Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is getting a lot of attention right now, and for good reason. It has a bold visual style that connects with Spider-Man’s comic book roots. It has heroes who aren’t all boring white guys. And even the soundtrack is solid and well implemented. In a time when superhero movies are feeling a bit drab and same-y, ‘Spider-Verse is a breath of fresh air.
But while we’re giving the film its well-earned credit, let’s not overlook one of its most noteworthy characters: this is the best Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) we’ve ever seen on film.
The story of Spider-Man resonates with us because it’s a natural metaphor for anyone’s coming of age. We grow into new power, and new responsibility, and sometimes we struggle to understand who we are in those new contexts. Within that metaphor, Aunt May is a stand-in for our parents and grandparents, the people who remind us of where we came from, and what we value — even if we, like Peter, don’t always tell them all the details of what we’re going through.
The genius of Aunt May’s portrayal in ‘Spider-Verse is that she’s so much more than a comforting face and a cup of tea, but at her core she’s still that same grounding, paternal figure. ‘Spider-Verse gives us an Aunt May who’s smart and tough, but doesn’t sacrifice the essence of her character.
Soon after encountering Aunt May, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) discovers that she not only knew her late nephew was Spider-Man, she was also an active part of his superhero work, including designing and developing his equipment. Even in her grief, Aunt May’s been maintaining his lair, and providing safe haven to his alternate dimension counterparts. Soon after that first meeting, we see her swinging a baseball bat, fighting super villains alongside the other Spider-People. This is not the quaint, kindly old woman who’s usually just there to be protected.
But the real moment that defines this version of Aunt May is when Miles is finally ready to take his “leap of faith” into the role of Spider-Man, and returns to the lair. He‘s surprised to find the door ready to open for him, and at the bottom of the elevator, there’s Aunt May. She’s waiting for him, every bit the grandmotherly figure in her rocking chair with a cup of tea, surrounded by Spider-Man suits, computer consoles, and gadgets.
She knew that Miles would come. She knew that he had it in him to wear the suit, and be the hero. She had such faith in him that she programmed the door to open for him, made web shooters fitted to his wrists, and sat there in the dark ready to be the support he would need. “Took you long enough,” she says, before taking a sip of tea. That’s Aunt May. She’s smarter and tougher than we’re used to, but she’s still that patient, paternal figure who believes in you to the end. She must have been that for Peter once, and now she’s ready to be it again for Miles.
And that’s the most remarkable thing about the ‘Spider-Verse version of this character; Aunt May didn’t retire from crime fighting when Peter died. Her dedication to that person extends to his legacy, to whomever wears the mask and does the work. She’s there to support Spider-Man, no matter who it is or which dimension they’re from.