In recent memory, there have been three different big-screen live-action interpretations of Spider-Man. There have also been multiple TV and movie adaptations of Superman and Batman, as well as a couple different versions of The Flash, Hulk and Daredevil.
It's obvious that Hollywood can’t get enough of superheroes, and so it revisits their stories again and again. Nowadays, adaptations, reboots, revivals, sequels and prequels have become a standard part of the pop-culture landscape, and the impressive box office and fan fervor surrounding these titles ensures that trend will continue for a long time to come.
When filmmakers adapt comics into movies and TV shows, they must work within the confines of a pre-established world while remixing and re-interpreting the stories for a new medium, often introducing new storylines, new characters, and unexpected relationships. In doing so, the creators of these properties are engaged in the same kind of activity as fan fiction writers. Furthermore, the audiences who flock to see these big-budget Hollywood affairs or follow the exploits of their favorite hero on TV are often scratching the same itch as fan fiction readers.
Some may immediately recoil at the idea that our most popular entertainment could be a form of fan fiction, those fan-written stories that use major components of known pop culture properties to create new, often unexpected narratives. Fan fiction is often derided as derivative and unoriginal, yet, because of the Internet, fan fiction is now more visible than ever, and whole archives have popped up where fans can read and share their unofficial stories.
While fan fiction has mostly attracted attention for its sexually explicit content and tendency to romantically pair same-sex characters, it’s a lot more than that. These works enable fans to stay in the worlds of their favorite stories with their favorite characters. In the process, fans revise and reimagine whole parts of various narratives, delve deeper into characters’ motivations, or put characters in relationships they’d never see otherwise. It also enables fans to more deeply reflect on and critique the pop culture they love.
Today, much of our most popular entertainment provides the same opportunities, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This animated film features nine different Spider-folks and several different villains who all originated in comics. While there is a Spider-Verse comics event from which the film takes its cues, the movie’s story is almost completely original. Not only did the filmmakers take the opportunity to bring these characters together, they also supplied a new vision of Peter Parker — the character fans have repeatedly seen in recent movies — as a less-than-inspiring older hero.
In addition, the film references and comments on its characters, especially through its two different versions of Parker. Not only are scenes from all three of the recent Spider-Man film series recreated, the movie also jokes about the much-ridiculed dancing Peter Parker from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3.
Throughout the movie, each Spider-person is given an opportunity to tell their backstory, a trope that starts almost every superhero narrative. It’s something most films present in a fairly straightforward, serious way. However, Into the Spider-Verse generates some laughs from the repetition, both in the film itself and from the reminder that origin stories are an all-important component of so many others.
Fans don’t have to be familiar with Spider-Man to appreciate Into the Spider-Verse, but it sure helps. That familiarity not only provides a comfort level with the material but also a zing of delight whenever the filmmakers reference and comment on past Spider-stories. It also gives the in-the-know viewer a vehicle to think about the Spider-Man narrative more deeply.