With the explosion of serialized superhero films over the last decade, talk of a multiverse has never been more integrated into popular culture. The term ‘multiverse’ is a combination of the words ‘multiple’ and ‘universe’ used to describe the existence of multiple worlds or realities. While terms like ‘multiverse’ may occasionally be used to refer to possible universes outside our known Milky Way Galaxy, that is not the definition of the household version popularized by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.[1] Alternate possible universes is also not the definition that Alvin Plantinga uses when he discusses other possible worlds in his book God, Freedom, and Evil. When Plantinga discusses possible worlds, he refers to worlds that could logically exist, not ones that actually exist, as in the multiverse. Spiritual implications surrounding a potential multiverse abound, but one of the most pressing is the question of what defines each of us as a unique human being. Examining Alvin Plantinga’s discussion of essence in God, Freedom, and Evil alongside Sony’s and Marvel’s Into the Spider-Verse can help us recognize that a multiverse erases essence, which is the mark of humanity.

In God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga uses Socrates to illustrate what he means by a person’s essence. Plantinga writes that we can “define Socrates’ essence as the set of properties essential to him . . . and this set contains all his world-indexed properties, together with some others.”[2] The existence of multiple Spider-People sharing essential properties across the Spider-Verse parallels Plantinga’s concept of essence. The various Spider-Man characters, including a Spider-Pig and Spider-Woman, share the defining characteristics of the original Peter Parker Spider-Man. They all were bitten by radioactive spiders; their hero’s journeys began with the deaths of loved ones; they wear spider costumes and use web-like technology; they all strive to protect their cities. They even share a personal mantra, which is revealed as the multiverse heroes work to train Miles Morales to become his world’s new Spider-Man: get up after falling down.[3]

While the Spider-Man characters’ shared attributes can help us imaginatively understand Plantinga’s discussion of essence, a critical reading of God, Freedom, and Evil demands that we distinguish essence from what we see with the heroes of Into the Spider-Verse. We ought to object to calling these properties Spider-Man’s essence because the sets of properties identified as the potential essence of Spider-Man are only similar, not identical. For example, Gwen Stacy becomes Spider-Woman because Peter Parker died in her world, but Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man because Uncle Ben died in his world.[4] Death is a common factor in the making of each person’s hero, but the deaths and circumstances are not identical. An important distinction is necessary, however. We must remember that when Plantinga discusses essence, he is referring to people. In fact, Plantinga mentions that one’s essence is maximal, “a complete set of world-indexed properties.” Essence is the whole of a person. Spider-Man’s essence-like quality is defined by a general set of characteristics while a human’s essence is defined by a specific set of properties. As we see in the film, there are differences in the attitudes of each hero. Therefore, Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker, and Miles Morales could have an essence, but their hero characters could not. Spider-Man is a persona, not a person. Therefore, Spider-Man does not have an essence the same way human beings have an essence.

In Into the Spider-Verse, the characters’ shared hero-making characteristics are more like an ethos — the characteristic spirit of Spider-People that guides their ideals — than an essence. These characteristics make a distinguished character for the Spider-Man persona, but they don’t create a fundamental, unwavering definition for a being. Miles Morales confirms this idea in his final monologue when he says, “Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now.”[5] Though Spider-Man exists in multiple worlds, that character is not tied to the essence of any particular person. This thought is intended to encourage viewers to believe in their power to be heroes, but it ignores the fundamental truth that a person’s essence is what allows him or her to adopt the Spider-Man ethos. Here, Miles forgets how significantly each hero’s experiences shaped him or her into the Spider-Man persona. Experiences shape the set of properties attributed to a person, which is one’s essence. Without those experiences, a person cannot take on the Spider-Man persona without fundamentally altering the ethos of that persona.

Viewers can also recognize a missing essence when we look at characters like Peter Parker, Mary Jane, Gwen Stacy, and Miles Morales. When he discusses the idea of possible worlds, Plantinga writes, “It would be a mistake, of course, to think of all of these worlds as somehow ‘going on’ at the same time, with the same person reduplicated through these worlds and actually existing in a lot of different ways.”[6] This concept, however, is exactly what we see in Into the Spider-Verse. We see two different versions of both Mary Jane and Peter Parker, which implies that Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy also both exist in at least two different worlds. There are characters from two totally different worlds that are nothing like Miles’s world. There is also a talking, cartoonish Spider-Pig and a noir version of a Peter Parker Spider-Man who exists in a black-and-white world. Into the Spider-Verse reveals the problem of a potential multiverse: human beings have no ‘self’ if they exist in more than one actual world.

Because Miles, Peter, and the others are people and not personas, they will not have essences if multiple real versions exist. Peter Parker perfectly reveals this truth. His multiple versions are the only ones compared in the film. In Miles’s world, Peter Parker is blonde, but Peter Parker prime has brown hair. Then we also have noir Peter Parker who is devoid of color and far less sarcastic than the other Peters. Finally, of course, we have Peter Porker, the pig version of Peter Parker.[7] We do not have a maximal set of properties that allow us to define Peter Parker. In fact, we have contradicting properties: different hair colors, being devoid of color, or being a pig. If we saw three versions of Peter Parker where Peter Parker prime and noir Peter Parker were merely missing some of the characteristics of Mile’s version of Peter, we could look at the Spider-Verse differently. The world of Miles Morales would be the actual world, and all the other worlds would be mere possible worlds. However, that is not what we see. We see five distinct, actual worlds with unique human and humanoid characters. Because we see that Peter is distinct even from himself across at least three worlds, we cannot completely and specifically answer the question ‘Who is Peter Parker?’ We can only speak generally of him. Without this maximal set of properties, Peter Parker has no essence. He becomes indistinguishable from a persona, like the character Spider-Man, and loses his unique marker of humanity.

What, then, exists inside the Spider-Verse? It’s certainly not people. After examining God, Freedom, and Evil in tandem with Into the Spider-Verse, we can see that exploring the idea of a multiverse erases the mark of humanity in a character. Plantinga is right to call it a mistake to understand the multiverse the same way we understand possible worlds. We may enjoy the multiverse as a plot device since it provides an easy, consequence-free way to watch characters endure new trials and even come back from the dead, but we ought not accept the multiverse as possible truth if we believe that we are all uniquely marked with God-breathed souls.

Citation Information

Cherish Nelson, “Person or Persona: What’s Inside the Spider-Verse,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 41-48.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///person-or-persona-whats-inside-the-spider-verse/


[1] The MCU does include films with galaxies outside our own, like the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy series. Still, these films exist within the single, original universe established by the MCU. ‘Multiverse’ does not refer to Thor’s Asgard or to any of the planets from Guardians of the Galaxy.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 51.

[3] Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (Sony Pictures, 2018), Amazon Prime Video.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 37.

[7] Spider-Man, 2018.