WHAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT IS WHAT MAKES YOU SPIDER-MAN
Over the weekend Steven Barnes delivered a Facebook video rendition of this article. I was privileged to tune in right at the beginning and was utterly fascinated and moved by Steven’s delivery and by the impact of his words.
I immediately shared the video on Facebook and almost as quickly asked Steven if there was a transcript of his talk that I might publish. He graciously granted permission and you’ll find that transcript below. (You’ll find his original version here on his website.) However, I do urge you to watch the video presentation, as it is a much more immediate and personal experience.
Mr. Barnes first appeared on our scene with the Hugo-nominated story The Locusts, written with Larry Niven in 1979, (he would go on to co-write the popular Dream Park series with both Niven and Pournelle), who I first met at a convention where he was offering early morning Martial Arts warm-ups and training (he has quite the number of styles) and who is probably better known now for his Lifewriting® writing course, or perhaps for the award winning Outer Limits episode A Stich in Time, has long been an advocate for black writers in our field and, by extension, an advocate for other marginalized voices in our community.
His review of Into the Spider-Verse, which itself is shaping up to be a marvel of inclusivity, including Miles Morales, half black and half Puerto Rican, Spider-Gwen, the female “spider–man”, Peter Parker, Spider-Ham, Peni Parker and Spider Noir, frames the film through the experiences of two generations of black men, Steven, and his son.
His experiences (the black character always dies, and almost always in service to white culture and/or to resolve sexual dominance issues) is a refrain that we have heard before, as is the argument that minorities do not see themselves represented in these offerings except through a white narrative. Having heard them before, one might be tempted to dismiss this as yet another call for diversity in super hero films (and by extension, in our literature), but to dismiss this presentation is, I think, a huge mistake, as Steven delivers this message in a very powerful, personal way I defy anyone with an ounce of humanity to ignore.
This piece, though unlikely to be read by those who need it most, should be read by those who need it most. If you find yourself thinking that “Black Lives Matter” is just a bunch of people agitating for “more than they deserve” or a “hate movement”, you need to read this. You really need to read this.
“SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE” (2018)
by Steven Barnes
I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to quickly review “Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse” and then I’m going to speak of an aspect of it some of you might not want to dive into. You’ll be warned.
First, “Into the Spider-verse” is a revolutionary piece of cinema. The tale of an alternate Earth Spider-Man, is told in CGI animation that ranges from realistic to Loony Tunes 2-D, depending on the mood and tempo of the scene. And what at first is jarring becomes, as we realize we are watching a comic book brought to life as we’ve never seen it before, something that reminded me not just of previous live action and animate versions of the character, but of the astonishing visuals of “Yellow Submarine” and even “2001: A space Odyssey.”
Because the story deals with a master criminal (The Kingpin, voiced by Liev Schrieber) who creates a rip in reality to bring back his dead family, in the process unleashing Spider-heroes from multiple time lines. Against this bizarre backdrop is the origin story of a kid named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), bitten by a radioactive and/or genetically altered spider and gaining powers he doesn’t know how to control. Really…that’s all you need to know, other than IT WORKS. It all works. Improbably, even the most bizarre variations on the character (Kimiko Glenn as Japanese “Peni Parker” in a giant Tamagachi? Nicolas Cage appropriately gonzo as “Spider Man Noir” a black and white version who talks like a Micky Spillane character? John Mulaney as “Spider Ham”, such a Bugs Bunny variant that they have to discuss whether they are violating Warner Brothers copyright?) work. Each has their own tone, own look, own feel. And It isn’t just a gimmick: it all comes together thematically, amid visuals so psychedelic that you’d expect them to sell hash brownies at the concession stand.
Wow. Just…wow. Really amazing, Spider Man. Well done. Instantly in the upper echelon of superhero films, and if you have any childhood left in your heart, one of the best movies of the year.
And now…let’s dive deeper. Trigger Warning for anti-BLM types. You probably won’t enjoy this much.
Last Night, I watched the light go back on in my son Jason’s eyes. Allow me to explain.
Yesterday morning, I watched the teaser trailer for “Avengers 4. `Infinity War: Endgame’. It looked intense and spectacular, but I felt no thrill at all. I haven’t felt a thrill for a Marvel trailer since the end of the first Infinity War, where I saw the light go out in my son’s eyes.
