“Honestly, I’m flabbergasted,” writer Brian Michael Bendis tells me over the phone, two days before Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse finally hits theaters. “I’ve spent the whole day asking people in my life, ‘What do I get these filmmakers for Christmas?’”
The writer has experienced this before, when he and artist Michael Gaydos watched their original character Jessica Jones become a Peabody Prize-winning Netflix series. To think that it would happen to another one of his characters would be “boggling.”
“What on earth could I possibly do,” he wonders, “to say to them ‘You have made my dream of kids seeing Miles as Spider-Man, and then seeing themselves empowered in it, a reality?’ Not just to the comic book audience, but to ... the audience.”
When Bendis and Italian artist Sara Pichelli first put Miles on the page in 2011’s Ultimate Fallout #4, the kind-hearted kid from Brooklyn was simply a Spider-Man of an alternate universe. Today, he’s an Easter egg in Spider-Man: Homecoming, has guest-starred in Marvel cartoon shows and video games and he’s a fully fledged member of the Avengers. He’s not a dusty entry in Marvel.wikia.com that can only be pronounced with a string of numbers at the end of its name. He’s got a Build-a-Bear.
And this month, Shameik Moore stars as the voice of Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a feature-length, animated film that is already garnering Oscars buzz. Some are even lauding it as the best Spider-Man film adaptation ever. Miles Morales, despite countless Spider-iterations before him and a monthly stream of comic adaptations, is inarguably compelling.
As we looked back on Miles’ history — the writers, artists and editors who put him on the page, the media environment he emerged into and the unexpected level of attention he immediately attracted — we found that the story of Miles Morales has always been defined by one question: Who can be Spider-Man?
Donald Glover is a renaissance man who dropped think-piece-spawning music videos, and racked up awards for Atlanta this year, but in 2010, the performer was primarily known for being a young nerd who’d cut his teeth in comedy writing before landing a fan-favorite role on Dan Harmon’s cult sitcom Community. Just as that show wrapped its first season, reports leaked that Sony Pictures Entertainment was actively searching for a new Spider-Man to command a rebooted franchise (in order to ensure the character license would remain in the studio’s control after the collapse of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4).
Casting has always been a core fascination for fandom, and the speculation around who would replace Tobey Maguire was already electric. Almost by accident, Glover got the internet’s vote.
Two years later, Glover would open his hour-long Comedy Central special, Weirdo, with a bit about his Spider-Man “controversy.” As he puts it, fans were theorizing that if Sony was going to reboot its Spider-Man franchise so soon after Maguire’s, maybe the studio should make the new series very different from the old one. Maybe, even, Spider-Man didn’t need to be played by a white guy.
“Somebody put a big picture of me in the comments and was like ‘Donald Glover could play Spider-Man, he’s nerdy!’ [...] So I put it up on my Twitter and was like ‘Donald for Spider-Man, let’s do this’. Kind of a joke, but also who doesn’t want to be Spider-Man? That’d be cool.
“And that’s when,” he says, with a significant pause, “the world went crazy. And half the world was like ‘Donald for Spider-Man!’ [...] and the other half was like ‘He’s black, kill him!’”
Glover’s tweet revealed a public grappling with a different question: Not who would be Spider-Man, but who could be Spider-Man?
By pure coincidence, Marvel Comics creators were knee deep in basically the same question: What if Spider-Man wasn’t the Peter Parker we know? Seeing Donald Glover in Spider-Man pajamas in the first episode of the second season of Community — a winking response to his viral moment — wasn’t the beginning of Miles Morales in Brian Michael Bendis’ mind, but the writer says that it was an important bullet point to the character’s history.
“[Miles] was already in development,” he tells me, “and we were literally right there with the thought ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ And there comes Donald Glover; he just showed up in his underoos looking fabulous. And all it said was ‘Yeah, it’s time, there’s something going on, let’s do it.’”
“Is this the right thing to do?” isn’t necessarily the question you’d expect to go along with creating a superhero, but Miles’ origin story necessitated a significant upheaval of one of Marvel Comics’ most popular books of the 2000s.
Marvel’s Ultimate line, founded in 2000, was arguably the publisher’s biggest success of the decade, an alternate Marvel universe where modern writers and artists had freedom to reset the continuity of Marvel’s biggest characters and start all over again. Without decades of baggage to scare off new readers, books like Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man (the latter written by Bendis from issue #1) sold so well they sometimes shipped more copies than their main universe counterparts.
