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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an amazing Spider-man movie.

There is no other way to describe it. Into the Spider-Verse is a clean lock for the best superhero film of the year, neatly leapfrogging the superlative Black Panther. Into the Spider-Verse is also the best animated film of the year, placing comfortably ahead of The Breadwinner or Incredibles 2. In fact, it seems fairly safe to describe Into the Spider-Verse as the best feature film starring Spider-Man since Spider-Man II. Even that feels like hedging, and would be a very closely run race.

Just dive on in.

Into the Spider-Verse is a creative triumph. It is a fantastically constructed movie, in virtually every way. The film’s unique approach to animation will inevitably dominate discussions, and understandably so. Into the Spider-Verse is a visually sumptuous piece of cinema that looks unlike anything ever committed to film. However, the film’s storytelling is just as impressive if decidedly (and consciously) less showy in its construction. Adding a phenomenal cast, Into the Spider-Verse is just a film that works in an incredibly infectious and engaging way.

Into the Spider-Verse does whatever a Spider-Man movie can. And then some.

Suits him.

It is worth pausing to note the skill with which Into the Spider-Verse is constructed, from a narrative perspective. Trying to summarise the plot would take almost as much time as watching the movie itself. Into the Spider-Verse is filled to the brim with twists and turns, bold new concepts and shocking innovations, strange developments and important characters. Many of these characters and these developments exist at odds with one another, which makes the ease with which Into the Spider-Verse folds everything into a two-hour feature film.

At its most basic level, Into the Spider-Verse is an origin story for a different type of Spider-Man. The film opens in a world where Peter Parker has been Spider-Man for years, and has permeated popular culture. There’s a wry, self-aware recap of the character’s adventures in popular culture, from the three Raimi movies (of the third one, he notes “we don’t talk about that”) through to an ill-advised holiday tie-in album. However, this is not the story of Peter Parker.

It is the story of Miles Morales, a young African-American/Latinx boy who happens to get bitten by a radioactive spider very similar to the one that bit Peter all of those years ago. Miles is younger, inexperienced, and from a completely different background than Peter. When disaster strikes, Miles finds himself having to assume the mantle of hero in order to save New York City from the machinations of the sinister Wilson Fisk while also maintaining a delicate relationship with his father and his uncle.

That would certainly be enough plot for a standard superhero film, especially a standard superhero origin film. There is a heroic arc there, a mythology into which he might tie himself, a clear antagonist, and a tangible set of stakes. Over the past two decades, many superhero movies have made with far less material. However, that is just one facet of Into the Spider-Verse, which branches off in a number of surreal and strange directions on top of this familiar origin story template.

“Exposition isn’t often listed among my superpowers, but…”

It turns out that Wilson Fisk’s experiments have brought across a variety of alternative Spider-people from a variety of alternative worlds, all of whom find themselves trapped in a strange version of New York City and who must struggle to find their way home. Chief among these refugees is a chubby loser middle-aged version of Peter Parker, an iteration of the character with all of his loser tendencies turned up to eleven. This version of the hero watched his world collapse long before he was sucked into the dimensional void.

There is a lot going on in Into the Spider-Verse, a lot of moving parts at play. From a narrative standpoint, Into the Spider-Verse has an incredibly delicate balance to strike between the standard rhythms and structures of the Spider-Man origin story and a broader commentary on the incredibly sprawling and vast Spider-Man legacy at the same time. It is something of an understatement to observe that Into the Spider-Verse covers as much material in a single movie as most superhero franchises struggle to fit into an entire trilogy.

To be fair, there are a few small moments when this incredible pace and abridged style doesn’t quite work. This is most obvious in terms of the movie’s exploration of the tension between the Morales family, specifically between Miles, his father Jefferson and his uncle Aaron. It occasionally feels like this dynamic belongs in its own feature film, particularly concerning some of the choices that Aaron makes in his life. There are moments when Into the Spider-Verse feels like excerpts from a much more conventional superhero origin.

