The city that never sleeps is as dangerous as ever, but Spider-Man from the friendly neighborhood of Harlem does it all, from rescuing helpless bodega cats to defusing nuclear time bombs. And like any modern-day celebrity, Spider-Man always makes time to respond to Twitter followers or snap crazy selfies with adoring fans. Yes, the new web sling is as reliable and personal as they come, but I know its biggest secrets. Miles Morales, the young man behind the mask, enjoys playing video games, producing groovy hip-hop beats and conducting elaborate scientific experiments. He struggles with his hair in the bathroom mirror and has a soft spot for dulce de coco. But more importantly, he looks like me.
I grew up as an Afro-Latino boy with a starry sky in Harlem, Spain. Day after day, the beautiful mix of salsa and rap blared from every apartment window. Lifelong friendships were forged at the nearest basketball court. I remember the helado cart down the street from my high school and the summer block parties where opening fire hydrants was our DIY version of going to the beach. Your hairdresser was practically family; getting a haircut from someone else was downright disrespectful! The best branded sodas were under a dollar, and sometimes local pizza parlors would give kids a free slice of pepperoni with a slushie. At night I fell asleep with car alarms in the distance; The soft voice of Héctor Lavoe or the raspy trumpet of Willie Colón vibrating through my thin bedroom walls.
Returning to Harlem as an adult was unreal: the community isn’t what it used to be. Family businesses have given way to luxury apartments, expensive supermarkets and middle-class fast food chains. Police surveillance has increased, meaning cases of racial profiling are more common. Plus, rent in most apartment complexes is prohibitive, and historically cheap foods, such as sandwiches, are reminiscent of high Midtown prices. Gentrification displaces ancient Harlem residents. But beneath the incessant sirens and obnoxiously loud truck horns, I can barely make out the hard bass of reggaeton. In the shadow of posh hotels, street performers preserve Harlem’s history with elaborate murals. The culture lasts.
In Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, my old neighborhood is, as it is in reality, in the midst of an identity crisis. The petroleum conglomerate Roxxon establishes its headquarters in Manhattan in downtown Harlem; the company’s dark, foreboding tower, visible from the Upper West Sides and East Sides. At the start of the game, Miles has just moved from Brooklyn and the sudden change of location is hard for him to accept. With the help of his best friend Ganke and his mother’s timely, morale-boosting speeches, Miles learns to appreciate his community by simply being there: past Teo’s Bodega to take his adorable cat for a swing; mingling with various Harlemites at music festivals. When a significant amount of community stock is stolen, the homeless shelter closes due to gang activity, and Roxxon’s evil intentions are exposed, I don the mask with Miles and become the hero of my hometown I always wished I could be.
There is one moment towards the end of the game that stays with me even now, a year after completing the main story. Hailey Cooper, a local street performer, pulls our hero aside and says, “There’s been a Spider-Man protecting New York since I was a kid, but to have one that cares about me and my home means that everything.” Miles smiles as he always does when he gets confused and replies, “It’s my house too.” Finally – even if only in a digital game world or etched on the page of a widely read comic book – my community got the protector it deserved. And if I timed my dodges well or tapped a button often enough to save innocent people from danger, I could be that protector too. Whilst swinging above Harlem’s bustling marketplaces at high speeds or cinematically battling a gang of thieves, I was simply living out my superhero fantasies through Miles Morales. But in those quieter moments—when listening to the sounds of the city through Uncle Aaron’s old music recordings or staring through teary eyes at BLM wall art—it’s me under that mask.
This article originally appeared in issue 333 of Gaming Tech Gear.