“We were wired to, in success, question things even more than in failure,” Bendis says. And near the 10-year mark on Ultimate Spider-Man, he and editors Sana Amanat and Mark Paniccia were asking themselves how they could do more with the core idea of Spider-Man.
They began in the abstract, breaking down the basic tenets of Peter Parker’s identity.
“He was a kid,” Bendis says, “And he’s an orphan, and he lives with his aunt in Brooklyn or Queens. And he’s a science nerd. And where exactly does that need to be a Caucasian story?”
From there, the idea of filtering Peter’s values through a new character kept growing.
“The idea that anybody could be in that costume,” Bendis says, “and the idea that power and responsibility could mean something — even more than it does to Peter — to another kid who was raised a different way. Was raised completely different. What would that be like?”
Who can be Spider-Man?
“It took literally a year for me to come up with the story that would introduce Miles without ruining the legacy of Peter Parker,” he recalls. “Because [...] it’s not like Peter Parker’s broken and everyone’s dying for us to fix it. Peter’s a beautiful character who’s always in a good place in people’s heads.”
What Bendis and his editors settled on, eventually, was that they would kill the Peter Parker of the Ultimate universe, and have his death inspire a younger person with similar superpowers to take up the mantle of Spider-Man after him.
“It was one of those things that was brought up at the meeting and started getting traction the more we talked about it,” editor Mark Paniccia says. “We began to beat out the big moments. It wasn’t something we were going to do unless we could do it right. Brian Bendis and Mark Millar were confident they could give ample gravity and pathos to Peter’s death. When you’ve got two of the industry’s best writers so certain, you’re pretty much guaranteed a hit.”
“I was always on the same page with Marvel on this: Anyone could kill a character and shock you. Anyone could do it,” Bendis says. “What’s interesting is what you get out of it; what comes next. That was always our answer. We [would have] some shocking thing in our stories [and] the question would always be ‘What comes next?’ And if what comes next is Miles Morales? Well, that’s pretty interesting. So it wasn’t a hard sell.”
The writer also notes that the story benefited from the Ultimate line’s place as an “alternate” continuity; Peter would remain alive and well in Dan Slott Spider-Man books in the main timeline. During Miles heyday, the Peter Parker of the main Marvel Universe was in a very un-Parker-like place, swapping bodies with Doctor Octopus, becoming a successful businessman, billionaire and CEO of Parker Industries. Miles, a young, untested, struggling student, would be much closer to the archetypal “Peter Parker” story.
But, like Donald Glover, Miles’ similarities to Peter Parker would first be overshadowed by a viral moment based around a single difference between them: Miles was black.
To be more specific, Miles was Afro-Latino: His father was African-American and his mother was Puerto Rican, a distinction that Glenn Beck made sure to mention that he didn’t care about when he devoted two minutes of a 2011 show to comment on Marvel’s reveal of Miles. Beck claimed Miles looked “just like President Obama.”
“Do I care if he’s half-Hispanic, all-Hispanic? No. Half-black, half — I don’t care, I really don’t care. Half gay, all gay? I don’t really care. I don’t care. I don’t care, it’s a stupid comic book,” Beck insisted, before trying to draw parallels between the comic’s existence and a Michelle Obama campaign trail speech. “We now have a half-black, half-hispanic, gay Spider-Man?,” he concluded, “OK.”
Beck wasn’t the only national news personality to find Miles’ debut worthy of mention. The Colbert Report devoted a segment to it. The Washington Post covered the mixed fan reaction. Within a single week, Bendis says, he put on Howard Stern and The Daily Show only to hear them discussing Miles Morales. “You feel like you’re having a psychotic break. We’re writers, we don’t leave our house that much, and all of a sudden: Oh, is the TV talking to me? Is the TV now telling me things?”
Since Miles’ debut, comic book plot lines garnering national news attention has become a somewhat more regular occurrence, particularly when those plot lines involve a classic superhero getting a twist. Since 2011, (and this time, within its main timeline) Marvel has awarded Carol Danvers the title of Captain Marvel; put Sam Wilson, the Falcon, in the boots of Captain America; introduced a Thor who was secretly Jane Foster; and given The Hulk title to Bruce Banner’s cousin, Jennifer Walters, to name a few. During the summer of 2017, a Marvel crossover event in which Captain America joined the fascist forces of Hydra generated so much negative press that the company released a statement to parent-company-owned ABC News asking readers to be patient.
