December 14th of 2018 saw the release of not one, but two monuments in popular culture. One was the highly anticipated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the animated film starring Shameik Moore as Miles Morales. Before the film’s premiere, Sony announced a sequel and a spin-off film in the works. Joaquim Dos Santos has been confirmed director for the sequel. At the moment, Lauren Montgomery is in talks for directing the spin-off. Dos Santos and Montgomery are fresh off their work as executive producers of Dreamworks’ Voltron: Legendary Defender, which had its eighth and final season on Netflix the same day Spider-Verse hit theaters. Spider-Verse was met with critical acclaim, while Voltron season eight was not. Response ranged from lukewarm to furious. After some fans of Voltron were frustrated with the death of a gay man of color character and other developments in season seven, many were left disappointed with the series ending (including the deaths of more characters of color).
A release date wasn’t all Voltron and Spider-Verse had in common, however. Without getting into spoilers, the plot of season eight and themes of grief bare a striking resemblance to those of Spider-Verse. It’s not that one is a rip-off of the other, but that they both aimed to tell stories about loss and family. What made audiences more receptive to Spider-Verse was its delicate consideration and authenticity of characters of marginalized groups. If the Voltron showrunners couldn’t carry out something so similar to Spider-Verse with the same praise, how are they supposed to follow it up well?
This post contains spoilers for Voltron: Legendary Defender and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Also, a disclaimer: this is not meant as an attack on the showrunners (or any crew member) of Voltron as people. This is a critique of the TV show they produced and their role as storytellers.
In Into the Spider-Verse, Miles is tasked with destroying a portal to alternate dimensions funded by Kingpin and designed by Doc Ock. A flashback reveals Kingpin built the collider to find living counterparts of his deceased wife Vanessa and son Richard in other dimensions. It’s irrational, as Peter Parker and Doc Ock point out: it won’t bring them back and could damage the time-space continuum. Even they don’t know Vanessa and Richard died running away after uncovering Kingpin’s secret life as a supervillain, which happens once again with their alternate versions.
In Voltron season eight, Honerva (AKA Haggar) has the same plan to track down an alternate reality where her deceased husband Zarkon and son Lotor still live. Her plan differs in that she wants a universe where she can replace her already dead alternate self and go on living there. When she succeeds, a young Lotor rejects her. Whether he can tell she’s from another reality or just can’t reconcile the difference between her and his memory, he doesn’t consider this Honerva his mother. In Voltron and Spider-Verse, Honerva and Kingpin’s desperate attempts to reverse death fail miserably.
Dos Santos has described Voltron: Legendary Defender as a series “crafted […] around the themes of sacrifice and loss.” Every character loses people dear to them, whether temporarily separated or permanently dead, and goes to great lengths to find or honor them. Family is also a theme, and many of the lost loved ones are family members. Voltron brings Honerva to the forefront in season eight as its villain, but a villain redeemable through love and grief for family in common with the Paladins. It makes sense for her arc to involve relatives as the heroes’ do, but it also comes across like the simplest way to humanize a contemptible woman is to reveal she deep down simply wants a nuclear family. Unfortunately, the attempt at universality results in misogynistic characterization.
Spider-Verse also has themes of loss and family, and revels in their universality. When Miles loses Uncle Aaron, his teammates sympathize because they’ve gone through the same. The death of Uncle Ben has been integral to Spider-Man as a character since their debut in Amazing Fantasy #15. Grief and resolve define Peter Parker more than his spider-based superpowers. Every reader has lost someone important to them at some point, making Spider-Man tangible and human. When Peter B. says “we’ve all been there,” he doesn’t just mean the characters. When it comes to the heroes of other dimensions, they’re written with the same emotional core because it makes them Spider-People.
In contrast, Kingpin can’t move on from his grief. Like Voltron, loss is so universal even the antagonist experiences it. Spider-Verse applies the “fridging” of a wife (and child) usually reserved for a superhero’s motivation to its villain. Here, retaliating from grief with violence is portrayed as the depravity it is rather than something compelling. There’s no sympathy for Kingpin, only understanding of his motive, because he’s still a murderer willing to put his entire dimension and even the people he’s trying to save at risk. He’d rather recapture the past than embrace the future. It’s his inability to better himself that makes him a villain, and Spider-Man’s power to “always get up” a hero.
