When Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino web-slinger at the heart of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, was first introduced to the Marvel comics universe in 2014, detractors said the move to replace Peter Parker with a person of colour was motivated by political correctness.
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As is often the case, the trolls were wrong. Morales, brought vividly to life in the new animation from Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, is the most interesting version of Spider-Man we could have asked for in 2018: a 16-year-old, modern Brooklynite (the web-slinger typically hails from Queens) with his finger on the pulse of rap culture. His race is not incidental – it’s an accurate representation of melting pot New York – and taps into a rich vein of cultural history.
The filmmakers risked a lot in modernising their hero in such a tangible way, yet through paying homage to hip-hop aesthetics and enlisting top-level rap stars, like Vince Staples, Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne, to provide music for the soundtrack, they’ve managed to pull it off.
Fittingly, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is all about diversity. It sees Peter Parker pass the mantle down to newly empowered Miles just as a rip in the fabric of their universe allows multiple Spider-beings (not all male; not all people) into his universe. There’s Noir Spider-Man (voiced by Nicolas Cage), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), alternate universe Peter B Parker (New Girl’s Jake Johnson) and Looney Tunes-Marvel hybrid Spider-Ham (comedian John Mulaney, whose voice was made for cartoons).
Yet, despite all of this disruption (each visitor from the multi-verse comes with its own animation style), Miles’s New York is vibrant and distinct. A burgeoning street artist, he clambers through Brooklyn plastering stickers to signposts when out from under the gaze of his police officer father (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry). Scenes of him running through subway terminals, overpasses and alleyways are animated in such a way as to make the graffiti (ubiquitous in these streets, and one of the earliest components of hip-hop culture) pop in the background.
And then there’s the soundtrack, which was curated to represent what a young New Yorker like Miles would listen to. He’s got good taste, too: a poster of Chance the Rapper adorns his bedroom wall.
The most prominent track, and Miles’s go-to pump-up song, is Sunflower, a pop-rap hybrid from genre-bending hip-hop stars Post Malone and Swae Lee (one half of Rae Sremmurd). It bursts with optimistic, positive energy without coming across as twee.
The safe option would have been to fill the soundtrack with bonafide New York hip-hop classics from the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Grandmaster Flash and Nas, but this wouldn’t have been true to Miles, or the evolution of the genre. Or the evolution of Spider-Man, come to think of it.
Instead, the music speaks to the current moment: nu-gangsta rap from rising Californian Vince Staples, appearances from end-of-the-life-cycle rappers Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne (who both put out new albums to limited success earlier this year) and a lean into perhaps the greatest trend of current era: emo rap. This melancholic new sub-genre blossomed from free music streaming site Soundcloud, bringing forth young, pink-haired stars like Lil Pump and Lil Uzi Vert, who croon about xanax addiction over melancholic beats. Impressively, Into The Spider-Verse has also tapped the leader of the pack in 2018, Juice WRLD (whose track Lucid Dreams is one of the biggest of the year), for an original song.
A glance back at the soundtrack for Sam Raimi’s Tobey Maguire-led live-action Spider-Man (2002) will tell you a lot about how far mainstream music, and Spider-Man, has come in the last 16 years. The big soundtrack song on that occasion was Hero, by Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, a painfully earnest rock ballad that is, put politely, a little on-the-nose.
But it’s really the way that the music ties so well into the fabric of the film that really makes this Spider-Man film stand-out. Like Marvel’s Black Panther, whose Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack was recently nominated for a boatload of Grammys, Into The Spider-Verse takes its sonic landscape as seriously as everything else, and it’s a big part of blending the New York that Spider-Man inhabited way back in the 1960s when the comics first debuted, and the New York of today, which has been majorly transformed since hip-hop was birthed in its streets four decades ago.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is out in UK cinemas Now