Beck’s implications of progressivism run amok in superhero stories also returned on the regular, with strides to make comics more progressive met by factions who deal in cemented rhetoric and harassment. Among all these Marvel news firestorms of the blockbuster superhero film era, Miles was the earliest. Bendis himself cannot deny that even the negative attention benefited the book.
“[Beck] really started putting Miles on the map, as far as people having to stand up and defend the idea. And then when people read it [they] saw how genuine [it was], how much fun we were having, how beautiful Sara’s work is. She is one of the best comic artists alive in our generation, and it was one of her great statements. People would run to it to see what all the hubbub was about and they would just see our best foot forward, which was a relief to me. The final statement in the argument is our comic.”
The story that riled up purists and defenders alike was innocuous by comic book standards. In the pages of his ongoing series, we first met Miles with his family in Brooklyn — who are all still alive, in contrast to many superhero origin stories. Bendis says that he and his editors wanted to juxtapose Miles having a strong relationship with his mother, Rio, his father, Jefferson, and his uncle, Aaron, against Peter Parker’s near-orphan status.
In an early scene in his Ultimate Spider-Man run, Miles won a school lottery for a coveted spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy, an opportunity for Bendis and Pichelli to show how Miles’ family instilled their son with Peter Parker’s ethics. Bendis credits the idea of Miles going to a charter school to Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief, Joe Queseda, who suggested he watch the documentary Waiting for “Superman.”
Miles’ parents were strong influences on his life. So was his uncle Aaron, although his dad wasn’t so hot on that; Aaron and Jefferson had a falling out before Miles was born. What Miles didn’t know is that his beloved Uncle Aaron was the supervillain known as the Prowler.
Aaron’s theft of scientific material from Oscorp indirectly led to Miles getting his spider-powers. During a visit to his uncle’s apartment, an escaped spider that had been infused with Peter Parker’s blood bit the kid, granting him Peter’s agility, strength and “spider-sense,” plus a couple of new powers: Temporary invisibility and an electric “venom strike” that can stun opponents.
Instead of putting on a costume immediately, Miles hid his powers. His father was openly opposed to the very idea of superheroes, and Miles feared being seen as a Mutant and subjected to the accompanying prejudice. That and being attacked by supervillains, or of dying while trying to apprehend one or simply trying to rescue people from danger.
That all changed when he witnessed the death of Peter Parker at the hands of the Green Goblin.
“Peter dies saving his aunt in a way he couldn’t save his uncle, so his story actually comes full circle,” says Bendis, “and it happens in a way that Miles sees it, so Peter becomes the Uncle Ben moment for Miles. [...]
The story of Spider-Man, and the legacy of the character’s lessons, continued in Bendis’ book. “Rather than a do over or a This is going to be better than — it’s a This will be as honest as.”
After Peter’s death, Miles was consumed by the thought that if he’d embraced his abilities, he could have aided Peter — even done something to save him — and then New York City would still have a Spider-Man. A chance meeting with Gwen Stacy solidified his motivation, when she told him that fateful Spider-Man motto: With great power comes great responsibility.
“It’s such a powerful statement that means different things to different people in different situations,” Bendis says. “What power means to people who have it, and what power means to people who don’t. What responsibility means to different people in different situations. What they feel their responsibility is to society and to themselves. We’ve only seen it through Peter’s perspective. Having Miles come in and be a very good kid and trying really hard, but have a completely different relationship to these ideas, was very exciting to us. He’s another Spider-Man, living that life but from a completely different perspective.”
Miles’ first comic hit shelves in 2011, readers and reviewers immediately latched on to the young hero, who was living the dream of web-slinging powers and the existential nightmare of wielding them. And as for his future, well, the Marvel Comics universe never throws out a good idea if it can just be turned into an “alternate universe,” and it never leaves a good character idling when they could be brought into the main timeline.
In 2012’s dimension-hopping, five-issue miniseries called Spider-Men, Miles battled evil alongside the main Marvel Universe’s Peter Parker for the first time. In 2014, he was a critical player in Marvel’s Spider-Verse event, a giant crossover featuring Spider-People from dozens of canonical Marvel parallel Earths. Both of those events, Bendis says, inspired the plot of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
By 2015, the Ultimate Marvel universe was outliving the original mandate. A setting designed to be a fresh start for new readers was now one with 15 years of continuity to catch up on. Marvel planned a blockbuster summer crossover, Secret Wars, that would allow it to shake up the Marvel Multiverse. The big shocker? It would erase the entire Ultimate Marvel Universe.
