In the case of Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, he didn’t choose to have a radioactive spider bite him and grant him superpowers just in time for a potentially multiverse ending event. Just a normal, confused teenager, Miles was swept into something that was larger than himself and outside of his control. And that can happen to any of us.
For example, I didn’t want my dad to die when I was 20. I wasn’t ready for it. But it happened, and, as an only child, I had to find the strength to support my mom, turn grief into power, and more. Five years later, when my mom died…my goodness. That was a kind of personal “multiverse ending” event.
These kinds of sudden, uncomfortable demands that you didn’t actively pursue are what I call “passenger” challenges. You’re not in control of what’s happening, but you’re riding shotgun and have to navigate as best as you can. Otherwise the car will probably crash.
On the flip side, we have driver challenges. While passenger challenges tend to be more negative in nature, driver ones are more positive. Typically, they’re your hopes and dreams. Maybe you want to play professional baseball. Or get a novel published. Or lose 100lbs. Or start a business that supports you and your family. Or be a congresswoman/congressman. Draw comic books for Marvel. Make movies. Move to a big city. Ask someone out. Meet Kanye West. Create a movie analysis website that changes film criticism forever.
Any of the above situations are ones that don’t happen if you’re a passenger. You have to drive the car to get to one of those destinations. That can be scary. Because the bigger the goal, the longer the trip, the greater the demand for a confidence and agency many of us are unsure we possess, despite our desire.
The good news is that whether the situation is passenger or driver, the process for finding the confidence to make it through is largely the same. To understand that process, we have to understand the battle between your belief in yourself and your doubt, your fear. Which is what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did so fucking well.
Into the Spider-Verse is an ignition story. And while its circumstances are extraordinary, the process is the same for Miles Morales becoming Spider-Man as it is for you and me and anything we want to do.
Just look at the final words of the film:
“Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now.”
I think one of the reasons Spider-Verse was such a breakout and breakthrough film, going so far as to win the Academy Award for Animated Feature, is because it’s not just an entertaining Spidey movie, but a how-to for finding the confidence to “wear the mask”. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), having to be Spider-Man is a problem no one in reality will probably ever have. But when you re-contextualize it… the journey Miles goes on is no longer such a foreign, out of this world thing. Miles goes from a normal teenager to a passenger of circumstances that demanded a confidence of him he didn’t believe he had. How does he find that confidence? How do any of us?
The answer, at least in Into the Spider-Verse, is ignition. What is ignition? Well, I’m glad you asked! The term comes from Daniel Coyle, an author who wrote this breakthrough book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.
Coyle’s point is in-line with Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Robert Greene in Mastery. Talent isn’t inherent—successful people are successful because of time and effort. Gladwell discusses how external elements influence our greatness. Greene reveals how the greats synthesize information/experiences overtime and thus carve a unique path to greatness that seems “out of nowhere”. Coyle deconstructs the neuroscience and mental processes that lead to greatness.
Ultimately Talent Code boils down to a trio of factors. Deep practice, coaching, and ignition. For our purposes we need to explore ignition.
Let’s start with two examples. One macro, the other micro.
In 2002 the Houston Rockets used the 1st overall pick of the NBA draft to select Chinese-born Yao Ming. It was a historic moment. No one from China had ever been drafted in the first round, much less number one. Maybe even more incredible, he was only the third Chinese NBA player EVER. At 7’6″, a mix of grace and power, Yao quickly became one of the most popular players in the league. If he was that beloved in America, you can imagine the response back in his homeland.
“Walking around China with Yao Ming,” said Carroll Dawson, once general manager of the Rockets, “is like walking through New York with The Beatles.”
While basketball had always been popular in China, Yao’s success caused a revolution. And suddenly the NBA became the most watched organized sport in the country. The impact of which has lasted beyond Yao’s career (which ended in 2011), as the NBA now plays multiple preseason games in China and has opened elite training academies in three cities.
The Yao-effect caused the Chinese Basketball Association to become a far more competitive and lucrative league, with many former NBA players opting to join the CBA rather than retire from the game completely. Beyond the professional league, it’s estimated that 300 million regularly play basketball in the country. That’s the population of the United States.
While there are many other factors that helped set the stage for Chinese basketball’s revolutionary surge, there’s one clear moment of ignition.
Another brief example. Spike Lee just won his first Academy Award after 5 nominations and 30+ years of movie making. During his acceptance speech he shouted out the New York University film program at Tisch. There are students in that program right now thinking, “If Spike could do it, I can too.” Also, Spike proudly reps Brooklyn. You know there are kids in Brooklyn right now saying, “I’m going to be the next Spike Lee.”
But ignition doesn’t always have to be at such a large scale. When I was growing up I never liked school. From 1st grade to 6th grade, I was always an A/B student. I just didn’t care enough to listen to the teachers, much less apply myself. Then in 7th grade, something changed.
It was the end of the first quarter. Report cards had just been passed out. There was a novelty to the whole thing because we had never had grade-point averages before. This was a serious change that signaled, silly as it may seem, that we weren’t kids anymore. We were middle schoolers, with high school and the rest of life looming on the horizon.
