A not-so-deep dive into Spiderman: Across The Spider-verse, the art of developing characters, and the forum role-play writing scene in the early 2000s. Minor plot spoilers for the movie ahead.
I started writing at 14. It started as most discover the medium — at that age — with fan fiction. In my particular case, the intention was to create a new story based on final fantasy, with my own characters and my own world. As you can imagine, the actual writing didn’t get very far, as what started as an idea quickly just turned into drawing characters with cool weapons in my notebook while avoiding classroom lectures. There was never a fully fleshed concept for my stories, at that time, instead, I possessed a desire to imagine new worlds and put them on paper. Not having the foresight to enroll myself in an actual art class, I often never knew what to do with most of my ideas, but their presence in my mind was often more than enough. At that time, I came up with two specific characters, what one would consider “OC’s” [Original Characters], that I would return to again and again. Rivals. Polar opposites. Yin-and-Yang. Protagonist and Antagonist. Whatever one might call them, they had a story to tell…if only I could find it.
I imagine getting handed a franchise is tough for a creator. It’s no secret that fandoms are vocal, sometimes toxic, and majorly hard to please. Most of the franchises you know today were — well — original. Stories and characters developed by someone who once had an idea. Nowadays, those ideas have been fleshed out, expanded, subverted, altered, retconned, and used as a foundation for new ideas, stories, and characters by other creators who wanted to play in the same world. Ever since the first sequel1, Canon has been part of the discussions and arguments we have around our favorite stories. With every new reboot or sequel, the question inevitably becomes, “What Canon are they adapting?”
The sequel to Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse seems to wear this dilemma on its sleeve. This is your second spoiler alert warning, as we dive into minor plot details about Across the Spider-verse. When Miguel O’Hara, the Spiderman from 2099 played by Oscar Isaac, outlines the central conflict, complete with visual imagery and an augmented reality style chamber, it’s not something we haven’t seen plenty of times before; especially in superhero films and adaptations. First we got multiverse talk in Loki, then it cropped up again in Spiderman: No Way Home, and of course in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The most recent non-superhero version of this was Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, which Across the Spider-verse actually takes more cues from than the aforementioned Marvel fair. With this new visualization, however, while it looks similar on the surface to those other multiverse conundrums, Miguel chooses a very specific word that sets it apart: Canon. More specifically: Canon Events. The example used in this property, just to give you a glimpse, is Uncle Ben dying, which all Spidermen, from every Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and Miles Morales — heck, even Miguel O’Hara — have had to experience in order to become Spiderman. To put it another, more detrimental way, these events have to happen in order to be considered a “True” or “Real” Spiderman.
Basically, this movie is about Canon, and herein lies the themes that Miles Morales, our protagonist, is struggling with, as he learns that he is actually not a “true” Spiderman. He’s an anomaly. Something our eventual antagonist, Miguel O’Hara, goes through painstaking measures to make clear to Miles later on. What’s interesting about Miguel’s viewpoint is that, at first glance, we understand where he might be coming from. As an audience member watching this movie, you have seen — or at least are aware of — the countless adaptations of Spiderman in existence. You may even have gotten tired of seeing Uncle Ben die in every new reboot. Got tired of hearing the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Maybe even got tired of seeing the initial spider bite. We get it. We understand it needs to happen. This is implied at this point.
Supposed to happen? Duh.
We hear Miguel’s explanation of Canon Events and nod our heads. True True. He’s not wrong.
So why is it that Miles is struggling with these revelations? More importantly…why is Miguel struggling to come to terms with it himself?
