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ESSAY / The Importance of Being Spider-Man / Joaquin Fernandez

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It’s a Tuesday afternoon in December and I’m almost not crying. I’m in a dark theater watching cartoon superheroes do cartoon superhero things, jokes, explosions, daring near-misses. Broad, obvious, blockbuster stuff custom-made to sell popcorn and T-shirts. I have absolutely outgrown this.

Right?

Miles Morales was never my Spider-Man. Of course, I’d heard of him. As a lapsed comic book nerd, I still kept loose tabs on who was fighting Galactus this month or which member of the X-Men was coming back from the dead in the summer crossover, but like a lot of us in the MCU age, I hadn’t picked up an actual comic book in years. Still, I remembered reading that in an alternate timeline, Peter Parker had died a few years ago only to be replaced by some brown kid from Brooklyn. Good for him. So why was I failing to hold back tears in a dark movie theater on a Tuesday afternoon?

Maybe it’s because Peter Parker taught me to read. Actually, my sister taught me to read, sounding out words in english, maneuvering through the puzzle of letters and syntax, carving sentences out of my childhood stutter. But it was Peter Parker that made me want to read. It was Peter Parker that kept me up after bedtime, squinting in the moonlight with his jokes and explosions and daring near-misses. As a first generation child of immigrants, every book I read was another snapshot of a country my family and I were discovering together. I wasn’t just learning how to read english, I was learning how to live in America. I was learning that Batman was born rich and that Superman was born super and that you couldn’t be Captain America until someone made you that way. I was learning that heroes didn’t look like me. I was a nerdy brown kid in the Miami suburbs with a single mother and a runaway imagination. When Peter Parker's Aunt May was strapped for cash, I felt it. When she was lonely, and worried, quietly terrified off-panel, I felt that too. Peter Parker didn’t look anything like me, but poor people everywhere have a shared DNA.

Growing up poor, Clark Kent's hundred-acre Kansas farm might as well have been on another planet and Wayne Manor, with its caverns and butlers was always the most unbelievable part of the Batman mythology. I still don’t understand the kids that picked Batman or Superman. Sure, they were the smartest and the strongest, the wealthiest, the most invulnerable, whatever. But they were born special. They were meant to be heroes. They were destined for it. I could never get behind that. I could believe in the power of an accident, however. I could believe that we’re supposed to do our best with hand life deals us. A scrawny geek gets bitten by a spider? I can believe that. But destiny never added up for me. Was I actually supposed to look up to men whose only real super power was being incredibly lucky on a cosmic level? Even in elementary school, I was skeptical. Like all bad storytelling, destiny is boring.

When he got bit by that radioactive spider, Peter Parker taught me about the power of accidents. He taught me that we could always be in the wrong place at the right time. He taught me that things can always get worse, and we can always make them better. He taught me that some mistakes were beyond apology, but what we did in the aftermath of tragedy was what most defined us. He didn’t know it, but he was teaching me about the power of fiction. Behind tights and a mask, Spider-Man could be anyone. Behind pen and paper, so could I.

But that’s not why I was crying alone in a dark movie theater on a Tuesday afternoon. I was crying because of Miles Morales. I was watching a poor brown kid from Brooklyn put on a mask and step off a ledge. I was listening to him argue with his mother in spanish. I was watching Peter Parker teach him about the power of accidents. I was watching a kid that looked like me, that talked like me, that idolized Spider-Man just like I did when I was a kid. I was watching myself. I was watching all the things I didn’t know I needed to see, years after I had outgrown them.

But you never outgrow them. When the movie ended it dawned on me. A whole generation of kids are going to grow up with Miles Morales as Spider-Man. They’re going to grow up with Black Panther and Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. They’re going to grow up knowing that a hero can look like anyone. I pieced it together as I grew up, but it’s an open secret our children deserve to know. They deserve to know they can fly. They deserve to know they can survive explosions and near-misses. They deserve to know that they can learn to be heroes. They deserve to know that they can fight. They deserve to know that they can win. If we don’t tell them, no one else will.

Because movies matter. Books matter. Representation matters. I know first hand that it does. I know what happens when you learn to live with heroes that look like someone else. You learn that the people that look like you are sidekicks or henchmen. You learn to be a bystander. You learn to be a girlfriend or a hostage or a victim and you live with it. You internalize it. You limit yourself and you carry those limits with you your whole life until it becomes second nature. It becomes such a real part of you that you don’t even notice it until you’re crying alone in a movie theater on a Tuesday afternoon, confused and embarrassed, watching the end credits roll up in front of you.


Joaquin Fernandez has had fiction published or forthcoming in Okay Donkey, Rhythm & Bones, AFTERMATH, and Chaleur Magazine among others. He is a recovering filmmaker and Miami native perpetually tinkering with his first novel. He can be found on Twitter @Joaqertxranger