Jason has ADHD, and a bit of trouble identifying with characters in movies. I never had that problem, even when I noticed that characters who looked like me tended to die. I still remember, clearly, the day I put a label on that observation. It was the movie DAMNATION ALLEY, where George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, and Paul Winfield were traveling across a nuclear wasteland in an atomic powered Winnebago. I was watching it with a white friend of mine up in Hollywood. So there’s a scene where they come to the ruins of (I think it was) Las Vegas. And out of the ashes walks the (apparently) Last Woman In The World. And…she’s white.
I had an intuitive flash. Turning to my friend, I whispered “oh my God. They’re going to kill Paul Winfield.”
“Why would you say that?” he whispered back.
“Well, they’re not going to pretend he’s not interested in her. And they’re not going to let him compete for her. The only option they have is to kill him.”
“Jesus,” he said, disbelieving. “Do you have to be so cynical about race all the time?”
And…five minutes later Winfield got eaten by giant cockroaches. Dan was kinda quiet after that, but insisted that was a lucky guess on my part.
What did I learn from that moment?
- That filmmakers will kill off the only black character(s) in a film quite blithely. There is NO American film in which all white characters die, if any POC survive at all. But I’ve listed over sixty movies where all black characters, or all black male adult characters, die. Often to protect white people. Often to inspire them to become heroes. Sob sob. (And yes, chances are that I’ve seen whatever movie you think breaks that rule. A “character” is someone with a line of dialogue. You’ve almost certainly forgotten that in whatever movie you THINK all the white characters die, there was indeed another white guy or gal there somewhere, speaking a line of dialogue. Maybe he wasn’t white enough for you, but he was there.)
- That sexual competition is a trigger. This makes sense, as the only human drive as strong as individual survival is species or genetic survival. What you see onscreen is the externalization of a fantasy, the natural human urge to believe that you, and by extension your tribe, are the smartest, sexiest, strongest, and best.
- That white moviegoers generally won’t notice it has happened. They “don’t notice” when all the black characters die, or die to protect them, or to motivate them to mighty actions. And watching them reel off movie after movie where they THOUGHT the opposite happened just to watch me shoot them down has been an amusement in the past, but in the era of BLM it is just sad. Yes, it happens. No, it isn’t just “Hollywood.” If the audiences didn’t weep and feel ennobled or invigorated by “The Green Mile” or “The Unforgiven” or “Spartacus” or “Terminator 2” the trope wouldn’t exist.
Black audiences notice, though. I remember being about Jason’s age, about 14, just forming my self image, and going to see such movies. Maybe it was “The Dirty Dozen.” When I got back home, raving about it, the other black kids in my neighborhood asked me a terrible question: “how did they kill the brother this time?”
Oh, yes. They’d noticed. And I didn’t have an answer for them. Didn’t even formulate my thoughts on the subject until “Damnation Alley.” It was real. It was a fantasy of extinction and primacy. I’ve seen a couple of movies in which all the white characters die: they were Asian films. “Chinese Connection” is a good example, and the death of “Russian” karate expert Robert Baker at Bruce Lee’s hands was clearly an expression of hostility, resentment for China’s occupation by foreign powers. “We are not sick men!” Bruce snarled, and Hong Kong audiences went berserk — remember, they were still a British Colony at the time. That inferiority complex vented itself in an image of throat-chopping death.
One is tempted to wonder what fear, what guilt, what pale inner need drives the need for American audiences to see such things. Or believe that black people love to die protecting them, or to ennoble them. A desperate need, one suspects. But…that’s another subject.
Jason had noticed this. About the time he watched his fifth “X-Men” movie, he noticed that ALL the black men die. Not one has survived in the entire series.Frankly, “Logan” was their last chance with me, and in that one they killed the entire family. “Why do they always kill the black people?” he asked me. And that led to a rather painful conversation. “The Talk” applied to cinematic experience.
I remember loving “Spider-Man” comics as a kid. The most famous sequence in the entire canon might just be the one where Spider-Man, Peter Parker, is trying to rescue his dying Aunt May by recovering stolen isotopes that might save her from a transfusion of HIS radioactive blood. The isotopes were stolen by eight-armed Doctor Octopus, in a 007-style underwater lair. Doc Ock has Peter dead to rights, but the enraged Spider-Man just tears through him and his henchmen as if they are made of butterfly wings. Wow, it was amazing to see. But the fight damages the internal supports of the lair, and Spider-Man is trapped under a huge piece of machinery as the dome cracks and spills water, the precious isotope canister just out of reach.
He tries to life the machinery…and cannot. The water grows deeper. And…the issue ended. Cliff hanger! For a month, I wondered how he would get out of it. What brilliant stratagem would he use, what clever solution would he find? I remember biking to the drug store on the fateful day to buy my comics and find out what the hell Peter Parker would do.
