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My 12 for ’18: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” & Doing This One Last Time

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number four.

“Alright, let’s do this. One. Last. Time.”

There were few cinematic experiences this year as joyous as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I first saw it at a preview screening, surrounded by children of all ages. This was entirely appropriate. After all, Into the Spider-Verse is a movie that connects immediately and emotionally to any audience member’s inner child. Like many of the best modern family films, it understand the wonder and awe with which children see the world. It also understands the intelligence with which children process information, something adults often overlook.

A lot has been written about the fantastic animation employed in making Into the Spider-Verse. The technique is revolutionary and jaw-dropping; everything from the use of Ben Day dots to the shading using red and green to create an uncanny depth perception to the blurring of various styles for characters like “Spider-Man Noir” or “Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.” It is no surprise that Sony are attempting to copyright the animation process, to render it proprietary. The film would make a good case for its place on the list based on animation alone.

However, what has been less discussed in terms of Into the Spider-Verse is the actual storytelling. Part of this is obviously visual, and reflected in all of the praise that the animation is receiving. However, a lot of this is in the scripting and the structuring of the film. Into the Spider-Verse is a revolutionary film in a technical sense, a breathtaking cinematic accomplishment bursting at the seams with a remarkable visual imagination. It is also a story that understands how such stories are told. It also understands that the audience understands how such stories are told.

Into the Spider-Verse is a thoroughly modern superhero film, a narrative that is consciously designed for a contemporary audience that have been trained to process information in a more dynamic and exciting way. Even beyond its long overdue acknowledgement that “anybody can wear the mask”, Into the Spider-Verse is very much a film for 2018.

Storytelling can be a surprisingly conservative artform. Some of this is down to the proliferation of established wisdom about how to tell stories, as passed down through the ages in the form of books like The Hero With a Thousand Faces or Save the Cat. These are incredibly useful critical texts, but they also tend to solidify the notion that there is a “right” way to tell a story to an audience, and that films should adhere to that template.

Cinema has always had adventurous writers and directors willing to push the boat out. There are any number of writers and directors famed for structuring their stories in unconventional ways; Christopher Nolan does this in the mainstream, David Lynch does it in the arthouse. This is not a modern trend either; the importance of German expressionist directors like Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau lay in a willingness to push the then-young medium. Orson Welles was also a master at this, with The Other Side of the Wind still seeming fresh even thirty years after it was filmed.

However, there is also a sense that certain styles of storytelling have been solidified over time. George Lucas’ application of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth template to Star Wars was a game-changed, an approach to big budget epic cinematic storytelling that has been repeatedly and consciously emulated by generations of storytellers. These structures are familiar, the story beats well known. There is undoubtedly pleasure in watching that template applied with skill, but it is a very old-fashioned way of approaching the art of storytelling.

This is particularly the case with superhero stories. There is a reason that superhero films tend to adhere to the familiar-and-tired “origin story” template, despite evidence that audiences and critics seem increasingly wearied by the format. The origin story provides a neat structure. It is a set-up where the character is changed over the course of the narrative, providing a framework that adheres loosely to the expected rhythms of such stories.

That is why the major studios are still producing standard origin stories almost two decades into what might be described as “the superhero boom.” This is why Aquaman is functionally a superhero origin story, despite the fact that the character appeared relatively well-formed in Justice League. This is why removing Spider-Man from Eddie Brock’s back story was convenient when it came to Venom, because it allowed the film to hit each of the beats along the way.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been running for a decade at this point, and it still routinely produces standard origin stories for its characters in films like Ant Man and Doctor Strange. (In fact, Captain Marvel looks to adhere to the same template.) There might be good reason for this. As film critic Mike Symonds has pointed out, the Marvel Cinematic Universe often struggles to build convincing arcs around its core characters within their sequels and follow-ups. At least an origin starts and ends in different places, and connecting them creates an arc.

What makes Into the Spider-Verse so successful is that it understands that modern audiences understand the logic of the origin story. Modern audiences have grown up with these sorts of stories, and so have an understanding of the mechanics that drive them. As such, it can play with the rhythms and structures of such stories. In fact, one of the best jokes in Into the Spider-Verse hinges on the fact that Spider-Man’s origin is so ubiquitous that it is pointless to even repeat it. There are no fewer than six variants presented on the origin, each offered for “one. last. time.”

The internet has a lot to answer for. The internet has changed the way that people process information. There are even some suggestions that access to the internet can subtly influence the mechanics of the human brain. The internet provides the user with access to a wealth of content, instantaneously. The user is expected to process what they have received, contextualise it, and move on to the next detail at incredible speed. The internet is all about speed and efficiency, about boiling content down its purest form. The internet is about density and breadth of information.

Think about the modes of communication that have thrived on the internet and become a feature of its usage. Tweets can tell stories in two hundred and forty characters, hinging on speed and brevity for effectiveness. Instagram “stories” reinforce the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words. Although the platform could not survive, Vine demonstrated the appeal of extremely short video narratives, tales often told in six seconds or less. Some platforms build this ephemeral quality into their product; the “blink and miss it” appeal of Snapchat, Wickr or Confide.

