Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – A Mental Health Perspective.

Spider-Verse

‘Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse’ came out at the end of 2018 in theaters and instantly received high praise. Awards followed, most notably an Oscar for ‘Best Animated Feature Film’. What was clear was the praise the film received universally for its adaptation of ‘Miles Morales’, a black Latino boy from Queens with 2 working parents who ends up with Spider-power’s. After witnessing the death of Spider-Man at the hands of Kingpin, Miles ends up taking the mantle of hero himself. The film followed ‘Black Panther’ in highlighting diversity with race and culture in the superhero film genre.  It gave some people the chance to really see themselves in a racially appropriate hero for one of the first times and with a character as iconic as Spider-Man this was rightly a big deal. This is all on top of the fantastic music that captures an urban New York feel (and one of the best film music soundtracks ever in my opinion) and the stylized animation and art style that somehow literally brings a comic book to life.

The thing is after re-watching the film the other night (only my 2nd viewing and my 1st since theaters) I think I may have stumbled across an extra layer to the film. More ways that ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ delivers on its mantra of ‘It could be you behind the mask’, and it has to do with mental health and the particularly nasty beast of depression!

Why I think I noticed this.

Ok so some context is needed here, I need to explain (briefly and in no great detail) why I think I suddenly saw this film in such a new light and why you may never have noticed it until hopefully now.

I am having treatment for depression (and as I write this I am still scared to publish that fact) and it’s not common knowledge. Some days are fine and others are nightmares, yes I know that can just be the way life is sometimes but it’s more than that. Depression is really hard to explain (believe me I’ve tried) to someone else, each person depression can be different and is made up of so many complex layers. This is something that frightens me and makes things worse; I’m sure many people currently look at me and would never guess what’s going on. (And in fact if you are someone I know reading this, please don’t bring this bit up, feedback on the article is fine but please keep it to that.) I have a good job, a lovely home, a supportive family and an amazing wife but some days I just feel like I’m broken. I can feel nothing at all. No joy at all even from things I like doing. I don’t want to do the things I enjoy as I only see the negatives in a situation – anxiety then kicks in and it just becomes a mess that has more than once resulted in panic attacks, cancelled plans with no great given reason and other things that suck. I should add here that my job is very public facing and far from 9-5 then clock out. When I do have one of these bad days it’s really quite hard to put on the smile I have to wear, a mask in many ways, and go about my job despite the fact that I really do enjoy what I do for a living. (Again I’m scared to write this in case anyone reads it but I hope it’s taken the correct way – if not well I guess I’ll be in my managers office soon enough being told to take this down. Seriously my reputation could be really damaged by putting this out there, but if I spend my days telling others to be open and honest about how they feel and not do that myself then what example am I setting.)

I have been getting help which is great but it’s not a 1,2,3 click all better now situation and I have spent a good amount of time researching the topic and its prevalence which is why I was floored to suddenly see the things I related to, or had read other people’s accounts of, represented in a AAA Spider-Man film that I thought was about something else entirely.

Now let’s get to it.

I was home alone (my wife was out to dinner with some friends) and I saw that I could get ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ digitally and was thrilled. Living in the UK I had to wait while it was available in the US nearly a month before. At first I saw the film the same way I had before and then ‘Peter B Parker’ gets introduced.

He has been Spider-Man for 22 years at this point and it seems to have become mundane to him, something I think many of us could likely relate to, and we also see that his life has far from had the happy hero ending we all think of. He has made some bad choices and suffered from those and the aforementioned mundaneness and ultimately lost all that he held dear. Through events that seemingly he had little or even no control over.  This puts ‘Peter B Parker’ in a bad place and one where it seems he no longer bothers with anything… He no longer takes pleasure from the things he used to love – even live for. He’s flat ……I’ve felt that and now I’m seeing one of the most iconic characters feeling the same. Eye opener.

This is when I realized the elements shown in ‘Peter B Parker’s’ backstory may relate to plenty of adults who know of or have grown up with Spider-Man as an idea of how a hero should be, something to aspire to. A person that always does the best they can, what they think is the right choice and who despite their bumbling nature is a good person. Now these same people have a way to relate to, to see, that while he may have some super problems at times, he is still human – and so are we.

At my lowest I honestly felt like I failed at just being human. I don’t have super problems, I’m no hero but I am honestly trying my best at life. But life doesn’t always let that be enough. ‘Peter B Parker’ gave me and others an ability to see themselves in the character, in the hero. The film got praised for doing just that with Miles and ‘Black Panther’ with ‘T’Challa’, and here now it was doing the same for me just in a different way. As the film continued and with this newfound insight, suddenly I was seeing more examples of my thoughts and feelings both in general and actually about depression itself. In my opinion the film dealt with both the issues of mental health and depression but also showed ways to help with it.

One of the biggest issues to strike me was ‘P.B. Parker’s’ resolve to be the one who would stay behind and stop ‘Kingpin’ even though it meant he would be killed as his atoms were not compatible long term with a different dimension. At first glance this looks like a heroic gesture, one that many would expect of a hero such as Spider-Man. But then that determination suddenly looked like stubbornness, then when you consider his back story and his life back in his dimension it becomes a little clearer. The heroic decision to sacrifice himself scares him less than the idea of returning to his dimension where he has lost everything. For a short time he chose his own fate once more and he is choosing to die! This sounds like a pretty good analogy of suicide to me. Now look at Peter, scared and with a chance to not deal with the hard solutions to problems but would prefer they just went away. In his head things may be better if he did not go back to his dimension, if he no longer existed in that world or any world.

