Miles Morales and I will always be linked.
Biracial. Black. Puerto Rican. A last name and skin color that makes people say “where are you from?,” forcing an eye-roll biracial kids should have had trademarked by now.
Miles is all those things I am, plus a superhero. And not just any superhero. The superhero. Spider-Man. Arguably an all-time comic book creation.
In all the years I’ve been reading comic books, I identify with Marvel’s biracial Spider-Man more than any other character. Miles Morales — the main character in the new movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — not only is a pop culture representation of my youth, but the type of hero that before his creation in 2011 existed only in my imagination.
One of the first comics I ever remember reading was Spider-Man. Part of my love affair with the character came from the artists I admired who revolutionized Spidey’s look in the ’90s. Todd McFarlane, Mark Bagley, Erik Larsen. I’d spend hours trying to copy their artistic style.
I loved to draw in my youth. If there was a pen and piece of paper in the vicinity, you can bet the dollar it would have cost to buy a comic back then that I was drawing superheroes. My favorite hero to draw? Spider-Man.
To this day I can still draw him on demand in seconds. When we were leaving the old Washington Post building for the last time in 2015, and everyone else was signing and dating the walls, I started drawing. Know what I drew? Spider-Man.
My father grew up in the ’60s and ’70s when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest of the Marvel Comics icons were in their prime. He was hooked. And he passed that fandom to me.
In high school, the early ’90s animated Spider-Man series was a big hit for me on Saturday mornings alongside a bowl of cereal.
In 2002, the night before I graduated from college, I got an instant message from my roommate from freshman year. He had a friend who worked at the local theater and invited me to see a test of the reel for the first “Spider-Man” movie. There were maybe five of us in the entire theater watching a movie that would be the first to make $100 million in a weekend — and spark the superhero boom we see today.
I graduated from college the next day. After I walked down from the stage, my father and grandfather were waiting for me. I was the first Betancourt in the family to graduate from college. My dad spent three years at the University of Maryland, but he never graduated. My grandfather played football at N.C. State but always joked no one told him he had to go to his Saturday class. My dad wanted to know: How did it feel getting my degree? I looked him in the eye and said, “I saw the Spider-Man movie early. It was incredible!”
Many years later, when it was announced that Miles Morales was a new Spider-Man at Marvel Comics, I was floored. The new Spider-Man is African American? And Latino? That couldn’t be right. That’s what I am. The son of a Puerto Rican Spider-Man loving father and an African American mother. (She still considers meeting Adam West in an elevator a lifetime moment.) I spent my whole life reading comics where the main superhero never looked like me, let alone shared my exact racial makeup.
I read every comic featuring Miles Morales I could get my hand on. I reported on him, speaking to his co-creator Brian Michael Bendis frequently, even confirming with Bendis that the mother of Miles, Rio, was indeed Puerto Rican. I had to know. All the reports always said “half Latino.” But Miles was from Brooklyn, so I knew he was either Puerto Rican or Dominican. The Dominicans have already achieved an undefeated World Baseball Classic championship, in 2013 (yeah, they beat Puerto Rico). They didn’t need Spider-Man, too.
When Bendis confirmed Miles was indeed a Boricua, I had to let him know that the reporter he was talking to just happened to be half Puerto Rican, half African American. What he said to me next has stuck to me like Spider-Man to a ceiling ever since.
“Wow,” Bendis said. “You are Miles.”
You bet your web-shooters I am. And proud of it.
So you’re probably telling yourself I must have been beyond hyped when it was announced Miles was getting his own movie. And you know what?
Why? Because the movie was animated. I’m not one to scoff at animation. I could teach a college course on the significance of “Batman: The Animated Series.” But in an era of cinema where live-action superhero movies are now the norm, an animated movie about Miles seemed like a letdown to me.
Yeah, I get it. Tom Holland is just getting his webs wet as Spider-Man and likely has a few more spider-movies in him. Doesn’t make much sense to introduce a new live-action Spidey just yet. That could be confusing.
I kept finding new reasons to be grumpy. The actor voicing Miles (Shameik Moore) is black, but not Afro-Latino. You know how easy it is to find a half African American/half Puerto Rican kid in New York? They couldn’t find an authentic voice who truly walked in two worlds?
And why is Miles sharing the screen with a zillion other spider-people? Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham are here, too? Is this a Miles movie, or is he just being used to help spawn multiple animated franchises for Sony?
But then I saw the movie and connected with Miles instantly. Finally, the real me in a movie — where the real me is Spider-Man. It was thrilling. I got lost in the sauce of a being a superhero.
When Miles pulls down his mask, that was me, as a kid, pretending my winter caps were a Spider-Man mask. The besos Miles dodges from his Latina mother? Who hasn’t had an abuela or tia do the same thing to them? A brown kid speaking English and Spanish? You don’t see that on Univision or Telemundo. The movie only spends a moment connecting to the culture of who Miles is, but it is a strong, heartfelt and authentically crafted moment that washed my doubts and anger away.
My spider-sense has been buzzing nonstop since I saw “Spider-Verse.” That doesn’t mean I’ve lost hope on seeing a “real” Miles Morales. Donald Glover played Aaron Davis, the uncle of Miles Morales, in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” The most important word to come out of Glover’s mouth in that performance? Nephew. He tells Spider-Man he needs to do a better job protecting the neighborhood because he’s got a nephew to look after. So the seed has been planted in the live-action Spider-Man movie universe for Miles to exist.
However Miles hits the screen, I’ll be right there. Vicariously web-swinging through him.