Beware! Spoilers for Across the Spiderverse!
Why is Miles Morales so powerful as a character?
After seeing Across the Spiderverse yesterday, I find this question echoing in my head.
There are, of course, countless possible answers. But one that sticks out for me is Miles' embodiment of "both/and" thinking, which is one major tenet of metamodernism (⬅️ start with this as a foundation!)
Indeed, the whole movie (and series) is very metamodern in its orientation, whether intentional or not. From the (many) art styles and subcultures represented, to the playful self-awareness around art as a medium (e.g., the opening museum fight sequence, where Gwen remarks 'it’s a meta-commentary on art, but it’s still art'), we see in the spiderverse glimpses of the characteristic metamodern drives to integrate prior philosophies & oscillate between sincerity and irony.
The overarching story of the trilogy also seems to be unfolding in a metamodern way. Much like other multiversal films like Everything Everywhere All At Once, we are thrown into an ostensibly postmodern plot in which a character is faced with negotiating their place in a multiverse that renders them insignificant. But then comes a subsequent subversion, in that we are presented with a naive & bold hero who embodies the possibility of finding purpose, and loving sincerely, despite (or perhaps because of) the moral relativism of this multiversal landscape.
One tenet of metamodernism is embracing paradox. It calls for the uptake of "both/and" thinking in a polarized world – in other words, building the muscle of holding a multiplicity of stories and ideas that are often (perceived as) contradictory. Both-and tells us that nothing is black or white, multiple things can be true simultaneously, and cautions us against falling into false dichotomies.
Miles is a champion of the both-and.
From the very beginning of the story, we get subtle thematic hints of this. The cake icing celebration message isn't fitting on one cake for his dad? No problem – Miles doesn't compromise with a shorter message, but instead gets 2 cakes. A literal-adjacent cake metaphor of wanting to have one's cake and eat it too.

2 cakes!

Flash forward to the central conflict later in the story: everyone around Miles tells him with utter certainty that he must let his father die to preserve the integrity of the spider-verse. The consensus reality is that suffering & sacrifice is just part and parcel of taking up the mantle of spider-superhero-hood, and thus he cannot reconcile, without catastrophic consequences, his two wishes: to save the multiverse & to save his father.
Despite having only just found out about the intricacies of multiversal mechanisms and 'canon events', Miles is not satisfied with this reality. He straddles what metamodernists would call the space between naivety and knowingness, and between optimism and doubt. Oscillating in this space (with some nudging from underrated supporting characters like Hobie) allows him to achieve an alchemical synthesis – a union of opposites – by deciding that he does not have to choose between saving one life and saving the multiverse. He will do his own thing – he will save both.

In the climactic battle with Miguel, he boldly proclaims: "Nah, imma do my own thing."

This attitude feels core to the metamodern sensibility, which is trying to integrate the best parts of modernism and postmodernism. It sees the seriousness of issues and the potential ramifications of uninformed action. It acknowledges the unfathomable complexity of things, along with the fact that our 21st planetary predicament might just be a lost cause. But it decides to take a bold, if naive, stab at making the world better anyway.
As this article puts it, in the context of the film:
"... despite our differences and the differences within ourselves, we must find a way to bridge the gap and solve the mysteries of our conflicts before the darkness and anomalies consume our world and tear apart the fabric of our universe. Across the Spider-Verse reminds us that the outcome of the future rests in our hands, and it is our responsibility to embrace that challenge."
Of course, we don't yet know how the story concludes. Perhaps the writers will settle for a more cliche ending of sacrifice for the greater good. Given the nuanced setup, however, I doubt the ending will be any less rich in its thematic texture. Yet, even if they do opt for a simpler wrap-up, I feel there's still so much we can take away from Miles' arc in Across the Spiderverse. Above all, what I'm taking away right now is this: compromise and sacrifice are not necessarily intrinsic to the process of creating positive change.

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