And…I’ll never forget what happened. He tried, and failed. And was faced with the fact that his Aunt would die…because of him. As his uncle Ben died…because of him.
With great power comes great responsibility. And what did Peter do? Something clever?
He simply decided that this was the test of his life. This was the moment he had lived for. That if he couldn’t’ do this, for the family he loved, he was unworthy of the gift. And he went deep, DEEP into himself: “within my body is the strength of many men!” he said, and somehow, against all odds, he hoists that Hulk-busting weight of machine onto his shoulders, and…stands up. It was amazing. It was a full-page image of Spider Man, his every muscle rippling and straining, lifting an impossible weight…because he had to.
Because there was no one else.
I was stunned. That lesson, that if you had enough WHY’S the HOW’S became possible…that lesson has never left me.
It didn’t matter to me that Peter Parker was white. EVERYONE in the comics was white. I just accepted it. It wasn’t until later, when I started pitching in Hollywood, when I started writing professionally and was told in no uncertain terms that white audiences would reject black faces, that I realized that that love and respect were not reciprocated. That there was something so obvious that I hadn’t let myself see it: the more you identify with a character as being ‘like you’ the easier it is to empathize with their struggles, and feel their victory as your own.
These were images of power, beauty, heroism, intelligence and moral clarity that cultures all over the world understand their children NEED. And give to them in stories, comics, movies, songs, plays, and every other form. 24/7. 365. Turn on any television and flip the channels a bit and you’ll see such images. When I was a kid there were NONE that looked like me. It is better now, much better.
But Jason had still noticed. And it made him blasé about movies. Why identify with a black character if that character had increased risk of death? And how do you identify with a white character if you suspect, on some level, that that character wouldn’t identify with you?
There is a scene in TUSKEGEE AIRMEN where Laurence Fishburne asks: “What do I feel about my country? And how does my country feel about me?”
I’d hoped that if I could work hard enough, strong enough, long enough, I could change the world enough that my son wouldn’t go through the existential pain I had suffered, realizing that the filmmakers and audience apparently ENJOYED fantasizing about his death.
There were plenty of black characters in early Marvel movies: Fury, Falcon, War Machine, and so on. They were fun. REALLY enjoyed seeing them. But the first time Black Panther appeared in “Civil War” something electric happened in the air. This was different. He wasn’t in a chain of command, controlled by white people. He hadn’t had his ancestral name stripped away. He knew his history, his spirituality. T’Challa didn’t follow some white guy’s orders, HE WAS A KING. And when he kissed his father’s ring there was a level of love between two black men I’d not seen in a film before. Contrast with the mess Tony Stark was about HIS father. With half a BILLION dollars in therapy and the remove of decades, he was still more shattered than T’Challa was mere days after cradling his father’s corpse in his arms. And it didn’t end there. When Florence Kasimba faced down Black Widow saying “Move. Or be moved” black women in the audience, even if they weren’t comic book fans, screamed “YES!!”
Remember the “No Man’s Land” sequence in “Wonder Woman”? Over and over I heard women say: “I didn’t even know I needed to see that.” And I heard a LOT of guys saying “what’s the big deal?” They didn’t get it. Why should they? They’d seen COUNTLESS images like that to nurture their own inner hero. Yawn. It was just one more.
To understand the impact of “Black Panther” you would have to imagine an entire movie composed of “No Man’s Land” sequences. There had never been anything like this before. It was something every other group of human beings on the planet have…except black Americans: a creation myth that connects them directly to the divine. It was MYTHIC. Bless Disney for giving Ryan Coogler the room and resources to do something no one had ever done. And as DJANGO UNCHAINED producer Reggie Hudlin put it: BP made “all the money.”
Yes it did. Bless its pointy little ears.
Jason saw Black Panther, and I saw the light go on in his eyes. The same light I had felt watching Spider-Man lift that piece of machinery, half a century ago. He was EXCITED. And then we went to see INFINITY WAR.
And Heimdall was the first person to die. And they killed Falcon, and T’Challa after disgracing the kingdom of Wakanda with the weakest and most unfocused defense I’d ever seen. Only the disabled War Machine survived, a man who is totally owned by a white guy, who didn’t create his own technology, and frankly would not be considered sexual competition, spinal damage being what it is. And then the crowing insult…after a multiple movie absence, they brought back Nick Fury in the “stinger”…ONLY TO KILL HIM.
