Imagine a world…
A world changing fast, and faster, a world of machinery and innovation. A world where the rich and powerful want nothing more than to expand their empire at any cost… yet even in the grimiest hearts of the cities, heroes rise up from the common people.
Imagine a cemetery in the dead of winter. Imagine that, within that cemetery, a scared young kid meets a man on the run. This encounter changes both of their lives forever, witnessed by one particular headstone. The headstone bears the name of one of the very-much-alive men.
Pop quiz! Are we talking about Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, or Into the Spider-Verse, released by Sony Animation and directed by Peter Ramsey?
The answer? Both. We are talking about a conversation between a Victorian novelist and a 2010s’animation team, and the way that the latter builds upon the former.
Now, if you saw Into the Spider-Verse, and I hope you did, you may remember that Great Expectations is the novel that Miles Morales, our hero, is reading in English class at Visions Academy. Now, the writers could very well have taken Great Expectations at random off your list of top ten boring, over-assigned novels. But they didn’t, and I can prove it.
There is a conscious thematic connection between Spider-Verse and Expectations. Early in the film, Miles attends a physics class, and though his focus is elsewhere, the topic of the day is parallel dimensions, thus laying the groundwork for the main plot of Spider-Verse. I will prove that the literary allusion is no accident, either.
I will be discussing endgame plot points for Spider-Verse and Great Expectations from here on out, so, spoiler alert. Go see Spider-Verse. As for Expectations, maybe read the Cliffnotes version.
Meet our underdog protagonists. Dickens’ Philip Pirrip, called “Pip,” is a working-class orphan. He will follow his brother-in-law into the rough but respectable trade of blacksmithing. Pip grows to resent this station. How lucky for Pip, then (it would seem), when he receives word that an anonymous benefactor is going to fund his education, allowing him to move into the “gentle” class. If Pip is a timid but good-hearted little boy, he grows into a cold and snobby young man, whose good fortune has gone to his head. He lives in the nineteenth century, in London.
Pip’s story begins when he is alone in the graveyard, stealing some time away from his abusive older sister and guardian. He is regarding his father’s gravestone, which bears his own name—Philip Pirrip. An escaped convict accosts Pip, shakes him and threatens him unless Pip should return to the graveyard with food and a file, to remove the manacle on his ankle. The convict’s memory of Pip will later be important to the boy’s destiny; however, unlike Miles’ destiny, it does not lead to a breakneck chase scene in rush hour traffic.
As for Miles—brace yourself, because Spider-Verse’s plot has enough characters and elements to satisfy even Dickens’ twistiest narrative…
Miles Morales lives in our time, in Brooklyn. He is an Afro-Latino teen with a tentative place at a ritzy school, Visions Academy, and his parents are happy for his opportunity. But Miles doesn’t feel like he belongs at Visions. He would rather be a normal kid in his home turf, but an encounter with a radioactive spider changes things. Then the plot kicks into gear:
Miles, trying to handle his new superpowers, meets Spider-Man. Spider-Man, with his dying breath, gives Miles a charge—shut down the dimension-snagging super-collider, foil the nefarious Kingpin, save the world. As New York City grieves, Miles comes to the grave of the unmasked, posthumous Peter Parker, to apologize—he’s lost and overwhelmed. But there, he meets another Peter Parker—Peter B. Parker, Spider-Man of a parallel universe, out of space and on the run.
It’s not long before other dimension-swingers show up. Diverse in era, personality, even animation style, they all have one thing in common: they all took up the charge of saving their city under the spider insignia. And now, all their worlds are in peril.
Phew. That’s the heroes. Pip Pirrip and Miles Morales.
Now, they say that a great hero is defined by a great villain. Dickens penned Miss Havisham, she of the decaying wedding dress, the obsession with revenge, and the supporting role in Jasper Fforde novels. The main villain of Spider-Verse (that is to say, the guy who sets the other bad guys in motion) is Kingpin. Kingpin is an apt villain of the moment, being a white, super-wealthy New Yorker with criminal ties and just enough legitimacy to keep himself out of prison. He’s the poster boy of entitled, violent, toxic whiteness-maleness-wealth. And when all else fails, he’s enormously big and strong.
Now, I say that Miss Havisham and the Kingpin, if they sat down to tea, would have a lot to bond over. Both of them represent the establishment, the social classes and structures that keep themselves on top, and would keep Pip and Miles in their place. Both of them carry their privilege visibly, in their clothes. The Kingpin, in his perfectly tailored, spotless black suit. Miss Havisham, heiress to a brewing fortune, remains shrouded in her bridal gown, decades after she first donned it. None of her grasping relations, hoping for a slice of the pie, talk sense into her and tell her to get a grip and move on.