Peter B. may seem like an improper Spider-Man because he’s so unheroic, but really he’s the most profoundly Spider-Man from the loss of not only Ben but also May, Gwen, and MJ. It makes him the perfect mentor to Miles, who witnesses death for the first time. Miles gains superpowers and sees the murder of his universe’s Peter the same night, like a package deal. Then it’s the loss of Aaron, his idol and confidant, and comfort from Jefferson that propels his ascent into Spider-Man. Aaron is a unique component to Miles’ metamorphosis into Spider-Man (you can hear it in the similar blares of “The Prowler’s Theme” and “What’s Up Danger”), and a universal experience to the audience at the same time.
Because Spider-Verse embraces this universal appeal and acknowledges it within the film, it does not single out a character’s death by their demographic. Aaron’s death is the tragic result of bad decisions he’s made throughout his life as a henchman to Kingpin, not defined by him being black. It’s a fine line to walk but Miles and Jefferson survive him, white characters also die (including multiple Peter Parkers), and there are presumably dimensions where Aaron lives. Spider-Verse also “resurrects” the historically and famously fridged Gwen Stacy through an alternate dimension where she became Spider-Woman instead. Even the fridged Vanessa of Miles’ universe lives on in other dimensions. Their gender doesn’t restrict them to dead love interests. The use of alternate dimensions allows for an array of dead and living characters, making grief truly ubiquitous.
The same cannot be said for dark-skinned characters, including black humans or black-coded aliens, in Voltron: Legendary Defender. Not all human characters have a specified race or ethnicity, but some have dark skin. Not all alien characters resemble humans, but some have brown skin. All three named Altean women with dark brown skin are played by black voice actresses, making them black-coded. (Honerva is voiced by white actress Lily Rabe in true Altean form and black actress Cree Summer in Galran form. The silent H in her name makes her Latina-coded as well. There’s a lot to unpack there we don’t have time for.) Allura’s parents are dead before the start of the series, but her mother Melenor is vastly underdeveloped compared to her father Alfor, who has a presence through flashbacks and sci-fi circumstances. In season eight, Allura and Honerva die in one fell swoop. Adam, one dark-skinned character of the three confirmed gay men, also dies in season seven. There are other characters of color, such as Shiro who is Japanese, but the ones with darkest skin have the worst treatment. With the exception of straight men (Lance, Hunk, Alfor), dark-skinned characters and particularly women are minor (such as Veronica and Kinkade) or dead. Overall, it’s simply not a good look that reeks of colorism.
With a limited amount of gay characters and women of color in Voltron, and the media landscape in general for that matter, there’s a lot of stake in their fates. When Shiro was confirmed gay with the reveal of an ex-boyfriend named Adam in a pre-screening of season seven’s first episode, fans had renewed interest in Shiro and excitement over Adam. After fans criticized the death of Adam (and the apparent deaths of alien lesbian couple Zethrid and Ezor to a lesser extent) in season seven, Dos Santos admitted he was “aware of the ‘bury your gays’ trope but had hoped against hope that our struggle to include Shiro’s orientation would take center stage here.” They didn’t anticipate how the lack of gay men of color in children’s cartoons would make fans so invested in even a minor one. (The only others with dark skin are Mr. Smiley in Steven Universe and Harold McBride in The Loud House, both minor characters.) If one character of an oppressed group is written out of the show, there may not be another member of that group to keep representing them. In the case of Adam and Curtis, viewers are unaware Curtis is also gay until the final minutes of the show.
Despite the backlash to killing off Abbie Mills (a black woman) in Sleepy Hollow, Lexa (a white lesbian) in The 100, and Poussey Washington (a black lesbian) in Orange is the New Black all in the same year Voltron premiered; it followed the trend. It would be impossible for people invested in racial and LGBTQ representation in speculative fiction and television in general to have missed those conversations. Either the Voltron team aren’t as attuned to these issues as they claim and missed the conversation entirely, or they went into a post-Trump inauguration United States believing their vision would transcend the issues.
The creators aimed to include underrepresented people and to explore universal themes of loss, but perhaps didn’t think through the consequences of combining those goals. As a result, the seventh season left three gay characters dead and one grieving out of only four. There had always been fan criticisms of Voltron‘s depiction of the marginalized, specifically people of color and transgender people, but the hype and subsequent let-down of Shiro and Adam resulted in the loudest. Season eight attempted to repair the damage by revealing Zethrid and Ezor still alive and flashing forward to Shiro marrying Curtis, a minor character. They may be alive but Zethrid’s characterization as an unrequited bitter lesbian, Ezor’s bizarrely silent presence, and the tacked on wedding leave much to be desired.
