Of Cosmic Stakes and Personal Stories (Spider Verse, Infinity War, and Others)

spider verse miles

A confession: I haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War nor Avengers: Endgame yet, and I don’t really plan to. I promise I’m not trying to be contrary or edgy with that statement—in fact, it makes me kind of sad. I love superheroes! I like the Marvel movies! So why aren’t I compelled to join in the hype for the epic, universe-bending crossover event?

In an unfortunate case of history repeating itself, I think I might be switching off from the MCU for the same reason I dropped Doctor Who back in ye olden days: the constant ante-upping required to keep the series fresh and engaging has led the story to cosmic stakes where the rules of time and space are being warped willy-nilly and the multiverse hangs in the balance, whereas the thing that drew me to the series in the first place was those more grounded, relatable, personal stories. When it comes to the MCU’s shift towards Big Crossover Events, Civil War (allegedly a Captain America standalone movie) was about as much as I could take in terms of world-altering stakes, an over-stuffed ensemble cast who couldn’t possibly all get the screentime they deserved, and “epic” tone.

I get it, superheroes need to save the world, and it’s a natural progression that they should save the converging, warping universe in an adventure that brings together characters from all across the wide-spanning story. I get it, but, well, ehhh. I’m willing to admit this is personal taste, of course—and I would just say that Crossover Events aren’t for me… but then again, I was really compelled to see, and really enjoyed, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse. So what’s going on there?

For me, it comes back to that question of stakes and scale, and how I (and I’m sure many other viewers) prefer to have big epic cosmic plots grounded in personal stories. Given that it’s an introductory standalone movie, Spider Verse maybe isn’t directly comparable to Infinity War and Endgame, but it has a lot of similar elements: it’s playing on the setup of a comic book crossover arc, it brings together a bunch of separate characters to build quite a large main cast, and the multiverse is at risk if our heroes fail in their quest. Parallel dimensions are converging and threatening to rip apart spacetime as we know it!! And yet the massive scale of the conflict at the heart of the movie somehow didn’t feel overwhelmingly Epic in the way that Infinity War is going for, even though it ostensibly was.

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But of course, it wasn’t the fate of the multiverse that really sucked me into the movie: it was Miles Morales, whose personal journey is the heart of the story. Rather than try to cover all six Spider-People and give them all an arc, the film orbits around Miles and his story about growing up, living up to expectations, gaining confidence, and starting on the path to figuring out what he wants to be in life. It’s standard Hero’s Journey stuff, and is proof that we keep coming back to that brand of coming-of-age story because it works.

It does leave other members of the main cast like Peni Parker, Spider-Noir, and Spider-Ham (and even to some extent Gwen Stacy) left to the wayside coasting along on only their surface-level characterisation rather than receiving a deep dive or personal arc, and yes this was a little frustrating at times, but because the movie framed itself as Miles’ story rather than an ensemble piece that writing decision felt more fitting. Crossover event this may be (acknowledged in a very meta sense), but it is first and foremost about Miles as the young hero getting his stuff together. Where the movie could have gone off the rails and become utterly chaotic, this helped keep it centred.

The grounding of the Big Conflict in small human plotlines applies, interestingly enough, to the villain of the movie too. Kingpin is intent on rending the multiverse because he wants to bring his wife and son back to life; it’s as simple as that. And it was refreshingly simple after so much discussion of Thanos’ cosmic-scale, faux-noble, ideological motivation in Infinity War. Kingpin’s just a bit of a selfish nastyman who wants his family back and isn’t afraid to hurt other people in order to achieve that goal, and sometimes that’s all you need to make a villain work. It’s abhorrent, but it’s small-scale enough to be understandable.

