While the Spider-Verse movies appear to take place outside Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity (apart from multiverse shenanigans that form the most tenuous conceptual connections), it was always clear that the yearslong back-and-forth between Marvel and Sony over the cinematic rights to Spider-Man would eventually interfere. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige made his company’s ongoing push to keep Spidey in the MCU fold clear back in 2019, labeling the wall-crawler as “the only hero with the superpower to cross cinematic universes.”
At first, Marvel Studios’ future plans for Spider-Man seemed to revolve solely around Tom Holland’s role as the character. Meanwhile, as Miles Morales tells Spider-Man 2099 in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, he’d rather do his own thing. In an IP-driven world, however, his freedom from the idiosyncratic norms of superhero movies wasn’t bound to last forever. As producer Amy Pascal told Variety in the lead-up to Across the Spider-Verse’s release, a live-action Miles Morales movie is already in the works. And that’s a problem, because the MCU doesn’t deserve Miles Morales.
In an era of corporate crossovers and calculations, teams of creatives are rarely free from the responsibility of tie-ins or orchestrating the next spinoff. DC can’t escape Batman, and Star Wars can’t part ways with the Skywalkers. Studios are increasingly force-feeding nostalgia to their fans through CGI re-creations of actors and deepfake voices.
Into the Spider-Verse was initially an independent breakout from that corporate-connection machine. But the team behind Across the Spider-Verse wasn’t lucky enough to escape the crossover curse. In a vacuum, that movie’s cameos can be seen as welcoming jokes for fans, and a tribute to Spider-Man’s media longevity. But when you look at the plans Marvel Studios (and the Walt Disney Company) are laying out for the next few years, these references are a worrying reality check about where Miles Morales could fit into the cinematic conglomerate — and the identity his story could lose in the process.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.]
Days before Across the Spider-Verse’s premiere, Sony released a promotional reel featuring the live-action renditions of Spider-Man, culminating with Into the Spider-Verse in an ICYMI fashion. Most noteworthy is the promotional art leading the reel, which features Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) alongside Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland.
As funny (and somewhat harrowing) as it is to see the animated character standing with the actors, it seems he won’t always be the odd man out. The plans for a live-action Miles Morales movie are less surprising after seeing Donald Glover’s live-action cameo as Prowler in Across the Spider-Verse — his second reference to the character, since he originally appeared as a subtle Aaron Davis in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. In Across the Spider-Verse, he’s trapped inside the supervillain sector of the Spider-Man Society HQ, wearing the Prowler suit. While most of the movie’s cameos are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brief, there’s a sustained pause around his presence, and he gets a few more seconds of screen time in a later scene.
Glover’s appearance in the film is a nod that extends beyond an MCU tie-in: Glover previously voiced Miles Morales in two episodes of the Ultimate Spider-Man series. That’s typical for Across the Spider-Verse, which references past superhero history in a plethora of ways. Scenes from Tobey Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man films also get their own screen time, albeit in a much subtler manner. Glover’s cameo, however, lands as a heavy-handed directive. You don’t need a Spider-Sense to realize that the animated Spider-Verse isn’t solely paying tributes to Spider-Man’s legacy any more — it’s also promoting future IP crossovers.
These kinds of cameos have been mutating in intent over the course of the MCU. Michael Keaton’s Vulture glided over from Spider-Man: Homecoming to Morbius’ universe. If the cameos in the Venom movies and in Spider-Man: No Way Home are a viable reference point, the still-in-negotiations next Tom Holland Spider-Man film will likely pit Holland’s version of Peter Parker against Tom Hardy’s rendition of the character’s longtime rival. Insomniac Games is also feeding from and into this corporate symbiote of licenses. Spider-Man: Miles Morales featured the Prowler as one of its main antagonists. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, slated for release later in 2023, features not just Venom, but also Kraven as part of its cast of villains — paving the way for the character’s stand-alone Kraven the Hunter movie.
A lot has happened since Into the Spider-Verse premiered back in 2018. Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness tinkered with the idea of showcasing alternative universes in live-action form, building on the foundations of past films and shows, with varying results. But as those crossovers have become more frequent, they’ve become increasingly corporate — and increasingly about flattening out idiosyncratic projects like the Venom movies so they can join a franchise already in progress.
Into the Spider-Verse reinvented Spider-Man in terms of movie portrayals. Aside from a few comedic callbacks, it stood aside from its live-action arachnid siblings. For the first time in film history, the spotlight was on Miles Morales, in an origin story that draws from the source material in a more creative and colorful manifestation than any other previous superhero movie. The character’s writing embraced this ethos, too, delivering a story that breaks and mocks past foundations with a distinct playful spirit.