On the surface it seems very clear. In a recent interview with Nerdist, the directors outright say that this movie is a commentary about the fan's acceptance or rejection of the original Miles Morales. The character that best represents this viewpoint is obviously Miguel O’Hara, and the vitriol and condemnation of Mile’s very existence seems to be directly ripped from the tweets, comments, and reviews from fans themselves; if not for Miles, than for any franchise or property that would dare “mess with the canon” (I’m looking at you, The Last Jedi.) It’s easy to draw the parallel between Miguel and the fans, within this context, but upon further investigation, one can see that’s only the first layer of the onion. What I think lies at the core is a different parallel that many won’t understand, and that is Miguel being a stand-in for the writers themselves, and writers in general.
Around the time I was developing the characters of Skie Nathaniel Talent and Akiros Murietta (Yes, those are the current names that I haven’t changed since I was 14), I discovered a now-dead forum community revolving around role-play (not that kind.) It was a site dedicated to allowing writers a chance to build worlds together. By starting a thread, sometimes divided into categories such as fantasy, sci-fi, etc., one could outline the initial plot points, various character needs, and even the rules of the particular world, and allow other writers to take on characters, invent their own, and ultimately play in a sandbox you’ve created. Forum roleplaying was the Wild West of online MMOs because there were literally no limits to what you could create or imagine. It was also extremely difficult to navigate. Trying to determine what stories to jump into was hard enough, but then there was character creation, collaboration, schedules to align, and ultimately keeping the story alive long enough to even conclude an arc. That’s assuming one of your other collaborators didn’t just fall off after a few posts. It’s hard to truly describe all the elements that could go into Forum Roleplay. The highs and lows. The trials and tribulations.
If you were around at that time, you might understand a bit of what I’m referring to, and while I wish I had the time to truly delve into the specifics and details behind some of these feelings, that’s not what this particular journal post is about. So I’ll leave it at this and hope you take my word for it: the sandbox was wild, and it’s where I discovered my love of writing, telling stories, and managed to further develop my writing skills through the constant practice that was offered to me. It was like diving into new worlds, and there simply wasn’t anything else like it around.
When it came to character creation, however, I often took the easy way out. There was no reason that I had to develop whole new characters for each individual story — I already had two characters that worked well for those purposes already. So I plugged in Skie (mostly) and Akiros wherever I could. Skie — as my ‘main’ — has been a cowboy, a dragon rider, a bounty hunter, an Eva pilot, and more. He has joined original organizations like The Eternal Knights, where he once wielded the staff of Tristam, from Arthurian legend, and fought clans of ninjas from the anime Naruto while Gundams battled overhead.
All because there was no true story that I wanted to tell. So I further developed these characters within different sandboxes. I discovered how they spoke, how they thought, and how they interacted with other human beings. I developed backstories that didn’t actually exist, family lineages that felt true and would become permanent parts of their story. I invented new characters that seemingly came from the same world, had already established relationships, and I would eventually translate them back into the “actual” story…someday.
In hindsight, I was developing canon, but it never felt very secure without an actual anchor to hold them down. Without an actual story, could we really say these things were true? There is a story somewhere out there. A world that has yet to be created. A novel yet to be written. All of which I have been revisiting in the past few months, as I’ve decided to dust off the cobwebs in hopes of finally putting pen to paper and figuring out what the canon truly is.
You see, in my head, this was always supposed to be “my epic.” The thing that all writers have within them that they will eventually tell. It’s my Star Wars. My Lord of the Rings. My Spiderman. I may write other screenplays, or tell other stories in different worlds in hopes of building an audience, but it would only serve as a temporary separation from the real story I wanted to tell; and possibly the thing that I might one day be known for.
Except…I hadn’t actually written anything. It’s a future project — I would tell myself — and way too ambitious or high-concept to get made at the moment. I needed to start with grounded stories. I needed to establish myself as a creative before anyone would take a risk on a new — untested — property, so it would have to wait. If I were to deliver a story too soon, when I haven’t established any power, then too many executives, producers, or directors might come in, strip the project from my control, and ultimately ruin the story I was trying to tell.
I had to be careful with the canon. So I left it alone until it was ready. Until I was sure what the story was.