That said, this minor complaint only emphasises how much of Into the Spider-Verse works. One of the most striking an endearing aspects of Into the Spider-Verse is that the film assumes that, to borrow from the parlance of the time, that the kids are cine-lit. The film hinges on the audience being literate in the language and conventions of both cinematic storytelling and superhero storytelling tropes. The film exists in a canny self-aware space where it expects the audience to have some passing familiarity with how the medium and genre work.

On the prowl.

This is most obvious in everything from the film’s dialogue to its recurring tropes. The film opens with a wry self-aware acknowledgement of how ubiquitous Spider-Man’s origin is. Peter Parker promises to take the audience through his origin “one last time”, brushing through the cliff notes version. It is a tacit acknowledgement that everybody (and their uncle) knows the basic outline of how Peter Parker became Spider-Man.

After all, the character is a staple of American popular culture. There are been three live-action Spider-Man movie franchises in the twenty-first century, each with a different lead actor. There have been countless animated series, including a mimetic sixties series, a more fondly-remembered nineties series, and a variety of beloved cult iterations in recent years. There have been thousands of comic books. The character appears on lunchboxes. He is possibly the most famous superhero in the world, with the possible exceptions of Batman and Superman.

Into the Spider-Verse can not only get away with joking about how familiar that origin story is, but can make a recurring joke about how often it has been told and how frequently it is repeated. After three live action movie franchises within two decades, Into the Spider-Verse can get away with turning Spider-Man’s origin story into a self-aware gag. Into the Spider-Verse pauses the action several times to reiterate various permutations of the origin for “one last time”, a gag that relies on not only an awareness of the audience’s awareness, but an acknowledgement of its ubiquity.

This familiarity allows Into the Spider-Verse to get away with a lot of narrative shortcuts to avoid unnecessary redundancy. Of course every audience member knows Spider-Man’s origin, but the truth is that most superhero origins are fairly standard. The rhythm and structure of superheroic origins in movies like Venom or Green Lantern are fairly stock. They have been since at least Richard Donner’s Superman and it takes a very rare film like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to elevate them.

A sting in the tale.

So Into the Spider-Verse can get straight down to business. It can introduce Peter Parker fighting a monstrous Green Goblin, whom Peter only identifies as “Norm”, and trust the audience to follow along. Maybe the audience will recognise the similarities to Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn in Spider-Man. Maybe the audience will recall the character from some cartoon. Maybe some audience members have even read Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man. Even those without that level of knowledge understand the dynamics; Pete is Spider-Man, Norm is a villain, they fight.

There is something genuinely endearing in the manner in which Into the Spider-Verse is willing to get down to business, trusting that its audience are fast enough to follow along. Eavesdropping on Wilson Fisk and his lab tech underlings talking about how his latest scheme might destabilise the entire multiverse, Peter helpfully summarises the conversation as “standard Spider-Man stakes”, which is a rather welcome acknowledgement of how frequently these sorts of films tend to deal in a scale that is impossible to properly quantify.

This willingness to trust the audience is inspiring, and it is perhaps a little disappointing that Into the Spider-Verse seems to trust its audience more than more “mature” or “adult” superhero films. Into the Spider-Verse is a movie nominally aimed at children, but it never condescends to them. In terms of its storytelling, it offers the genre equivalent of the Pixar storytelling structure, never talking down to the audience. This allows for the film to casually throw in characters like the Prowler or Tombstone or Scorpion without needing to explain every little detail to the audience.

In some ways, this feels like a major leap forward for comic book storytelling in cinema. Marvel Studios have worked hard to introduce various comic book conventions and tropes to the big screen, ideas that comic book readers have accepted since the seventies, but which have taken a while to permeate the mainstream; the comic book crossover in The Avengers, the idea of legacy superheroes in Ant Man or the delight in clashing different styles of storytelling in Thor: Ragnarok.

Above it all.

Into the Spider-Verse is designed to capitalise on the fact that comics are much larger and much weirder than the mainstream has acknowledged. It is a tragedy that the only live action version of Spider-Man has been Peter Parker. Spider-Man: Homecoming would have been a much better film had it been willing to use Miles Morales instead. Comics are so sprawling and so vast that there is room for so many competing ideas at the same time, often riffing on the same idea.

