Monday night, I watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with my kids. I saw it in the theater a few months ago, we recently bought it on Amazon Prime, and this was our first time to watch it together. The movie is visually stunning: it’s great on the small screen, but I’m really glad I saw it on the big screen while I had the chance.
It’s also an excellent story that packs a lot of complexity and character development into a pretty tidy two-hour runtime. It contains a lot of nice touches I noticed on a second viewing--look at the shape of Dr. Octavius’s glasses, for example--and we get to see the main character, Miles Morales, go from “geeky, overwhelmed, fumbling teenager” to “new Spider-Man” in a tight and convincing way that sets him up for the inevitable run of sequels.
Morales isn’t a brand-new character: he made his first appearance in an alternate Spider-Man universe in 2011, and the other Spideys in the movie (Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham, Peni Parker & SP//DR, Spider-Gwen) are from other parts of the Spider-Verse with which I am only familiar because of Into the Spider-Verse and what turned up on Wikipedia.
Like the music of Keith Flint and The Prodigy, Into the Spider-Verse shows how fears about “the end” of economic progress are unfounded. There is no end to the stories we can tell, and there is no end to the ways we can tell them. As more and more of our material wants are satisfied, we will likely move toward consumption of services, experiences, and stories.
“Reimagine and reboot” has a long and venerable history in the arts. How many different reimaginings of Shakespeare have there been, or can there be? The Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes version of Romeo+Juliet was set in 1990s Southern California. In 2012, the Royal Shakespeare Company set Julius Caesar in modern Africa. A nearby theater troupe is putting on a post-apocalyptic version of Henry V in May. If Shakespeare is malleable. Spider-Man and Star Wars and everything else can be, too.
[Minor spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the movie]
Into the Spider-Verse leaves a casual viewer like me with a lot of questions. What is the Kingpin’s backstory in this universe? Has Dr. Octavius told him about cellular degeneration when people switch universes? Does he care? Does she care? Does Kingpin in this universe care at all about what he might be doing to Kingpin in a different universe, and might he fear reprisal? What’s the history between Aunt May and Dr. Octavius? This is clearly signaled when Octavius says “my friends actually call me ‘Liv’; my enemies call me ‘Doc Ock’” and later, when she arrives at Aunt May’s house, Aunt May says “oh great, it’s Liv.”
The production budget of $90 million and the worldwide gross of $375 million says that there’s a market for Spider-Man reimaginings. The studios will keep making movies for as long as the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost, and as one might expect a sequel and a few spinoffs are in the works. Embracing the multiverse hypothesis is an interesting move, too, as I think it will allow fans to enjoy spinoff stories without necessarily worrying about how they will affect their preferred timelines. Who knows? Maybe a future Star Wars prequel trilogy will tell a different set of stories and banish the 1999/2002/2005 prequel trilogy to a galaxy far, far away in a different universe. In that I’m just speculating--but if you want to pretend the Star Wars prequel trilogy never happened, go right ahead. It’s a fictional universe--though my inner child does relish the idea that there does exist some universe in which Star Wars and Spider-Man and so on really happened.
There is also an interesting and useful lesson about status and hierarchy that’s most evident from this installment of XKCD about plastic crazy straw design: “Human subcultures are nested fractally. There’s no bottom.” For better or for worse, people crave status. We measure ourselves by clicks, followers, likes, salary, and so on.
Infinite stories that can be told in infinite ways also imply infinite fandoms and sub-fandoms and sub-sub-fandoms with lots and lots of opportunities for people to achieve high status within a little niche. Everyone in academia is familiar with this. We have our heroes and the people we revere--I remember going full fanboy when I first met Walter Williams, and you can see my birthday appreciation of him here--that no one else cares about.
I wonder sometimes how many people have sat on planes next to some of my intellectual heroes and influences (Douglass North, Vernon Smith, Elinor Ostrom, Thomas Sowell) and not known just how Very Big a Deal their seatmate is.
As communities proliferate, opportunities for status proliferate. If you use your imagination, I’m sure you can think of several communities to which you belong in which you have relatively high status and several other communities to which you belong in which you have relatively low status. Would it be better if people weren’t so status-oriented? I think so, but expanding opportunities for status in a commercial society is an OK second-best.
Innovations in arts and entertainment are constant reminders of our limitless ingenuity and potential. The fear that economic growth has to end runs aground on the simple fact that we have infinite stories and infinite ways to tell them.
The limitless Spider-Verse is just one example. So long as there are new ways to think about the conflict between someone who has been bitten by a radioactive spider, a crime lord who has lost his family, and a mad scientist with mechanical tentacles, there will be room for economic progress.