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What Into the Spider-Verse teaches us about mental health
You all know the story of Spider-Man. A teenage boy (or girl) gets bitten by a radioactive spider and inherits the ability to have spider-like abilities. But it isn't their skills in weaving and swinging off tall buildings that make Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, or any other Spider-Man/Spider-Woman a superhero. And it’s not their spider senses, nor their powers of agility. It’s the choices they make to use their superpowers for good that define them as such.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tells the story of Miles Morales and what happens when multiple Spider-Men and Spider-Women from different universes come together to save the world. On the surface, it is a typical superhero movie with a powerful villain (Kingpin) who plans to destroy the world and an unlikely group of heroes whose abilities may or may not be strong enough to stop him. It is the David and Goliath legend of the little guy standing up to a big monster.
But it is also so much more!
As a geeky clinical psychologist who specializes in incorporating superheroes and other pop culture stories into therapy to help my clients, I found this movie to be highly empowering on many levels. It shows us that anyone can struggle — whether it is Peter Parker, who grew up without his parents, or Miles Morales, who grew up with two loving parents. Everyone might feel like they don’t fit in, sometimes feeling awkward about who they are, while aching for a sense of connection and belonging.
Into the Spider-Verse also demonstrates that sometimes the most painful experience of our life can become the birthplace of our resilience. Sometimes, after a significant loss, like Miles’ uncle, or Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, we might be reminded of what we stand for and how we would like to be remembered. After seeing Peter Parker die and after losing his uncle, Miles Morales is able to find the courage that he needs to become Spider-Man.
This lesson does not come easily to him, as Miles Morales, similar to Peter Parker, seems to struggle with anxiety. In this film, Miles’ anxiety presents with comically large letters, which seem very loud in his head. Many people who struggle with anxiety also report that their thoughts can sometimes feel loud and overwhelming in their mind. And yet, despite his anxiety and self-doubt, Miles chooses to take a leap of faith to join the rest of the Spider-People in saving the world.
Such leap of faith is not unlike what many of you do on a daily basis — facing your own fears and anxieties to step out into the world, even when it seems too hard to do so. And THAT — taking a leap of faith in this way, facing your fears to do something you believe in — makes you a superhero, just like Spider-Man.
Into the Spider-Verse shows us the power of finding others who have experienced something similar to us — someone who understands loss, trauma, fear, pain, and someone who can believe in you, even when you struggle to see your own greatness. This film shows us that we are all Spider-Man, in a sense, and that everyone can be a hero. Facing your fears, showing up even when you have doubts, helping others even when you hurt as well — these are all the traits of a true superhero. These are the traits that you already have and probably have already helped more people than you realize.
To all superheroes out there: if ever you felt scared, hurt, or overwhelmed, and showed up anyway to do what you believed in, please share your story to let others know that they are not alone.
Thank you for being wonderful.