In Codependent Content, a podcast I do with my partner, we recently shared our thoughts and revelations about Across the Spiderverse. In it, I basically posit that Miles Morales is less of the main character within the movie, but instead acts as a surrogate for the other characters to be affected, as they are truly the ones whom the antagonist provokes the most. Through Miles, Peter B. Parker and Gwen Stacy change their viewpoints, confront their own thesis, and come out forever changed. Miguel, for his own part, also seems to be fighting his own viewpoints, spouting them off with such anger and passion, almost as if — if he didn’t get the words out fast enough — if he wasn’t so adamant about the truth of these words — he might realize that they’re not true at all — and he would have to question everything he has learned from his own past.
As a surrogate for the writer, Miguel’s struggle expounds on the problems that one has to deal with when being handed a franchise. You see, Miguel, for his own part, tried to change his own canon, and he suffered greatly because of it. Others, according to him, suffered as well. This is ultimately what he’s fighting against. He believes he’s the good guy. Saving worlds upon worlds of innocent people as long as the canon stays intact. He does this because he knows the consequences of messing with the canon.
As writers, we understand this underlying dilemma. We’re told by producers and executives, and ultimately the fans, about what needs to be present for our stories to be accepted by the world at large. If you mess with canon, you risk rejection on a global scale, and the destruction of entire worlds all because you wanted to tell something new. Nothing stops whole franchises in their tracks more than making the wrong changes. Ultimately, when a reboot is eventually on the horizon, it’s the promise of “sticking closely to the source material” that attempts to get the fans back. Get the canon back on track, and all will be well. We can forget about the screw-ups.
We can pretend they never existed.
Miguel is not just the fans. He is the writer. Trying to right the wrongs of the past. Attempting to keep things intact. He is the ultimate authority on what stories are allowed to be told. He creates an entire spider society — a cinematic universe, if you will — in an effort to maintain the canon. It’s not that you’re not allowed to tell new stories, as long as they are in line with the ultimate vision, and as long as you keep certain elements that cannot be changed.
Even though he wants to tell a different story. He holds it together.
Writers, ultimately, would love to play in their own universes. They want to create new characters. They want to tackle new themes. They want to establish their own canon. Except nowadays, as with any creative endeavor, we’re being told that original ideas don’t work. They’re going to fail. They don’t make money. To the point where they are forced to write in universes that are pre-determined to have winning formulas. This is, I think, the core of what Miguel is struggling against.
I want to clarify that this is only a single layer upon many layers that Across the Spider-verse can be talking with. As the interpretation of all art, it’s not the only theme that one could derive from this movie, and it won’t be the last. There’s also the layer of how Miles plays into all this, how his origins are not considered canon and whether he should be allowed to exist, the layer that some actual accepted characters, like Peter B Parker and Gwen Stacy, can also be called “not canon” if one logics hard enough. There’s the layer of destiny and predetermination. The changing of fate and what we can control. There’s the layer of fan fiction, shipping, and the many ways fans choose to theorize about certain stories that sometimes change the trajectory of a story as it’s being written.
But here, Miguel is a writer, and I think I understand what he’s going through.
Some artists believe that art simply exists. That poems, sculptures, paintings, books, and photographs are floating around in the ether, waiting for the right creative to come along and conjure it into the physical, three-dimensional world. Time is not the 4th dimension. Creativity is. The phrase, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, was never meant to refer to those who view the art after it is made. The beholder is not the critic, the audience, or the fan. The beholder is the artist. The beholder is the one who had the vision to see the sculpture in the marble, the story on the page, and the paint on the canvas. The beholder is the one who brings art to existence.
I am one of those artists who believe like this.
The reason I believe I haven’t told “my epic” yet is because I haven’t seen it. I haven’t heard the story. I can’t separate the truth from the lies. The act of writing, and therefore the act of practicing art itself, is constantly putting on a space suit and diving into the 4th dimension, searching for artifacts, treasure, and relics and bringing them back to the proverbial surface. Some of it junk. Some of it worth something. All of it needing to be excavated in order to uncover the truth of the history and story it tells.