My GPA? 3.2! At first, I didn’t think much of it. But then I overheard someone mention their 4.0. It was this kid, Josh. I had never talked to Josh, had never been in the same class or on a baseball team together (though we had played against each other). I had always thought of him as an average person, kind of like me. Neither of us was particularly popular, or in any of the advanced classes, or an all-star player.
There he was, though, with a 4.0. And it was this incredible moment of realization for me. “If he can do that, I can do that.” Ignition.
There wasn’t some monumental shift that followed. I didn’t study much more. I didn’t work much harder. I just expected more of myself, knew this was something obtainable for someone like me. Gone was the ceiling that I had always thought existed between me and better grades. Between me and the “smart kids”. The expectation of a 4.0 was enough to increase my performance, to remove the doubt and fear and self-defeating actions. Better habits were a natural byproduct (like sitting in the front row instead of the back).
I got all A’s for the rest of middle school. Then like 87.5% of high school—a stint of boredom my junior year broke the streak. The result was a merit scholarship to the #1 ranked university in Ohio (at the time). Had it not been for Josh and that moment of ignition, I honestly don’t think that would have happened.
We all need someone or something to ignite us to break through our self-imposed limits. But it also helps to understand where those limits come from. Let’s return to Miles and Into the Spider-Verse.
For so much of Spider-Verse, Miles can’t get over his fear. Whatever confidence he should have, could have, might have had…is compromised by guilt, by confusion, by feeling overwhelmed, and the lack of ignition.
The guilt comes from his inability to save the Peter Parker of his universe. In that scene, Miles was his most helpless. As Spider-Man’s trying to stop Kingpin and the monstrous Green Goblin, to save the day, Miles finds himself getting in the way. When Spider-Man’s eventually injured, then killed, Miles can’t help but feel his presence was part of the problem. Here Spider-Man had never failed…until Miles showed up. That can weigh on a kid.
The confusion comes from the new Spider powers. Why Miles? He wasn’t special. He wasn’t particularly even good at anything. Why should he have these abilities? Not only that, how does he even use them? A good portion of Spider-Verse is Miles struggling to do basic Spider things. There’s the whole scene where he sticks to Gwen Stacy and can’t let go. Then when he wants to stick to a wall…he can’t.
If the guilt and confusion weren’t enough to overwhelm Miles, there’s the whole multiverse thing, with other Spider-People being present. Then Kingpin on the brink of creating a universe ending event. One that Miles promised a dying Peter Parker that Miles would help stop. The situation is pretty blunt: save the world or lose everything. That’s enough to break the spirit of most people, regardless of their age.
The lack of ignition comes from Miles’s strained relationship with his dad, his missing uncle, and the fact Peter Parker died. Two issues there. One, if the only other person like you just died in front of you…it probably doesn’t make you want to follow in their footsteps. Two, if the only other person like you just died…then who will teach you anything? Who is there to learn from? Who is your role model? Where do you find inspiration?
Guilt, confusion, feeling overwhelmed, and lacking ignition—any and all of these create a sense of fear that can keep you from your confidence—whether you’re a passenger or a driver. You might have a moment of inspiration, only for guilt to show up and stop it. You may take an important step forward, only for confusion to set you back. You might know exactly what needs to be said…but keep silent.
You know fear is winning if you find yourself avoiding action. Making excuses. Allowing bad habits to dominate. Hiding. All things we witnessed Miles do during his lowest points.
The details of your situation won’t be what Miles or really anyone else has gone through or will go through, your life is so unique to you. But it can be comforting to know that when you step back and look at things in general, that your situation is no different than anyone else. And if others found their way to ignition (then success), so can you.
The spark in Miles
I’m sure you can already pinpoint the moment of ignition in Spider-Verse. Miles has reached his lowest point in the movie. Rejected by the other Spider-Peeps, told he doesn’t have what it takes by the closest thing to a mentor he’s had, left tied to a chair. There’s such self-loathing and pain and helplessness.
That’s when Miles’s dad shows up. Up to this point, the film’s set-up the strained dynamic between father and son. They love each other, but struggle to communicate it as their personalities contrast so much. That strain multiplied 10x by Miles being the new Spider-Man and his dad’s hatred of Spider-Man.
Tied to the chair, Miles can’t come to the door. A reinforcement of how weak he is. His dad, instead of feeling rejected and leaving, opens up to his son. A vulnerability we hadn’t seen from him.
Miles, uh, Miles it’s your dad. Please open the door. Miles I can see your shadow moving around. Yeah, okay, I get it. Still ignoring me. Can we talk for a minute? Something…Something happened… Look, sometimes people drift apart. And I don’t want that to happen to us, okay. Look, I know I don’t always do what you need me to do, or say what you need me to say. I see this, this spark in you and it’s amazing. It’s why I push you. It’s yours. Whatever you choose to do with it you’ll be great. Call me when you can, okay? I love you. You don’t have to say it back though. (I’m crying).
Miles has reached ignition. And what follows is one of the most hype-inducing moments of the entire movie.
We’ve all experienced some form of ignition, big or small. The cool thing is there are many, many more to come. Lean into them, recognize them, cherish them, because they’ll be some of the most important moments of your life.