By Peyton Austin
Twelve minutes into the Academy Award-winning film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the main protagonist, Miles Morales, spray-paints his outline over the words “no expectations.” This references his earlier literature assignment on the book Great Expectations, the famous novel by Charles Dickens. When I first watched the movie and they showed Miles reading this book, I didn’t think much of it past my own excitement. Great Expectations is one of my favorite novels, so seeing it included in the movie pleased me. The subsequent subversion in Miles’s graffiti was equally pleasing. The second time I watched, I similarly didn’t think much of it. The third time, however, I could not stop thinking about this insertion of Great Expectations. Did Miles truly have no expectations, and how far could one apply the 19th-century book to the 21st-century movie?
The answer: far indeed. I soon realized that the writers of Into the Spider-Verse are not actually using Miles Morales to subvert Great Expectations, but rather expand on it. The themes and issues that Pip, the novel’s protagonist, face prove that the writers of Into the Spider-Verse took their consideration of the novel’s themes far beyond Miles’s graffiti art.
For Miles, his expectations have nothing to do with money—rather, the sudden inheritance that he receives is his superpowers. Miles’s expectations are deeply tied into his family life. The same way that Pip’s sudden influx of money causes him to treat his family horribly, Miles’s new powers further isolate him from a father who hates Spider-Man and an uncle who works for the main villain. (No matter how great the expectations are, they bring with them a lot of baggage.) This family set-up, however, is most crucial for Miles, because it is his family that will help him fully come into his powers.
The graffiti scene becomes immediately important again. It’s no coincidence that Miles receives the spider bite while he graffitis with his uncle, at the spot his uncle picked out. One of the major themes of Into the Spider Verse, and the one important for this essay, is family as inspiration. While Miles’s father discourages Miles’s tagging, Uncle Aaron is the one who inspires Miles creatively, encouraging him to continue his passion for graffiti art and tagging. As Miles tags, his uncle says, “The real Miles, comin’ outta hidin’.” Thus this scene comes together both thematically and narratively: Uncle Aaron takes the time to encourage Miles in his art and life, and Miles gains his superpowers in the process. His “real self” also becomes his superpowered self.
This graffiti scene is also the one that first poses the question for Miles: does he truly have no expectations? In fact, he has many—his family, and especially his father, expects him to succeed in an elite school where Miles originally did not want to go. The original Peter Parker expects Miles to disable The Super Collider. The other Spider-characters expect Miles to be able to save the multiverse. Yet more than that, Miles is loved. His mother and uncle love him, and his father, while harder on Miles, clearly loves him too. So where is Miles getting this perception that he has no expectations?
Despite the love there, the family still remains fractured. Miles and his father cannot get along, and Miles’s father and uncle further cause a rift by refusing to talk to each other at all. Miles struggles with his powers throughout the movie (as Pip struggles with money and love, getting himself into large debts). No matter how much Peter B. Parker attempts to teach Miles control of his powers, no matter how much advice the other Spider-characters give, Miles’s powers cannot grow in strength. Miles’s family, especially when Aaron dies, is still falling apart.
Miles finally achieves his full powers when his father approaches him about Aaron’s death. His father opens up to Miles, reaffirming his love and care for Miles and saying, “I see this spark in you, it’s amazing. That’s why I push you, but . . . that’s yours.” Immediately after this moment, Miles taps into the full extent of his powers. This is the critical moment, between Miles and his father. Despite Miles being unable to respond, his father stops trying to place so much expectation on his son, instead giving it to Miles to do whatever he wishes. He offers unconditional love, especially in the face of family tragedy. In the moment where Miles has lost his number one supporter in his uncle, his father finally steps up to reconnect. This was something that Peter Parker didn’t understand (and couldn’t, considering his family issues with Gwen). It's Miles's family that finally steps up.
Despite losses like Aaron, Miles’s superpowers eventually bring his family closer together, where Pip only reconciled with his family as he grew out of his elitism. But it’s still very clear that the writers of Into the Spider-Verse were more than inspired when it comes to Great Expectations. (Plus, many of the characters in Pip’s life can transfer right over to the movie. It’s crazy how similar they are.) The movie writers took their own perspective of the book’s themes of family, inheritance, and coming-of-age.
And what is Into the Spider-Verse about if not the way we relate to other people’s stories while creating our own? All the other Spideys have stories that are similar in narrative but distinct in detail to Miles’s, and this is exactly how the movie plays Miles’s story with Great Expectations. Miles is another version of Pip, the same way he’s another version of Spider-Gwen and Peter Parker and Spider-Man Noir. And as the movie proved, despite Miles Morales’s similarities to other narratives, he’s able to create a distinct and unique narrative of his own.