But what is the truth? What is the canon? If it’s all being made up anyway, who really is to determine what stays and what goes?
These characters have gone on adventure after adventure, jumped into story after story, and had years and years of ongoing development and established canon. How does one sift through it and determine what is the right one? In the case of new characters and new stories, it can be even harder to tell what’s true — especially when exploring unknown regions within the 4th dimension — and diving into areas not explored by other artists in the past.
Is it a comb? A fork? Or a world-destroying device?
Who’s to say?
That is ultimately what writers are up against. Because once you determine what it is — the truth — it can be hard to undo the damage. Once you put it to paper, it becomes permanent. Once you capture everything there is and pass it along to the printers, the publishers, and eventually into the hands of those who you have invited into the world…it cannot be taken back. You’re telling people history, but what if you interpreted it wrong? What if you were looking at the wrong area? What if the reader knows something that you don’t?
Canon, once established, now means that your characters can never exist outside of this story. Can never visit other universes. Can never change beyond the history that you have uncovered. It has finite rules, definitions, and tropes that it needs to follow. After all — that’s the beauty of art — you’re creating something new out of something that was seemingly nonexistent. My fear in writing, when it comes to the stories of Skie and Akiros, has always been putting them into a box they were never meant to be. I feared canon because canon is limiting. I feared saying this was the true story because then it would erase everything else they had meant to me up to that point. Canon would destroy entire worlds and adventures and maybe even people, in favor of establishing the correct timeline. The true universe. The ultimate story — for my characters. (Does even writing about them here…in this article…count as canon???)
That’s what writing is. That’s also what Miguel is struggling with. If he allows someone to exist outside the Canon, then shouldn’t he be allowed to as well? If he can’t live outside of his own canon, why should anyone else be allowed to? Miguel’s story is written, and he’s determined that no one is allowed to deviate from that story.
But what Across the Spider-verse is attempting to say, is that the story actually doesn’t end there. That canon is not always something to be feared straying from. That characters can be allowed to change hands. Stories can be told in new universes. Writers should not be afraid of changing something already established, because in the end canon is not as strong or as important or as all-encompassing as one thinks.
Canon is just the start. It’s the foundation. It’s the docking platform, a station built on the corner of the 4th dimension, allowing other writers, artists, and creatives — fans even — to don their own pressurized suits, build their own ships, and ultimately explore this corner of the 4th dimension with their own crew. Maybe they’ll uncover something close to what we already know, or maybe they will uncover something completely new.
That’s the ultimate beauty of canon. That it allows for further exploration. That it really isn’t as constrictive as we once believed.
I think it’s time I stopped being afraid of my own canon. Exploring the 4th dimension is not just emerging with new stories, but it’s the ability to dive deeper, leave no stone unturned, and utilize multiple expeditions until you’re sure you’ve explored everything you possibly can. On top of that, the beauty of the 4th dimension is that it’s always expanding, constantly evolving, to the point where returning to old familiar territory can sometimes result in new discoveries and new interpretations. The 4th dimension, and even our own history, shows that sometimes what we once thought was canon, was not actually canon at all.
I hope that Miguel, and other writers, come to the same conclusion as well.
Canon does not define your story.
Canon is just the beginning.
1May or May not be true.
Mattias is an actor, writer, filmmaker, and editor currently living in Los Angeles, CA. He often writes about his observations about life, the human condition, spirituality, and relationships. He also enjoys writing about movies, pop culture, formula one, and current events. Often these writings are 'initial thoughts' and un-edited, as authentic as possible, and should be considered opinions. If you're interested in commenting on his work, or continuing the conversation, you should consider following him on Twitter or share an article on social media, where he would love to engage even further. Consider subscribing via RSS for more.