Home > Comics, Film, Reviews > Film Review – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Film Review – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018; Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an out-of-left-field triumph. It is unquestionably the best animated film of the year, likely the best comic-book superhero movie of the year (no mean feat in a year including the confident and nuanced Black Panther), and maybe the best comedy of the year, too. Frankly, this exciting, innovative, hilarious, and moving film ought to be in the conversation for one of the best films of the year, period.

It really shouldn’t be, at first glance. It’s an animated spin-off of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise (more the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst trilogy that ended a decade ago – and whose high and low moments are shouted out in the introductory passage – than the largely unloved Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone reboot that followed it), which has grown so moribund that they booted its latest restart beneath the comforting, predominantly unchallenging Marvel Cinematic Universe umbrella. Generally, movies like this one are the stuff of straight-to-home-video fodder (back when there was such a thing as home video to go straight to), and moving the property under the aegis of Sony Pictures Animation, whose most notable releases these days are the Hotel Transylvania movies, hardly inspired further confidence. But from such middling origins comes one of the most astonishing animated films you will see this year, or any year.220px-spider-man_into_the_spider-verse_282018_poster29

It’s tempting to look solely at two names in the credits as difference-makers: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, writer-directors of The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street and its sequel 22 Jump Street, and the cult-classic animated series Clone High, produced Into the Spider-Verse, and Lord wrote the story and co-penned the screenplay (with 22 Jump Street writer Rodney Rothman, who co-directs the film with Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti). Feature animation is a highly collaboration medium, even more so than live-action filmmaking, and resists auteur theory absolutes, but Into the Spider-Verse is a Lord/Miller joint all the damn way: frenetic action, whipcracking comedic wit, dense, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it referentiality, and strong, surprisingly affecting thematic surges. Indeed, it contains a hefty helping of repurposed elements of the duo’s feature breakthrough and notable past Sony Pictures Animation success Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It borrows that film’s central thematic and emotional relationship between a rebellious, creative son and a more traditional, duty-bound father, as well as at least a trio of specific beats: silly names for techno-McGuffins (in Cloudy, a key device with the unpronouncable acronym FLDSMDFR; here, a kill-program-equipped USB stick called a Goober), relatably mundane computer-age frustrations in the midst of high-intrigue plot suspense (in Cloudy, a hilarious scene of talking a clueless technophobe through attaching a file to an email; here, cracking into an evil scientist’s computer only to be frustrated by her hopelessly cluttered desktop), and high-tech labs accessed through unassuming backyard structures (in Cloudy, an outhouse; here, a garden shed).

This is not to say that Into the Spider-Verse is anything like a retread of its various influences and sources. This is a blazingly inventive movie, visually innovative and impressively original in adapting the look and feel of comic books to the screen: panel borders, thought bubbles and boxes, and onscreen onomatopoaeic sound-effects text flit cleverly by, but are also used to amplify and emphasize story and emotional moments. This may sound like Ang Lee’s maligned editing methods in Hulk, but I can assure you it works far better. And added to it are flickering and pulsating bursts of pop-art psychedelia worthy of the most incredibly imaginative art of late Marvel Comics co-founder Steve Ditko (like his one-time creative partner who also died this year, Marvel movie cameo king Stan Lee, Ditko gets a tribute card at the end of the credits).

If Into the Spider-Verse was only saturated with visual astonishments, dotted with breathless action sequences, and consistently blessed with impeccable comic timing, it would be a fun and noteworthy rainbow-candy trifle that would still earn plaudits for its sheer energy and joy. But what makes it a great cinematic experience is how it tells an involving, potent story with beautifully-pitched emotional beats for even its minor characters, all while acting as a effluent visual summary of the Spider-Man character and of comic book history alike (it opens, after all, with the familiar Comics Code Authority seal of approval that was emblazoned on comic books for almost half a century). Its technicolour exhilarations are built on strong foundations of thematic and emotional intelligence.

Into the Spider-Verse employs multiverse theory to cover numerous versions of Spider-Man existing in multiple dimensions, but its focal point is biracial Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore). A fairly typical teenager with some talent as a graffiti artist (the art form’s jagged coloured shapes and sprayed dots provide a strong anchor point for the film’s astounding multidimensional-glitch visual effects), he is encouraged in this countercultural artistic vein by his “cool” Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), whose influence on Miles is disapproved of by the boy’s cop father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry, doing a lovely job giving depth and contours to a character largely adapted from Mr. T’s father/cop Earl in Cloudy), a disapproval that is more right than the father can know (though to say more is to say too much). Miles is made to attend a prestigious boarding school that is not quite his speed and struggles to live up to his father’s high (but loving) expectations for him (Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is assigned for reading and an essay as a nod to these), but his adjustment pains at school are quite suddenly made far worse by a fateful bite from a radioactive spider.

