Earlier this fall, I was scrolling through Twitter (as one does), and came across a streamer’s rather wholesome reaction to the new Spider-Man: Miles Morales game. The game itself looks fantastic at a base level, but also featured some nods to Miles’ Puerto Rican heritage. This prompted the streamer’s tearful reaction. It was a rare positive moment for the bird app. It was also a moment that, not too long ago, I wouldn’t have appreciated. In fact, it wasn’t until Miles Morales and, more specifically, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that I started to truly understand the power of representation.
Despite growing up as a Puerto Rican lad myself, the issue of representation in pop culture was hardly something that crossed my mind. I certainly knew there was a disparity problem, it just didn’t occupy much space in the cobweb-littered realm known as my brain. For the majority of my life, I just grew to accept the way things were: that the entertainment industry would never actually care about my culture and rarely even acknowledge it.
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In the early stages of my deeply introverted adolescence, blockbusters—and certainly superhero movies, which I loved the most—rarely gave Hispanic characters the spotlight. Most of the time, mainstream pop culture relegated Hispanic characters to tertiary roles. Or, more annoyingly, tired stereotypes. Loud, boisterous Hispanic characters—or the classic drug dealer/cartel story—felt exceedingly common. One example, from the first Transformers movie is actually an apt summation of how the culture is often treated. One character gets blown off for speaking Spanish. “English, dude, English!” is a great line to illustrate the apparent annoyance that Hollywood has with Hispanic people being proud of their culture.
The funny thing is that it didn’t trouble me much. My favorite characters were mostly white (and still are! Shoutout to Naruto Uzumaki, a true king), and I didn’t see anything particularly wrong with that. I grew up reading my beloved Ultimate Spider-Man comics, which remain among my favorite stories across any medium. I never begrudged anyone who spent their time and energy critiquing contemporary art for its lack of diversity; that was a noble cause! Rather, I was, in a word, more apathetic. I never had my “Wow, representation matters! I feel this!” moment.
Of course, as so often happens, I caught a curveball of unexpected emotions when I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Spider-Man is my favorite character ever, but I never expected the movie to be a genuine masterpiece, and universally beloved. (I’m fairly certain it’d be harder to find a dissenting opinion of Spider-Verse than the literal holy grail.) Among myriad other reasons, what made the movie so powerful was just how well it understood diversity.
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My favorite scene in the entire movie is when Miles is first introduced. It’s a small, almost inconsequential sequence, in which we see Miles getting ready for school, walking down his neighborhood block, and organically speaking Spanish. It was natural, unforced, and just there. It took me back to the days when I was younger visiting my family in Puerto Rico; I didn’t even speak Spanish, but there’s just something about hearing it. Even those moments when my relatives would be obnoxiously shouting for me to do some meaningless chore came back to me, for better or worse.
Upon watching Miles casually speaking Spanish for the first time, I had the absolute cheesiest of smiles plastered across my face. That small, non-preachy gesture meant the world to me. It was a casual showcase of my culture, one that was alive, flowing right along as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. In that moment, for the first time, I felt represented. Rather than a prerecorded message on the loudspeaker blaring through the hallways of fake-wokeness, it was a gentle tap on the shoulder inviting you to the lunch table. I truly think there’s something beautiful about that.
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Spider-Verse’s sensitivity and understanding of representation extends beyond just Miles and his Puerto Rican and African-American background. Thanks to the inclusion of Spider-people like Spider-Gwen (the definition of rad, by the way), the movie has a knack for diversity without making a big deal out of itself. Peter Parker is the original Spider-Man, and a springboard for the story, but there’s no true or real Spider-Man. Instead, all of these Spider folks co-exist in a way that feels natural; there’s a togetherness with them that never feels heavy-handed. (Unlike something akin to, perhaps, the “She’s Got Help” scene in Avengers: Endgame that felt more like an unearned pat on the back by Disney.)
Even on my twenty-seventh rewatch of the movie, I get choked up. Spider-Verse unlocked something in me. From then on, I started to better understand why representation mattered. My apathy towards the topic of representation dissipated, and it became something I searched more for in my pop culture consumption. White America’s ignorance of others was something I’d become numb to. These days, it’s on the forefront of my mind.
I feel a certain amount of rage towards those that seek to pedal the “forced representation” rhetoric—as if simply showing people of color, or women, or non-binary folk, is somehow a chore. People just want to be seen. And I can promise you that as a Puerto Rican lad who grew up among predominantly white characters, it’s not a herculean task to open your heart to other kinds of stories.
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