(Worth noting, too, is how even Kingpin’s emotional motivation frames him as a villain, since his wife and son were killed as a direct result of his villainy, and he essentially wants to erase that from history while not changing any of his villainous ways. It was, again, strangely refreshing after Avengers’ attempt at “but is Thanos really a good person?” philosophising)

SheRa (25)

So what happens in Spider Verse is a hole is ripped in spacetime, leading to parallel dimensions converging before a team of heroes from respective dimensions shuts the operation down; but what it’s about is Miles coming into his own as a superhero, dealing with his shifting family relationships, and finding confidence in himself. Big stakes, grounded in a personal story, to make it more human-orientated and to also make it more accessible.

This isn’t a writing device specific to kids’ media, but kids’ media is a place where I’ve recently seen it done well. Spider Verse is just one example, alongside others like Netflix/Dreamworks’ She-Ra, where the conflict between Good and Evil is couched in Adora’s history, and her relationships with her new friends versus her abusive adoptive family. Adora’s not just caught between two sides that are fighting for her allegiance, she has genuine personal stakes in both, and a complex and messy history with the villains that gives them all the more impact.

The recent season finale of Steven Universe also boiled its universe-spanning conflict down to conflict within a family, grounding the climax in reconciling the Diamonds and getting them to change their minds, as well as bringing Steven’s personal arc about identity to a head. It was much more complex and full of emotion than that one-sentence summary, but that is what went down—and it was definitely that level of personal, charged emotion that gave the climax the weight that it had. You can argue for and against the effectiveness of these individual cases (and whether or not they make these big conflicts too simple) but I found them both great, and thought it was a solid way to make these Big Stakes easier to connect with, for audiences of all ages.

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This is not meant to be a long complaint about movies I haven’t watched, more an observation that more often than not the source of audience investment is people rather than massive epic-scale events. Even if a concept or premise is what draws us to a work, it tends to be the characters and their relationships, personal journeys, and arcs that get us to stay. If we don’t have that grounded, emotional, fleshed-out human element to hang onto, we can find ourselves adrift in cosmic-level plots that we don’t have a handhold on.

It’s certainly why I prefer the single-character MCU movies—Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a great, tight political thriller with very personal stakes for its hero, tying Steve’s history, relationships, and character growth all directly to the plot and keeping the save-the-world element of the climax down to earth. Black Panther was a journey of personal growth for T’Challa, maintaining a mythological feel while also keeping its central conflict extremely grounded, with (again) a villain that the hero had personal stakes in, and with all elements of the overarching plot weaving in to inform and progress his development across the movie. I might be sick of Tony Stark now, but the character-driven conflict of the first Iron Man movie is exactly what made it so captivating and, I’d even argue, is what captured so many hearts and minds and let the MCU as we now know it come to life.

I’m not saying that Infinity War and Endgame are bad movies by comparison (I’d have to save a judgement call like that for if/when I actually sit down and watch them. But there’s just… so many other things I could be doing with those approximately six hours). But to me, and I think to a lot of other, increasingly exhausted superhero fans, the magic ingredient in this ever-expanding genre is not Big Epic Crossover Events but small, personal stories. And as Spider Verse proved, if you go about it the right way you can have both in the same movie—it’s the personal element that brings it home and makes it stick in people’s hearts. The multiverse is all very well, but it’s the characters who live in it that are the most important, and I would rather see individuals explored against the backdrop of the swirling tospy-turvy cosmos than a story hinging on the big-ness of its Big Stakes.

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3 Comments

Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

3 responses to “Of Cosmic Stakes and Personal Stories (Spider Verse, Infinity War, and Others)

  1. mythos

    I absolutely agree with you that grounding a story in the actual characters and their personal struggles is MUCH more engaging than a epic CGI fest.

    I will say that I felt Endgame did a good job of attempting to ground the ridiculously large stakes battle in more personal journeys for each of the characters during the film. However, that would require watching Infinity War, which is just such a less enjoyable film for me. Not bad, but definitely not great for me personally.

    Regardless, I’m with you that I’d like to see more personal stories. I hope Marvel sees the burnout happening and attempts to focus down on the more character-driven films now that the spectacle is over.

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