Miles’ awkward puberty-metaphor discoveries of his body’s new abilities and the identity tug of war between the clashing poles of his two male authority figures are soon complicated by his inculcation in a villainous reality-threatening scheme of multidimensional proportions. Beneath Brooklyn, he stumbles upon Spider-Man (Chris Pine) battling a massive Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) in an attempt to deactivate a huge particle supercollider funded by imposing crime lord Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Because this is a superhero film in 2018, even this hulking, square-shaped personification of the crooked crossroads between capitalism and organized crime has an understandable and even sympathetic motivation for fracturing the space-time continuum: Kingpin is seeking to locate and bring back versions of his wife and son, dead in his own dimension, from another one. He has no qualms about doing anything necessary to get what he’s after, and his determination costs the established Peter Parker/Spider-Man his life.

Kingpin’s dimensional portal-opening has unintended consequences, and Miles’ world soon includes more Spider-Beings than it really has room for, his own hesitant, unsure Spider-Self included. He first meets Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who is like the idealized and heroic Spidey from Miles’ own dimension in most ways, but has let himself go physically, morally, and personally after getting divorced from the love of his life, Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz). He wears sweatpants for most of his early scenes as a marker of his apathy and dissolution.

Peter B. nonetheless grudgingly accepts Miles’ aid in obtaining a new kill-program USB Goober to neutralize Kingpin’s collider and allow him to return to his own dimension, and becomes a reluctant semi-mentor to the fledgling Spider-Miles. They are soon enough joined by white-hooded teen Gwen Stacy, a.k.a. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) from another dimension, who met Miles at his school in disguise, and a trio of other multiverse Spideys: 1930s-vintage black-and-white private detective Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage living his best voice-acting life: “Wherever I go, the wind follows. And the wind… smells like rain”), Kawaii tween Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her symbiotic Spider-Bot biomech suit, and cartoon pig Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), who wallops bad guys with oversized mallets and anvils. Covering Shadow-type noir-detective comics, manga and anime, and classic Looney Tunes cartoons, these supporting characters provide knowing genre nods, flashes of those generic animation styles, as well as a support squad for the embryonic Spider-Miles in his efforts to thwart Kingpin.

Despite all of this busy background colour and detail (and even more than previous Lord/Miller-verse efforts, this film is chock-a-block with them), Into the Spider-Verse is simply and effectively about a pretty normal young boy (radioactive spider bite aside) working out who he is and who he wants to be in relation to the many influences and reference-points in his life. In this way, Into the Spider-Verse‘s thematic hybrid of competing traditional roles of African-American masculinity and dazzling cornucopia of multiverse cultural elements constitute a smart and convincing approximation of the complex web of identity-formation influences that can so confuse and fragment young people (young males, especially) in our oversaturated post-capitalist milieu. We live in a multiverse already, in cultural terms, Lord and Rothman’s script suggests. Little wonder that no one, especially the young and impressionable, can make sense of it.

But Miles Morales does find a way to make sense of it, a way to embrace both the great power and the great responsibility of being Spider-Man just as we must all embrace adult citizenship in a globe-spanning society of rapid change, complication, and uncertainty. Envisioned and metaphorized as a very literal but also highly figurative leap of faith, Miles’ awakening plunge is a blazingly memorable sequence, richly earned by the development and growth of character and themes up to that moment and featuring one particular adaptation of comic-book visual language to cinematic technique that acts as a spectacular, even poetic, elevation (as well as being given a banging soundtrack from Blackway & Black Caviar). In the midst of such overwhelming visual spectacle and imagination, this leap might seem like a sop to traditional blockbuster conventions. But like the rest of the remarkable, wonderful Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, this moment rewires or resequences those conventions. Indeed, this movie acts on the the superhero genre, on feature animation, and indeed on Hollywood movies as a whole like the bite of a radioactive spider: it injects them with new powers and possibilities, and if we’re lucky, none of them will ever be the same.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
  1. July 20, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    If only the live-action movies were more like this. Great review. I only caught up with this on disc and it’s definitely one of my films of the year.

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