‘P.B. Parker’ is unwilling to listen to the others around him offering help or advice to start with. He pushes Miles away, reluctant to help and then willing to help by dying. The fact he is not in full costume for a large portion of the film demonstrates that he does not feel like Spider-Man anymore, he does not feel strong enough to be that person he once was. And then thanks to the help of those around him he regains some strength to be that person once more. He has the strength to face his problems. If he can do it, then maybe I can, if he can get back up and become his old self again after being lost for so long, then maybe I can.  As people we all have other people we look up to, we want to emulate what we think are the best parts of them. We want to be like them, not just in superhero cases because of the powers, but because they show the best in us. We see them fall and falter but then they pick themselves back up. Deep down that’s something we all want to be able to do, pick ourselves up when things go wrong or were in a bad place. Having ‘P.B. Parker’ show his struggle and ability to get back up from his low place gives those of us in low places something to look to for inspiration, for emulation.

Stronger Together

One of the most important messages sent to people with mental health concerns is ‘Speak up’, ‘don’t suffer in silence’, and ‘speak to someone’. People do this in different ways but one of the most suggested methods is to find someone or some people to lean on for support, even people in similar situations so you can help each other. ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ shows this with its core characters. It is only when the teach starts to help each other that they become stronger. ‘P.B. Parker’ realizes he can’t do it all on his own and opens up to others., ‘Miles’ realizes it’s not just up to him to stop ‘Kingpin’ and he lets others help him. The message of let others help, don’t be afraid to ask for help is key to the plot of the film, without it our heroes wouldn’t prevail. A good message for those suffering in any way really but a good reinforcement for the mental health mantra of ‘Speak up’, ‘Don’t suffer alone’.

This is further reinforced with Miles’ father. He is a police officer, he appears strong and confident, a role model for Miles and yet he does something I don’t recall seeing that type of character do in a film often. He opens up, he shows his feeling – a lot! It’s played for laughs but he openly calls out ‘I love you’ to his son in front of everyone and using a police car loudspeaker. Upon learning of his brother’s death he goes to see Miles and talk to him about it and though Miles can’t speak back, he opens up and tells his son just how much he cares. When he gets no reply we see his sadness yet he simply tells his son he is there for him when he is ready to talk.

You never know what’s under the surface

Finally, we come to ‘Spider-Man Noir’, a character played largely for laughs but as we have seen already humour can often be a cover up for something deeper.  In his backstory we see him say that he has turned to drinking milkshakes and that he lets matches burn to his fingertips just to feel something. The milkshake joke is clearly a joke about alcohol, and while funny does touch on a serious thing. Many people turn to alcohol or drugs to help them ‘feel better’ when they are in dark places. The match burning ‘just to feel something’ sounds scarily like something a lot of people who self-harm say. They don’t feel anything anymore, so that pain reminds them they are alive. Here in this Spider-Man film, a film no doubt a lot of children will watch, there are these brief glimpses at two of mental health’s biggest problems.

Yet throughout the film this alcoholic, self-harming version of Spider-Man finds something. He finds a rubix cube, now this is funny because his world is black and white so he does not understand colour. But I believe it represents more than a joke. I believe the rubix cube is a metaphor for a light in his life, a literal beacon of hope in the darkness. Something found when he was with people who cared for him. He takes it back to his world, a sign he is ready to accept hope back into his life.  He utters the phrase ‘ I don’t understand it (why the light and hope he has been without for so long is making him feel better) but I will’. That’s important, you may not see how these tiny steps, these tiny rays of light can create a glowing beacon of happiness back in your life. But hopefully if you don’t give up you will see eventually.

Think back to ‘Peter B Parker’, when he goes back to his world we see him ring his ex-wife’s doorbell while holding flowers. We never see how that pans out, we don’t see him happy. We don’t see that everything worked out ok but what we do see is a character that has taken his life back into his own hands. He is giving life a go again and it might not work but he is willing to try. That should be a message to people struggling if nothing else in this film is.

Summing up

‘Into the Spider-Verse’ is a great film, for many reasons. But in the end it’s the message of the film that sets it apart. The message of Spider-Man, ‘anyone can wear the mask, anyone can be a hero, anyone can be strong’. Its you’re strength to dust yourself off and keep going, the strength to face and conquer your problems, the trust to reach for help when you need it and the boost you can get if you do. Heroes are everywhere; your battles are your own. But if they can do it, then so can you.

After reading this go and watch ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ again with this article in mind, if you find something that helps you then fantastic, if maybe you learn something more about mental health then also fantastic, if nothing then at least you can enjoy an awesome film. Remember that you are a hero, you can do it. Just like I’m trying to do, just like other people are every day. Just like Spider-Man did. After all, Miles and Peter are just like us, the only real difference is a spider bite.

 

Get in touch about the article or the film, it would be awesome to hear if anyone else had similar thoughts or now sees the film in a different light. Or of course you can just disagree and that’s cool and i want to know that as well. You can get in touch on Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail.

For more on Spider-Man check out my review of the recent PS4 Spider-man game.

 

Tom


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