This is part of the appeal of concepts like “memes.” Although Richard Dawkins invented the term long before the internet to refer to infectious or contagious ideas, the concept thrived in the digital era. “Memes” are the theory that an image is worth a thousand words, but on steroids. Often memes allow the use of a popular and widely-shared video or photograph to communicate a feeling without have to resort to articulate that feeling in words or dialogue. They provide a quick, mutually understood framework for conversation, cutting out a lot of the unnecessary chit-chat.

One of the interesting aspects of the twenty-first century has been watching popular media catch up with that mode of consumption. It seems like storytelling has gotten a lot faster, particularly on television. Game of Thrones was innovative in the way that it approached storytelling. It spent its first two seasons scattering its cast across a fictional world, structuring episodes that would jump very effectively and very dramatically across large distances, allowing the audience glimpses of fractured narratives and relying on the viewer to stitch them all together.

It should be noted that Avengers: Infinity War used that template in order to construct its own massive superhero crossover story, jumping from deep space to Scotland to Wakanda, bouncing from one set of characters to another with a minimum amount of connective tissue. Of course, in that case, this jumping back and force was abetted by more than just the audience’s understanding of storytelling structures. It was built on eighteen previous movies establishing a connection between audiences and characters.

This approach is also reflected in the work of writer and producer Steven Moffat on Doctor Who and Sherlock. Moffat’s scripts often assume a level of televisual literacy from the audience, an appreciation of how these sorts of stories are told. As a result, Moffat is then able to speed through narrative templates in order to make a commentary upon the stories themselves. There are numerous examples, but Mark Gatiss’ script for The Great Game, the first season finale of Sherlock, effectively crams six forty-minute episodes into a single ninety-minute piece of television.

Into the Spider-Verse represents a relatively rare example of this approach in contemporary blockbuster cinema. It is a film that hinges on the audience’s understanding of how stories like this work, even if they have no existing familiarity with Miles Morales, “Spider-Gwen”, “Spider-Man Noir” or “Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.” The audience has seen these stories told enough times that they don’t need to go through every last detail over and over again.

Some of this is playful. Into the Spider-Verse features no fewer than six repetitions of Spider-Man’s origin story, each lasting about thirty seconds and wryly aware that the audience already knows the basics because the character has anchored three franchises in the past two decades. More than that, Peter Parker spends a significant stretch of Into the Spider-Verse talking Miles Morales through the basic Spider-Man (and superhero) story structure.

Peter knows instinctively that there is always a “groober”, a magical tech do-hickey that he needs to get ahold of in order to stop the villain’s plan; sometimes it’s “an override key”, sometimes it’s a “virus”, but it always serves the same function. Peter knows that the villain will always warn his henchmen that they “have twenty-four hours” after a failed test. Peter also understands that the fate of everything in the universe is really just “standard Spider-Man stakes” at this point.

This is all playful, but this accelerated storytelling also works on an emotional level. Wilson Fisk’s motivation for building a device that may destroy the multiverse is never explicitly articulated in a big motivational speech. However, the film knows that audiences understand how tragic villains work; Wilson Fisk has lost something, and he is trying to get it back. It doesn’t matter whether the audience knows this from Daredevil, from comics, or just familiarity with the genre. It spares the film devoting ten minutes to establishing the villain’s emotional stakes.

Into the Spider-Verse is able to communicate Wilson Fisk’s motivation in a thirty-second highly stylised flashback sequence that serves to provide some particulars on the template with which the audience is all ready familiar. The particular nature of his loss is revealed very artfully and very elegantly, without seeming clumsy or stilted. Into the Spider-Verse is able to communicate that Fisk lost his wife and son when they realised what kind of man he truly was, almost as quickly as that sentence can be read out loud and with great deal more grace.

Into the Spider-Verse is an incredible accomplishment. It is dynamic and exciting and fun. More than that, it is attuned to the sensibilities of modern audiences. In particular, it is very much engaged with how children process information. It is a film that relies on the capacity of children to very quickly contextualise information and to understand the way in which established narrative frameworks operate, allowing the story to play with those structural elements in exciting and inventive ways.

Similar logic drives Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, a film which operates on the audience’s understanding of superhero blockbusters as a format unto themselves, allowing the creatures to have some fun with the template. There is a solid argument to be made that Into the Spider-Verse and Teen Titans Go! to the Movies are more reliant on media literacy than Deadpool or Deadpool 2, although there is something to be said for the meta-textual discussion of “fridging” in Once Upon a Deadpool.

Into the Spider-Verse is a superhero film for 2018, not only aware of shifting demographics and the need to update existing properties, but also understanding how media is consumed these days and the ways in which modern audiences process narrative and storytelling. It is a tremendous accomplishment.

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