But what really ties these two together is, both Kingpin and Miss Havisham are utterly trapped in the past, in the exact moment when their lives broke. None of their wealth and power saved them from losing what really mattered. Miss Havisham’s prison is her wedding day, when she received the letter telling her that her fiance had jilted and robbed her. She created the rest of the prison around herself– stopping the clocks, closing the doors, letting the dust pile up.
As for Kingpin, Mr. Wilson Fisk, we see, in impressionistic flashback, that as he was on the verge of murdering Spider-Man, in walked his wife and son. They saw that the man they loved was a criminal and a killer. They fled into the night, and died in an accident. It’s hard to say which one dealt a greater blow to Kingpin: their deaths, or their disillusionment. He puts his money and clout to work retrieving parallel-universe doubles of Vanessa and Richard.
The Kingpin does not give up his criminal empire, nor does he want to undo the car accident with time-travel; he doesn’t call up a necromancer to recall their souls (and Dr. Strange presumably exists in this universe). He wants his wife and son back exactly as they were, when they were unaware, when they were his.
And Miss Havisham, with her #iconic wedding gown, makes herself an exception to Time. A wedding dress should be a symbol of one special, set-apart day, and Miss Havisham still wears hers, even as it rots, rather than move on. She and Kingpin are both artifacts of the old order. Their privilege and status sustains them, for now, but if you took that away, they would crumble. There’s nothing left within the shell.
And that’s where Miles Morales and Pip Pirrip enter the picture. Peter Ramsey and Charles Dickens create antagonists who are relics of the past, and their heroes are forces of the future. Admittedly, Great Expectations is not an optimistic work, focusing on Pip’s corruption, despair, and angst. But let’s focus on Spider-Verse, which I think has something more interesting to say.
The opening monologue of the movie is Spider-Man, the self-assured Peter Parker, promising his listener that he always gets back up, no matter how many times he’s knocked down. This is a familiar theme for kids’ movies– “never give up!” But the writers are canny enough to complicate this refrain.
Peter B. Parker, when we meet him, is from a timeline some twelve years advanced from Miles’. He doesn’t give up fighting, but there’s a definite sense that he’s given up hoping. What happened in his past twelve years? His Aunt May died. His finances sank. His marriage strained, and then split up. No wonder he’s depressed and lonely. He’s going through the motions of superherodom. What’s he even fighting for anymore? Well, the people of New York, yes, but without the Spider-Man mask, Peter’s another guy, a divorced loser with a second-rate hustle.
The thing is, this is human stuff. This is leagues away from vats of bubbling green ooze and nefarious ninjas from Neptune. There’s nothing Peter could have fought, caught, or outwitted to prevent death by old age, to easily solve difficulties between him and his wife. It’s the day-to-day living that’s defeated him.
Just as Kingpin does, Peter B. Parker carries his grief around with him. If Peter isn’t as omnicidally destructive as Kingpin is, that’s only because Peter is somewhat better-adjusted (and I think he turns his destructive feelings inward– notice how he doesn’t mind the prospect of staying in a universe that will horribly kill him in a week, tops, guaranteed). Likewise, Gwen Stacy, Spider-Woman in her own verse, carries her failure like a shield beneath her cool exterior. She couldn’t save her own ‘verse’s Peter Parker, and she can’t open herself up to the chance of that grief again.
And then, balanced between these established heroes, delicate as a spider between two thorns, enter Miles Morales, the New Kid, bungling his way to learning the webs—er, ropes.
Miles, for all his doubts in himself, is a young man bursting with promise. His family sees it. His uncle confides in him, “You’re the best of all of us, Miles… just keep going.” That phrase tells Miles that he can trust himself to know what’s best, rather than look to outside authority. By the movie’s end, Miles is able to incorporate the methods of his father and uncle, brothers who fell out. Miles carries their love and pride in him, the best of both. He assumes the Spider-Man mantle, but he runs-flies-swings through New York in his own way, with his own twist on the art. He’s not going to crumple up, close himself off, or give up. Miles Morales creates his own expectations.
And he inspires his more experienced counterparts. Peter will talk to Mary Jane again, maybe mend bridges. Gwen will open herself up to new friends, new connections, without fear, just as, at the end of Expectations, Pip has reopened a connection with an old frenemy, another healing, hurting soul. The headstone with a living man’s name becomes a reassurance, a symbol of the happy paradox: even when it seems impossible, life goes on. There’s always a way—find it, or make it. A better future is waiting.
One last note:
The last bit of narration, coming from Miles himself, assures the audience that “anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask!” This echoes a chilling poem by the African-American laureate, Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.” Dunbar talks of the need to disguise his anguish as a black man, as part of the demands of white supremacy, and to salvage what he can of his pride. “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile—we wear the mask!”
Again, I would bet that this is not coincidence. Miles Morales, voiced excellently by Shameik Moore, takes this lament and remixes it into an anthem. Wear the mask, live with courage, do what’s right… save the world. It could be you.