to realize that the Spider-Man identity should not be tied to any one person and it allows this alternate-Peter Parker to see a different version of himself and see how he can change things for himself.
As the movie continues, Miles is introduced to several other iterations of Spider-Man mythology, from Spider-Gwen to Spider-Man Noir and even Spider-Ham. Their introductions are playful and tongue-in-cheek, meant to underscore the absurd notion that Peter Parker is the only Spider-Man.
Into the Spider-Verse functions as a powerful reclamation of superhero identity, one that needn’t be unnecessarily defined or limited. The film posits that being a superhero is something akin to a leap of faith that anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, can take. This is a refreshing new perspective that demonstrates how great superhero movies can be when they break the mold and dare to try something new, even if it means deconstructing the past.
The work Into the Spider-Verse does to re-conceptualize the myth of Spider-Man is not unlike what The Last Jedi did for the Star Wars franchise. Although The Last Jedi left a bad taste in the mouth of some fans (boo hoo…), it marked the first time a Star Wars film took a serious risk since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
For decades, the myth of the Jedi and the Force have been inextricably linked; the Force has frequently been seen as a tool for the Jedi, making them special and of a higher order than others. The Last Jedi challenges this idea by removing the exclusivity that has long defined the Force.
When Rey seeks out Luke Skywalker’s help, asking him to train her in the ways of the Jedi, Luke immediately rejects her. He is intent to let the Jedi Order become extinct. Later, however, after he reluctantly agrees to teach her about the Force, he says: “That force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light does, is vanity.”
This is a compelling and exciting deconstruction of a concept that has been integral to the Star Wars franchise for decades. The Jedi have always been perceived as the heroes of the story, the ones with the tool to save the universe from the powers that seek to tear it apart. The Last Jedi tears apart that perception, replacing it with one that tells us the Force belongs to anyone and everyone.
This aligns poignantly with the message in Into the Spider-Verse. Both films emphasize how heroism is not exclusive to any one person’s identity. These movies show how the central mythology in their franchise should be shared, not kept sacred. I can think of no better path forward for franchise films than this. The sooner we leave behind the serialized form of storytelling that turns movies into TV episodes, the better.
The Last Jedi and Into the Spider-Verse prove that there are more to these worlds than the familiar names and faces that have appeared time and time again. The mythologies embedded within these franchises are rich enough to support diverse stories from a variety of characters. If these franchises expect to last and want to be remembered, they should look to these movies as examples of the future.