Superhero, Fatigued: The Mostly Joyous Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Is Also About Burnout

Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Spoilers below for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Peter Parker is tired. And sad. As he approaches his 40s, things haven’t worked out quite the way he planned. He’s lost his beloved Aunt May. He’s split with Mary Jane. He’s made some bad business decisions and now he mostly sits alone in his room eating frozen pizza, putting on weight, and staring down a future that looks even grimmer than his present. Sure, he did all that superheroing and everyone loved him for a while. But those days are long gone for Peter Parker, in the new animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Or at least for one Peter Parker.

Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman and brought to life by inventive animation directed by Rothman, Peter Ramsey, and Bob Persichetti, Into the Spider-Verse is this year’s most inventive big-budget animated film, a wealth of vivid imagery, fun ideas, and exciting new characters largely drawn from the last decade or so of Spider-Man comics. These include Miles, an Afro-Latino teenager created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese-American middle-schooler who works with a robotic spider; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a hard-boiled detective from a black-and-white world; Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), a hero from a universe in which Peter died and his friend Gwen Stacy assumed spider powers; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a superpowered pig from a Looney Tunes-like world.

Set across different realities, each home to a different variation of Spider-Man, Into the Spider-Verse primarily takes place in one that’s home to a different Peter Parker. He’s younger, blonder, and, by all appearances, having a great time. The public loves him, he’s good at saving the world, and he even has a hit Christmas album in stores. Trouble is, he’s doomed not to make it past the film’s first act, dying shortly after he meets Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), the teenager who will, eventually, take over the Spider-Man identity and resume his duties.

All are tremendously fun characters who are, for the most part, upbeat about their roles. (Well, Spider-Man Noir is as upbeat as a Bogart-inspired gumshoe character can be.) Much of the film concerns Miles overcoming his insecurities and assuming the Spider-Man mantle — harnessing both the great power and great responsibility that comes with both — but the happy outcome isn’t exactly in doubt. It’s not that sort of movie. Few superhero movies are.

Yet, the specter of the older Peter Parker hangs over the Spider-Man analogues of every universe. Voiced by Jake Johnson, he becomes a kind of mentor for Miles, but only reluctantly. And it’s not hard to see why: Is Miles heading toward the same dead end as he reached? Are all of them?

Sure, the older Peter Parker is just the inhabitant of one of Into the Spider-Verse’s universe. And, had he lived, it’s not even clear if the Peter of Miles’s universe would have ended up like the burnt-out Peter Miles learns to know. The Peter of his world is blonder and voiced by Chris Pine, a wonderful actor but one likely incapable of conveying the laconic disappointment that seems to come so naturally to Johnson. But we’ll never know. It’s possible that the Peter of Miles’s world just hadn’t lived long enough to start going downhill. It’s possible that it’s the fate awaiting all superheroes. Will even Spider-Ham someday find himself reflecting on where it all went wrong?

Part of what makes the character so fascinating is that he doesn’t have that many analogues in film, TV, or comics. There have been older versions of Peter Parker. A much older Parker appears in Kaare Andrews’s 2006–2007 mini-series Spider-Man: Reign. The universe of The Amazing Spider-Girl features a retired, middle-aged Peter. And there have been downward-spiraling superheroes. The protagonist of the Will Smith–starring Hancock comes to mind, but his problems go beyond disappointment and disillusionment. Similarly, Jessica Jones — in both comics and the Netflix series that bears her name — is driven to drink and cynicism by trauma, not by age and regret.

Usually, however, superhero stories are tales of endless short-term setbacks, not of soul-shaking ennui. Even our most tortured heroes don’t drift away from their essential identities. Daredevil will always be ridden by guilt and Batman will remain an incurable obsessive, but they’re consistent in their problems. Since his 1962 debut, Peter Parker has been pretty consistent too. Even when he’s not taking on the Vulture or Kraven the Hunter or whoever happens to be bothering him at any given moment, he always overcommitted and worried he’s letting everyone else down. Into the Spider- Verse features a Peter who’s stopped worrying because he knows he’s let everyone down. All that youthful promise and early joy has given way to grown-up realities. Age has made him hit his limits, and he’s hit them hard.

It’s possible to read his fate as inevitable. Though the CW series Black Lightning features an older-and-wiser superhero (and the aging of superhero actors is, however incidentally, starting to factor into superhero movies), there aren’t too many other counterexamples. It’s easy to read Into the Spider-Verse’s slumping Peter Parker as just what happens to superheroes after a while. A few wrong moves and the world rolls on without them. One day you’re swinging your way through Manhattan, the next you’re just too exhausted by life to leave the house. It’s as believable a depiction of what it means to approach middle age as you’ll see in any movie this year.

It probably wouldn’t be bad for the superhero genre if — after following up on the much-needed explosion of diversity in heroes presented by Into the Spider-Verse — we saw more such stories. Though a different sort of film, Logan proved much could be done with stories of superheroes who have lost their way. Apart from swapping in Don Cheadle for Terrence Howard, Marvel hasn’t shown much interest in recasting its heroes and, simply as a practical matter, if actors decide to stay with their parts, age will start to factor into their stories. In some ways, it already has. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark has seemed a little more haunted by his superhero career — and the sacrifices he’s made for it — with each entry in the MCU, and we’ve seen Chris Evans’s Captain America drift deeper into disillusionment. But, so far at least, these have been treated more like shading than the focus of their stories, and the sense that one or both will likely be exiting the MCU next year means these stories could soon conclude.

But what if they didn’t? Here’s a for instance: What if the proposed Black Widow movie fully committed to exploring how trauma has taken a toll on her? Her appearance in the Avengers films have touched on this — referencing her dark origins and setting up a potentially tragic romance — but never had the room to explore it in any detail, often to their detriment. Would Avengers: Age of Ultron seem as thoughtless if Natasha’s self-reflection wasn’t limited to a few lines that seemed to equate infertility with monstrousness? In Scarlett Johansson, Marvel has an actress capable of digging into the psyche of her character and the effects a lifetime of violence and deceit might have on it. Why not lean into that — alongside the requisite action and plot twists demanded of a Black Widow story, of course — and her crisis of conscience play out over the movie (or several, for that matter).

For now, the one example we do have might be overwhelmingly depressing if Into the Spider-Verse didn’t make Peter’s possible rejuvenation a subplot as well. Showing Miles the ropes (well, webs) and spending time with the other Spider-People does him good, reminding him of the life he used to enjoy and making him think he might be able to repair it after all. The film ends with him starting to climb out of his funk, without revealing whether he makes it or not. He might. But it might just be too much effort.

Chances are, we’ll find out. Sony has already announced both a sequel and a spinoff centered on the Spider-Verse’s female characters. Where Peter goes from here remains to be seen but, for now, his undetermined fate feels as apt as the disappointment and downcast demeanor that’s taken him over at the beginning of the film. Into the Spider-Verse confronts its characters with confounding villains and ideas ripped from quantum physics, but in any universe it’s tomorrow that remains the great, always formidable unknown.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Looks at Superhero Burnout