Except for Miles.
“We knew we were going to put the multiverse on hold for a while,” editor Mark Paniccia says, “but we had a much-loved character we just couldn’t leave behind. It was an easy decision and a great opportunity to bring Miles over.”
“I heard early on that [Secret Wars was] going to create the brand new Marvel multiverse,” Bendis says, “and pick the gold out of every single other universe and put them in the main universe. Which is a great idea that I loved. I was charmed to hell — and honestly relieved — that I and Sara and David Marquez, [and] the other artists on Miles, had made our statement on Miles so strongly that [Marvel] wouldn’t throw it away.”
And so, only four years after his debut, Miles and his supporting cast were merged with the main Marvel timeline. From a timid kid in an alternate Brooklyn, to a genuine Avenger rubbing shoulders with superheroes more than ten times his age.
Today, Miles is mentored by a living Peter Parker and belongs to a teen superhero group alongside Ms. Marvel. He is a playable character in Insomniac’s Spider-Man for the PS4. He’s appeared in cartoon shows, like Marvel Super Hero Adventures and Ultimate Spider-Man: Web Warriors, where he was voiced by — you guessed it — Donald Glover. Glover also cameoed in Spider-Man: Homecoming as a character named Aaron Davis, who mentions that he has a nephew, setting the character up for a potential Marvel Cinematic Universe debut.
But Miles didn’t have to wait; he’s the lead in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a movie with enough early success to warrant sequel talk and spinoff possibilities. That’s a big deal. And when you ask the folks who put him on the page, they can tell you exactly why.
Right around the time that Marvel revealed the company’s plans for Miles’ debut, Brian Michael Bendis was on the set of Powers, a TV series based on one of is creator-owned comics, in Chicago. While lingering around the shoot, actor Cary Peyton (most famous for voicing Cyborg in the Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go! series) approached him. Peyton had heard about the Spider-Man news. He knew about Miles. And he wanted to tell Bendis a story.
“When I was a kid,” Peyton said, according to Bendis, “all we played was superheroes. And my friends wouldn’t let me be anything but Spider-Man because of the color of my skin. I couldn’t be Superman, I couldn’t be Batman, but I could be Spider-Man, because anybody could be in that costume. So I just want you to know, that’s what you’re doing. You’re telling kids ‘Anyone could be in this costume.’ And it’s important, so don’t fuck it up.”
“When he said this to me,” Bendis recalls, “it was a friend telling you something very important. Through the years that I had been writing Spider-Man — all the convention appearances and stuff and online and on Twitter — people had told me versions of the story [Peyton] had told me. But I was just hearing it in my ‘Everyone loves Spider-Man’ head, I wasn’t hearing it in my ‘Spider-Man could be more’ head. Now that we were there, at the moment, and people who don’t normally say these things to you are coming up to you and saying ‘Don’t fuck it up. Do it.’”
With great power comes great responsibility.
“There are a lot of ways in which Miles’ story touches on all sorts of classic superhero and classic Spider-Man and classic Marvel beats,” says Saladin Ahmed, who took the reins on the character for Miles Morales: Spider-Man after Bendis exited Marvel in late 2017 to work at DC Comics. “But he does it in a way that’s very much about the 21st century and what America looks like now. He just has a different name, a different face and is from Brooklyn rather than Queens. He’s maybe a little hipper, you know, more of a 21st century teenager than Peter was. And so I think he’s a perfect figure to bridge that gap.”
Who can be Spider-Man? Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse spins the question into a theme, underscoring the answer in its final moments with a speech from Miles. But it’s one that’s been connected to the character throughout history.
Who can be Spider-Man? Who can be a hero? Whose story can be told? Be beloved? Be central? Be preserved? Be adapted for millions of viewers? From Marvel Comics plot lines to Star Wars trilogies, to Ghostbusters reboots and more, these questions lie at the root of the biggest controversies surrounding the biggest franchises in pop culture in the past five years.
Miles’ story in Spider-Verse asks “Who can be Spider-Man?” and answers: Anyone. But the story of Miles himself says something a little different, and just as important: Who should be able to become Spider-Man?