However, the final season presented its own issue with the deaths of Allura and Honerva without a continuation on the horizon to mend it. Despite’s Voltron theme of teamwork as seen in the eponymous mech made of literally more than the sum of its parts, Allura leaves the Paladins behind to sacrifice herself and restore the fabric of the universe alone. Only Honerva joins her, in an act of redemption after lashing out and destroying all realities. The post-credits scene where the Lions find an Allura-shaped nebula may mean she still exists on a higher plane of reality, but Voltron: Legendary Defender is already over. It doesn’t change that she loses her only remaining family, or that Honerva dies.
It’s meant to be heroic, but ultimately singles out the only black women to die. Like with Adam, perhaps the Voltron creators thought this would transcend the baggage. (It wouldn’t be the first time their “colorblind” approach resulted in unfortunate racial implications: dark-skinned Allura and Hunk being the only characters to show heritage-based prejudice toward Keith being Galran in season two, and the in-universe whitewashing of Allura by incorporating 1980s Voltron as a retelling of previous seasons.) Although framed as an act of life-giving for the universe, it’s actually taking the lives of Allura and Honerva. Protagonist or antagonist, the most moving thing a black woman can do in Voltron is lay down her life for the benefit of those who are not black women. Allura’s death becomes part of her boyfriend Lance’s character arc, rather than her own. This article would be very different if all the Paladins had given their lives, or major black women characters had survived Allura. As it is there’s no Paladins working together, no shot of Allura performing magic, no way for Allura to see the result of her sacrifice; only reveling in the fact she’ll never see the Paladins again as if for the greater good.
In Spider-Verse, Aaron’s death is presented as the tragedy it is. He may have spared Miles knowing there would be consequences, but there’s no mixed messages that his death was the best outcome. What matters is how unforgivably evil Kingpin is for taking Aaron from Miles, even if being the Prowler regretfully puts Miles in danger and not realizing that sooner costs him his life. Later, Miles refuses to let Peter B. or Gwen sacrifice themselves by deactivating the collider and thus locking themselves out their home dimensions. It emphasizes the need to find better solutions, believe in and rely on each other, and withstand the future. Miles takes responsibility for his universe, friends, and family in a way that won’t result in more death. He technically acts alone to defeat Kingpin, but knowing everyone supports him. Aaron lives on in Miles, the next generation, with the resolve to save others from the same fate and mistakes. It’s a supremely satisfying and touching resolution to Miles’ arc.
The weaknesses of later Voltron seasons become apparent when compared to the similar and more competent Spider-Verse. However, it’s not that Spider-Verse is perfect in its representation of marginalized groups. The quips at Peter B.’s weight and the reliance on stereotypical anime aesthetics for Peni Parker get old fast, for instance. The difference between it and Voltron lies in how tightly everything comes together and leaves the flaws minor. Allura’s sacrifice should be the culmination of her arc and the emotional peak of the series, so falling flat makes a bigger impact than a hiccup would. It’s the worst part of a larger pattern of racism, colorism, anti-blackness, and misogynoir.
A television show can’t be pinned on a single person who worked on it, but it’s hard to not be wary of Dos Santos with the follow-up considering Voltron mangled the same concepts and themes as Spider-Verse. Also, he’s a white man in a position that could go to a director with demographics in common with Miles (an Afro-Puerto Rican boy), Gwen (a white girl), Miguel (a Mexican man), and/or Lyla (an AI with the appearance of an Asian woman). Montgomery is only rumored to direct the women-led spin-off, but the same concern applies. Although Dos Santos publicly apologized for the death of Adam playing into the homophobic trope of “bury your gays,” he and Montgomery remain unsettlingly silent about season eight. It’s unclear if they’ve listened to criticisms and whether they’ll learn from their mistakes.
Their tendency to prioritize white characters doesn’t align with Miles in a lead role. What will become of Miles or Jefferson? It also doesn’t bode well for Cindy Moon’s place in the Spider-Women film. (There’s already trouble with leaving Peni unmentioned regarding the spin-off, where she could be fleshed out as a character.) Ganke may finally get lines in the sequel, but they could just be food jokes like the ones aimed at Hunk throughout the show. As inclusion of LGBTQ characters in animated television for children increases, they could make their way to animated films and they’ll have to try again. Please no more jokes at the expense of transgender people, like when Pidge can’t decide what restroom to enter in season two or when a queer-coded alien corrects Shiro when he misgenders them in season eight. Hopefully none of these examples come to pass, but they are possible. Spider-Verse deserves sequels and spin-offs as thoughtful, creative, and compelling as the first. Can Dos Santos and Montgomery deliver that? Only time will tell.
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