Into the Spider-Verse finally acknowledges this in bringing so many different iterations of Spider-Man to the screen at the same time, drawing from so many sources simultaneously. Although the title is taken from a massive Dan Slott story arc, which introduced the character known as “Spider-Gwen”, the bulk of the story draws from Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, including the crossover Spider-Men.

Some of the featured characters in Into the Spider-Verse are relatively new; the “Spider-Man Noir” was introduced in February 2009, Mile Morales first appeared in August 2011, “Spider-Gwen” made her debut in September 2014. However, they belong to a much older tradition of weird comic book playfulness. “Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham” has been a fixture of Marvel comics for over thirty years, first appearing in November 1983. Into the Spider-Verse embraces the potential weirdness of the superhero genre in a way that no superhero movie has to date.

Central to this idea is a long overdue reckoning with the legacy of these iconic sixties superhero characters. The bulk of the Marvel Universe was designed during the middle decades of the twentieth century, and so reflects a very outdated notion of American identity. So many of the core Marvel characters are stock straight white guys; Steve Rogers, Thor Odinson, Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Hank Pym, Clint Barton, Reed Richards, Franklin Storm, even the bulk of the original cast of the X-Men barring a very recent piece of retroactive continuity.

“My internet troll sense is tingling.”

Recent years have seen the publisher trying to acknowledge and rectify this imbalance, this very biased view of what America’s heroes should look like. Miles Morales is perhaps the most notable and the most successful example, a black/Latinx version of Spider-Man created by Brian Michael Bendis inspired by Barack Obama and Donald Glover. It may also be worth noting that Bendis has two African American daughters, and has acknowledged a desire to create a character who speaks to them.

However, there have been countless other efforts to diversify superhero comics. Sam Wilson became an African American Captain America. Jane Foster became a female Thor. Riri Williams become an African American female Iron Man. However, these efforts have met with very strong blowback from reactionary corners of comic book industry. More than that, these characters arguably have very little chance of breaking out into the mainstream unless they are adapted into other media and allowed to thrive outside of comic books.

Major superhero movies have largely been wary of diversity. It took Marvel Studios a decade to release a superhero film with a black lead, even if it did then make an incredible amount of money. When Captain Marvel is released, it will have taken Marvel Studios more than a decade to release a female-led superhero film. Marvel Studios has largely avoid race-bending casting for major characters like Steve Rogers or Tony Stark, and seems unlikely to hand those franchises over to minority supporting characters.

This is also an issue within the Spider-Man cinematic franchise. Tom Holland is the third actor to play Peter Parker in a live-action series of Spider-Man films. Indeed, Homecoming seemed to rub salt in the wound by borrowing a lot of Miles Morales’ supporting cast to help Peter seem more relevant and modern. There was a palpable anxiety around the idea of acknowledging minority superheroes in the context of big budget superhero blockbusters.

Seeing blue and red.

As a result, Into the Spider-Verse feels like a well-earned corrective. Ignoring the decision to cast Peter Parker in the role of mentor, the two most development members of the cast are an African American/Latinx Spider-Man and a Spider-Woman. These are tangible proof to an impressionable young audience that Spider-Man does not need to be a white guy. As Miles himself explains to the audience, “Anyone can wear the mask.” This is an important message to send out into popular culture at a point in time when reactionary forces are pushing back against diversity.

Into the Spider-Verse is a celebration of everything that Spider-Man can be. It isn’t merely an issue of race or gender, as the inclusion of “Spider-Man Noir” and “Spider-Ham” demonstrate, but those are the most tangible examples. Into the Spider-Verse is a fantastic movie on its own terms, but the central thesis that any kid anywhere can put on a mask and play as Spider-Man is worth celebrating on its own terms.

It is interesting to wonder if Into the Spider-Verse was designed to consciously capitalise on the way that children process information in the modern world; through narratives constructed in very abridged and very short media. Into the Spider-Verse understands that modern children can follow stories told on Instagram or on (the late) Vine, that they navigate Twitter or Snapchat. As wary as an older generation might be about shifting attention-spans, these modes of storytelling require incredible density and agility, conveying a lot of information in a small space.

