How Movies Like “Across the Spider-Verse” Are Fighting Against the AI Revolution
AI – i.e. artificial intelligence – is everywhere right now. On TikTok, I often come across AI covers sung by digital imitations of other artists (or weirdly enough, “Spongebob” characters). My friends who are teachers say that they know students are turning in AI-generated work. And AI-generated images seem to go viral all the time; that image of the Pope wearing a giant white puffer still makes me laugh, even if I know there’s something not quite right there. As a writer, I’m constantly thinking about the threat AI poses to what I do, too.
Somewhat serendipitously – seeing as these projects have been in the works for literally years – it’s also been a big year for fictional AI onscreen. This summer, “Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1” featured Tom Cruise’s borderline superhuman Ethan Hunt facing off against a literal AI. The humans he physically fights in the real world are directed by an all-knowing AI known as the Entity, and what the Entity predicts almost always comes true. Almost.
And then there’s “Mrs. Davis,” a Peacock series that countless viewers have recommended to their friends with the preface of, “OK, it’s really weird, but there’s this nun.” In it, Betty Gilpin’s Simone (a nun) is one of the very few people on the whole planet who isn’t hooked into the AI network called Mrs. Davis. This AI makes people’s lives easier and gets rid of so much of the friction of everyday life. And when she needs something done in the real world, she asks any of her users: they always listen. But Simone teams up with her ex-boyfriend Wiley (Jake McDorman) to take Mrs. Davis down.
But “M:I 7,” “Across the Spider-Verse,” and “Mrs. Davis” – in all their weird, complicated glory – are a tribute to what AI can’t do.
Both “M:I 7” and “Mrs. Davis” end up being about, at least in part, how and why we should fight against the seemingly unbeatable. The AI, in both cases, assumes the worst of people. It presumes that humans are pretty basic with pretty basic wants and desires – basic enough that it can predict how things will shake out completely. Humans are but measly chess pieces, fighting on a board they can’t see.
After watching “M:I 7,” there was one more summer movie I couldn’t help but think of: “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” In the movie, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) finds out that the multiverse of Spider-People (and Spider-Pigs and Spider-Horses and so on) is governed by what Spider-Man 2099 Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) calls canon events. Every Spider-Person, he says, loses at least one parent or loved one, loses another loved one early in their superhero career, and loses a police captain that’s close to them, for example (for some, like Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman and Miles, some of those losses can be of the same person). In this way, canon events actually act like AI; Miguel treats them like an algorithm for success. Diverging from them is impossible.
Miles, then, is a threat to the Spider-Verse because he refuses to give into the doctrine of canon events. Miguel warns him that if he doesn’t let the death of his dad happen, the whole Spider-Verse will tear apart. Miles doesn’t care. He wants to save him anyway. The plot won’t be resolved fully until “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” comes out – which is seemingly going to take a while – but whether Miles succeeds or not kind of doesn’t matter. What matters is that he tries.
Toward the end of “M:I 7,” our human villain, Gabriel (Esai Morales) tells Ethan that there was no point in him working so hard to save Hayley Atwell’s Grace. She’s going to die anyway. “All you’ve done is bought her time,” he intones before fleeing.
But all any of us can do for each other is buy each other more time. Miles can buy his dad more time, Ethan can buy Grace more time, and Simone can buy Wiley more time. Death and its finality is something an AI can never grasp, so it can never really predict what a person would do to stave it off just a little longer for someone they love.
We live in a time where everything is influenced by algorithms and AI. The videos you see on TikTok, the stories you see on Instagram, and the dress you buy from Target are all put in front of you because of some unseen algorithm. When you chat with a customer service rep online, it’s almost always an AI that tries to solve your problem first. The existence of ChatGPT makes you question whether the words in front of you were written by a human at all.
But “M:I 7,” “Across the Spider-Verse,” and “Mrs. Davis” – in all their weird, complicated glory – are a tribute to what AI can’t do. It cannot love its friends the way Ethan does. It cannot protect its family the way Miles does. It cannot fight back the way Simone does. And it most certainly cannot make art about humans (and Spider-Pigs) fighting back against a stifling culture that dictates what is and isn’t allowed.
As the writers’ and actors’ strikes have proved, both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are worried about the rise of AI in the entertainment industry. Writers are afraid that studios will use artificial intelligence to train them to write stories – ultimately replacing them – while actors have warned about artificial actors replacing them, too. AI entering the industry in this way wouldn’t just ruin creators’ jobs; it would ruin the art. Real actors and writers give texture to these stories; they have bold, creative ideas that no one else has ever had before, that technology could only ever mimic. An AI could not create the over 600 very strange Spider-People that populate “Across the Spider-Verse”, which were imagined by not just writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Dave Callaham but by dozens of artists. It could not come up with the death-defying train stunt that caps off “M:I 7,” which was a collaboration between the cast, crew, and stunt departments. It could never, ever decide to write a TV show about a world-saving nun who’s literally married to Jesus (and no one could bring the world to life the way Gilpin and the rest of the ensemble does). And if it seems like AI (and the people supporting it) are going to win, these movies are a reminder that our futures are what we make of them.
I don’t want content that has passed some checklist. I don’t want AI-generated stories. I want human ingenuity and sincerity and creativity and love and dedication to make its way to us. And all three of these stories inspire me to dig a little deeper, to stretch a little farther, to take what’s expected of me and try to pivot.
“Mrs. Davis” is streaming now on Peacock. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is available on VOD now. “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” will be available on digital platforms on Oct. 10.
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