But keeping him in animation is a major part of that stylistic rule-breaking. In an interview with The Verge, Into the Spider-Verse co-director Rodney Rothman said that one nice thing about telling Miles’ story in animation is that “there isn’t a point of disbelief for the audience.” In spite of numerous examples of live-action movies using comics-inspired stylization — see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Sin City — the obsession with “realism” in fantasy continues to trump any attempts at visual personality in the MCU. Directors’ creative leeway is dependent on the setting of the movie, or the powers of the characters that inhabit it.
Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t just take a story from existing comics — it brings the comics to life, pushing the cinematic medium to new levels of stylization in everything from textures to on-screen text to scene transitions. While Disney has committed to the vision of using live-action remakes to remove the essence of classics like The Lion King, the Into the Spider-Verse animators actually understood why its medium was so important. They took it as inspiration, and as a license to experiment with new animation styles. That same freedom resonates once more in Across the Spider-Verse — not just in its visual feast of art styles, but in its story’s message.
“Don’t do it like me, do it like you,” Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) tells Miles in Into the Spider-Verse. After all, Peter Parker has retained the spotlight in film for more than two decades now. In the crescendo building up to the movie’s final minutes, Miles passes that idea along to the audience, telling them anyone can wear the mask. That sentiment resonated with animators, but also with fans, who enjoyed the opportunity to see themselves in Spider-Man’s role.
In Across the Spider-Verse, this freedom extends to Miles’ adamant stance of breaking from the Spider-Man canon thrust upon him. He defies Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) and his insistence on accepting the imposed tragedies of being Spider-Man. Morales’ story is a living repudiation of the canon. His origin story let him keep company with other Spider-People who understand the hardships and sacrifices of the job. In his latest movie, he’s determined to challenge tradition once more, going against the trademark character arc.
But the MCU’s imprint is all too clear in movie after movie, and it’s unlikely that that idiosyncratic spirit could carry over to a live-action treatment. While there’s a cultural importance to Miles — a mixed-race kid with a complicated heritage — coming to live-action, it’s hard to imagine the character being allowed to spread his wings as part of the MCU the way he does in the Spider-Verse movies. An MCU movie isn’t going to let the soundtrack take over, showcasing otherwise silent scenes between characters. It isn’t going to let art styles converge and collide on screen. It isn’t going to include a Lego universe crossover. What it will do, inevitably, is stick the animated Miles on a comic book on a nightstand or newsstand, or slap him into a five-second cameo in a post-credits scene.
Marvel Studios just doesn’t let its live-action films do anything completely idiosyncratic, and directors who try — like original Ant-Man writer-director Edgar Wright — get the boot, or “part ways with the studio over creative differences.” As Wright told Variety in 2017, Marvel wanted to rewrite his script without his involvement. “Suddenly becoming a director for hire on it, you’re sort of less emotionally invested and you start to wonder why you’re there, really,” he said. Similarly, director Scott Derrickson left the production of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness due to “creative differences,” with Ava DuVernay (Black Panther), Bassam Tariq (Blade), and Jon Watts (Fantastic Four) following suit.
The drivers behind the MCU want history to repeat itself, pushing for yet another origin story for Miles Morales as Spider-Man — only this time, the substance and heart of the comics will be muddled in realism and a more rigid script. In the Spider-Verse films, Miles Morales’ perspective and surroundings establish a radical difference from the start. He isn’t funded by a billionaire, like Tom Holland’s Spider-Man; he gets lessons from a grown-up, too-old-for-this-shit depiction of Peter Parker, who doesn’t impose his own traditions onto him. And he shares lead status with Gwen Stacy — something MCU movies are notably bad at doing.
Perhaps more worrying is the inevitable loss of the essence captured in the animated films. Miles Morales is an Afro-Latino sophomore determined to protect not just Brooklyn as a city, but as a community, leaving his mark in the streets with every step he takes. Far subtler but equally meaningful differences, such as the “Protect Trans Kids” flag in Gwen’s bedroom, seem inconceivable in the MCU, which took more than a decade to feature a minimal kiss from a gay couple on screen. While even the Spider-Verse films come with some restraints — like failing to discuss Spider-Man’s involvement with the police, a topic Insomniac’s game also distances itself from — the films are solidly based in current culture, and portray Miles accordingly. Even as a story tangled up with so many alternate universes, it’s the most grounded of all of them, and the characters resonate much louder as result.
Across the Spider-Verse dares to challenge the conventions that MCU movies have played out time and time again. The people behind the Spider-Verse movies broke the canon once, and seem determined to continue doing so. The MCU, on the other hand, is only likely to strip away Miles’ personality and identity in the process of moving him to live action. In every other universe, Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy are caught in a web of standardization, forced to fit the MCU mold and mimic past box-office successes, instead of creating a new model for one. I’d rather be in the universe where the Spider-Verse team manages to defy that fate as well.