Indeed, this might be one of the ironies of modern comic books. The comics of the sixties and seventies, particularly those created by figures like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, thrived on that sort of density. Often, an epic story was told in the space of a single issue, along with a massive exposition dump and some incredible stakes. It is revealing that modern comic books have moved towards a slower (or “decompressed”) storytelling style as the audience demographics skewed older. Into the Spider-Verse understands the appeal of this low-fat, high-density style.

A little tied up.

It should be noted that Into the Spider-Verse adopts this very dense and very concentrated approach in matters beyond mere plotting. Into the Spider-Verse has a number of major villains, but Wilson Fisk serves as the primary antagonist. The film offers the character a compelling and emotionally rich back story, rendering this omnicidal maniac in a very sympathetic and very tragic light. Wilson Fisk has a clear motivation for risking the destruction of the multiverse. (“It’s not always about money,” he confesses to Peter Parker at one point.)

However, it is very revealing how Into the Spider-Verse chooses to convey this tragic back story. It is not delivered in an extended prologue or an extended flashback. There is no long sequence in which Wilson Fisk explains his evil plan and laments his sorry state to a captive Miles or Peter. Instead, this back story is conveyed through a visual sequence that lasts no longer than thirty seconds in a two-hour film. It is almost impressionistic. It is a fantastic piece of visual storytelling.

It is also a canny creative choice. Once again, it assumes some level of genre literacy from the audience. Maybe the audience has seen another version of Wilson Fisk on Daredevil, and can intuit the character’s tragedy from there. Perhaps they read Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. However, for most audience members, they will simply understand that most villains have a tragic back story that explains their actions, from Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War to Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. All that Into the Spider-Verse needs to provide is the specific contours of that tragedy.

None of this diminishes the emotional impact of the film. There is a difference between the way that Into the Spider-Verse applies the audience’s familiarity with these tropes and the laziness with which many modern blockbusters are content to just sketch a pencil outline of a character arc and call it a day. When that thirty-second visual backstory for Wilson Fisk echoes and reverberates through the climax of the film, it is a genuinely and deeply affecting moments. The same is true of some of the heart-to-hearts between Miles and Jefferson.

“We should hang out together more often.”

The voice cast does a certain amount of the work here. Every character in Into the Spider-Verse is perfectly cast, perhaps most notably the two iterations of Peter Parker; Chris Pine as the successful and committed version, and Jake Johnson as his middle-aged multiversal doppelganger. John Mulaney is fantastic as “Spider-Ham”, while Nicolas Cage is great as “Spider-Man Noir.” However, even smaller roles are enriched by great casting, such as Liev Schreiber playing Wilson Fisk as a Bronx tough or Mahersala Ali helping enrich Aaron Davis.

However, Brian Tyree Henry and Shameik Moore offer the greatest amount of depth among the cast. Into the Spider-Verse has so much going on that it is particularly reliant upon the cast to help sell emotional beats and arcs that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. Into the Spider-Verse (wisely) avoids dwelling upon every single familiar beat of every emotional arc in every superhero origin story, but the film still relies on Henry and Moore to sell their interactions as if the film had. It is startlingly effective, Henry’s performance is the beating heart of the film.

Of course, it seems strange to have talked so much about Into the Spider-Verse without discussing the visuals. After all, they are the most immediately striking aspect of the film. The visuals helped Into the Spider-Verse to stand out from the moment the first teaser arrived. There is a credible argument to be made that the teaser for Into the Spider-Verse at the end of Venom was the best part of that film. It is stunning. Almost every single frame of the film looks like a work of art.

In hindsight, it is surprising that so few major superhero films have been animated, particularly during the recent superhero boom. The Incredibles and Incredibles 2 rank among the best superhero films ever produced, but they are few and far between. Big Hero 6 is perhaps the most obvious example, and there have been tie-in projects like the impressive Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, but one has to look back to Batman: The Mask of Phantom to find a high-profile release focusing on established property with that level of cultural credibility.