I was stunned. Don’t tell me this was random distribution. ALL the original (and white) Avengers survived. Every one. Do I have to wonder if all the decision makers, all the core producers, writers, directors were pale? That it never occurred to them how it would feel to a boy with few superhero role models to watch that massacre?
Of course I know most of those characters coming back. Don’t try to insult my intelligence. A number of readers pointed that out to me, and I wonder if they really didn’t think I knew that. Predictably, most of those are people who have expressed antipathy toward BLM and “taking a knee”.
Jason, born into a world of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin, watched those Infinity War images. I watched his face. Saw the light, kindled by Black Panther, go out in his eyes.
In the real world AND the “reel”world, his life was not as precious. He was surrounded by people who could judge, jail, fire, exclude, or even kill him in real life or fantasy. And worse, if he said something about it, his white friends would in essence tell him “why are you so racially paranoid?”
I can see how much the world has changed. Jason cannot. And in sitting down and explaining that no, it isn’t worse than ever. No, things really have improved. No, white people aren’t evil. They are just…people. And people do ugly, thoughtless things I realized how very much I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to have that conversation with him. You know, like the one to move slowly and keep your hands in plain sight and NEVER argue if you are pulled over by a cop.
It was heart-breaking. And it broke the “magic” I felt with Marvel films. It was a sense that I couldn’t trust them. That I KNEW, and no one could tell me different, that if the filmmakers had been diverse that they would have kept either T’Challa or Fury alive, and had a better defense of Wakanda. Hell, Captain America threw together a better defense of New York in about thirty seconds, and Wakanda had had YEARS to prepare. It was a disgrace. It was contempt: the filmmakers didn’t’ really believe in these people, these characters. Wakanda was just a neat place to stage a nifty massacre.
Which brings me, at last, to “Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse.” Jason broke his ankle nine days ago, and he’s been laid up, only leaving the house to go to the hospital. He didn’t want to leave yesterday. But…we bribed and cajoled him, renting a wheelchair so that he wouldn’t need crutches, and drove him 27 miles to Burbank for the sneak preview. Driving slowly, so the bumps wouldn’t hurt his shattered bones.
And…the instant he saw Miles Morales, a kid as dark as him, with hair like him, with similar hopes and dreams and humor…I watched Jason, who had been in terrible pain for a week, SURRENDER TO THE FANTASY.
And when Miles began to discover his powers…Jason was smiling. Leaning forward. And when the “other” Spider men appeared, he laughed and cheered. And when Miles suffered loss, there was a tear in Jason’s eye. And when Miles finally tapped into his full powers, unleashing Spider-Hell on the omnipotent Kingpin, Jason was grinning from ear to ear.
THE LIGHT WENT BACK ON IN HIS EYES.
For a little while, he wasn’t a kid with a broken leg. He was SPIDER MAN. Swinging from the rooftops, a hero, a kid like him. For just a moment, he had no limitations, and the weight of his pain was off his shoulders. For a moment…the world was right, and beautiful.
That moment lasted all the drive home. Until bedtime. The happy smiles. The tiny crack in the armor around his heart.
And the final message of the movie was incredibly subversive in the world that fed Paul Winfield to the roaches, that executed an innocent black man in The Green Mile so that Tom Hanks could have a better erection. It was: we are all heroes. We all can wear the mask. It is what is in our hearts, not on our skin or between our legs. It is what we feel, and do, not how others see us.
I’m not sure I can tell you how much I would have given to see BLACK PANTHER when I was fourteen. How much it would have changed my life. But INTO THE SPIDER VERSE is another example of what my wife and I call “movies from the other world.” A world in which people don’t have to pretend not to mind when they die for the entertainment of people who do not cherish their lives.
It is a movie from the future. No…it is a movie of NOW. We are still haunted by the ghosts of what has been. But increasingly, and blessedly, the cycles are moving faster now, such that an INFINITY WAR is followed by a crowd-pleasing juggernaut of a film, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes as of yesterday, one that ALL audiences can cheer…that just happens to have a 14 year old black/Hispanic kid named Mike Morales at the center.
I’ll take my victories where I can find them. And today, I feel like a hero. And more importantly…so does my son.
Thank you Sony. Thank you spirits of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and all the magicians that made The Bullpen what it was back in the day. There is a reason I’ve loved Marvel all my life: there is something at the core of that primal dream that has led to things like Black Panther…and Miles Morales
I’ve gone on long enough. Go see it.
And as Spider-Ham would say…that’s all folks!