Grave danger.

Into the Spider-Verse consciously emulates the trappings of comic book visual storytelling in a way that no major superhero film has done since Ang Lee’s Hulk. Of course, Hulk was arguably far more ambitious than successful, but Into the Spider-Verse genuinely pulls it off. Backgrounds are kept slightly out of focus, which not only helps with depth, but also evokes the way that comic book panels foreground the important elements. The screen is occasionally populated with faint Ben-Day dots, evoking four-colour printing. (Kirby dots also appear, but separately.)

The screen is often split into panels evoking the layout of a comic book page. Miles’ thoughts are occasionally articulated on screen, whether through modern yellow caption boxes or more old-school thought balloons. The characters are skillfully and beautifully brought to life as computer-generated animation, but a delightfully stylised approach to characters like Wilson Fisk. More than that, the characters are animated with distinct outlines and shades, as if the entire film has been “inked” in the style of a comic book.

There are any number of impressive visual cues that would be impossible to convincingly replicate in live action. Steam and smells rise in black lines. The spider-sense appears as several bolts of lightning around characters’ heads, like something from a video game. Hover, the most striking artistic benefit of this approach is that it allows the art team to render Spider-Man’s big white eyes expressive and emotive. Homecoming attempted this, but those eyes will never be as expressive as those featured here.

The animated approach allows for a clever and experimental fusion of styles that would simply be impossible in life action. This is most obvious with “the Spectacular Spider-Ham”, who is clearly animated in the style of a Looney Tunes character. As he mentors Miles he asks, “Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?” As he prepares to depart, he bids the group, “That’s all, folks!” Peter awkwardly wonders, “Can he say that? Legally?”

A girl and her robot.

However, that old two-dimensional style is simply the most obvious example. Peni Parker and her pet “Sp//dr” are animated in the style of anime, another two-dimensional representation with big eyes and smooth features. This creates a compelling artistic tension between the various characters. There is something wonderfully weird in seeing two or more of these characters in the same frame together, each looking like they belong in a different movie. It is a tremendous artistic accomplishment, even apart from everything else to love about the film.

This is most obvious at the climax of the film, as realities begin collapsing into one another and spilling out from one another. Comic book movies have largely been wary of embracing the more extremely psychedelic aspects of the superhero genre; Doctor Strange was a welcome step in that direction, but it seems rather modest when compared to the climax of Into the Spider-Verse, which might be best described as “Crisis on Infinite Manhattans.”

As skyscrapers fold and double, stretch and contort, the climax of Into the Spider-Verse feels like a loving ode to the webslinger’s relationship to the Big Apple. Spider-Man is impossible to separate from New York, which makes his recent rebooted Marvel Studios movies seem like very strange choices. Homecoming made an effort to keep the character out of his element by sending him to Brooklyn or the suburbs or upstate. Similarly, Spider-Man: World Wide will take the character to Europe.

While there is an understandable urge to keep the character fresh and to try new things, Spider-Man feels incomplete without some tether to New York City. One of the most disappointing aspects of Homecoming was the film’s stubborn refusal to let Spider-Man dive through the glass canyons of Manhattan, the urban environment for which the character was created and perfectly suited. There is a reason that every character introduction in Into the Spider-Verse features the spider-themed hero diving off a roof into a largely vertical urban sprawl.

All good in the ‘wood.

The climax of Into the Spider-Verse seems designed to make up for the character’s lack of time in Manhattan in Homecoming, by essentially throwing the character into a recursive version of the city. The climax serves as a whistle-stop tour of some of the character’s most iconic interactions with city, as his final conflict with Wilson Fisk bounces him through imagery drawn from When Cometh the Commuter or The Night the Gwen Stacy Died. It is the entire history of Spider-Man, and the entire geography of New York, played inside a large hydron collider.

Into the Spider-Verse is a stunning piece of work. It is a loving ode to the character of Spider-Man, a fantastic piece of animation, and just a fantastic film on its own terms.

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One Response

  1. Damn this sounds good! Can’t wait to see it.

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