Quick Film Rec: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This is kind of a weird thing to say, since I’ve watched every Spider-Man movie made in the last sixteen years, but I don’t consider myself a huge fan of the character. Oh, I like Spidey well enough—what is there not to like, after all; he’s an adorably low-key, self-deprecating superhero filled with a sense of service, who does not seem prone to almost destroying the world with his inventions or forming his own paramilitary supergroups and then getting annoyed when world governments won’t have it, unlike other superheroes I could name. And I’ve enjoyed pretty much every Spider-Man movie I’ve seen, including Spider-Man 3 and the Amazing Spider-Man films. I just don’t find the character himself terribly interesting. Or rather, I feel like, even more than other superheroes, Spider-Man has only one story to tell—young person is thrust into a position of power, struggles to shoulder it, and then digs deep within themselves to find their inner hero. It’s a good story, obviously, but almost none of the movies featuring the character have managed to find a second act for it. It’s notable, for example, that when the MCU tried to reinvent Spider-Man for their own purposes, they gave him a story that feels almost alien to the character, in which he has to overcome the well-meaning but destructive influence of an unsuitable mentor, and that future MCU Spider-Man stories feel equally off. We’re all tired of the Spider-Man origin story, but there don’t seem to be too many other stories to tell with him.
I offer this preamble as a way of illuminating how out of character it is for me to urge you to drop whatever plans you had for tonight and go see Sony’s new animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Even if you’re like me and find the character rather one-note, and were maybe planning to skip this take on him, you should take the time to see it. It’s easily one of the top blockbuster movies of the year, and vies with Black Panther for the title of 2018’s best superhero movie. And unlike Spider-Man: Homecoming, it does this while telling a quintessentially Spider-Man-ish story.
The first thing to say about Into the Spider-Verse is that it is an absolutely gorgeous movie, a feast for the eyes where every frame and action sequence seems to have been carefully planned, and where every assumption we make about how animation should look is exploded with terrific results. The film is full of distinctive touches that work so well, they’ll probably become commonplaces of the medium within months, and it achieves them, in many cases, by marrying its slick production values to deliberate imperfections—things like color bleed or dots that recall the four-color printing process—that make it look entirely unique. I don’t have the language to properly describe what makes this film’s visuals so remarkable, but here’s an approximation: remember the way that the Incredibles films used computer-generated animation to craft a hyper-real world with its own distinct style, and used the capabilities of their medium to create gonzo scenes of superhero fights and derring-do that would have been prohibitively expensive (if not physically impossible) in live action? Take that, and add to it Ang Lee’s attempts to create the cinematic equivalent of a comics panel on a movie screen, except done a million times better (and I say this as someone who has always had a soft spot for Lee’s Hulk). Finally, slather on the candy-colored psychedelia of Thor: Ragnarok, turned up to 11, and you might be able to picture just how exciting and exhilarating Into the Spider-Verse is as a visual experience.
Story-wise, Spider-Verse tells the same story we’ve seen many times before, with the significant twist that this time, it’s Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino teen created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli in 2011, who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and dons the spider-suit. More importantly, Spider-Verse is aware of, and indeed leans into, the fact that the Spider-Man story has been told many times. Not only is there a regular Peter Parker Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) in Miles’s New York, but an accident with the film’s McGuffin opens a gateway to other dimensions, out of which emerge an entire troupe of alternate Spider-People: Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a sad-sack fortyish Spider-Man who reluctantly takes Miles under his wing; Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld), AKA Spider-Gwen; Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), a hardboiled 1930s detective; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime girl from the far future who fights crime alongside her adorable robot; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a cartoon pig.
A lot of the joy of Into the Spider-Verse comes from how the film differentiates these characters while still stressing their innate Spider-Being-ness. Each version of the character is introduced with a quick flash to their first comic cover (the meta-humor in the film is ever- present, but, as in writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Lego Movie, not overbearing) and a monologue that stresses the familiar beats of their story. But each one also has powers and attitudes inflected by their unique experiences and the genre of their story. Peter B. approaches superheroics with the weary professionalism of someone who has been doing this sort of thing for two decades, while Spider-Ham has Looney Tunes-inspired powers like floating in the air when he smells a warm pie, or the ability to cause anvils to drop on his enemies’ heads. The result doesn’t defuse the sameyness of Spider-stories, but it argues persuasively that it can be a strength in its own right, and when coupled with a top-notch first adventure for Miles, the result is simply delightful.
The only real concern raised by Into the Spider-Verse is that it sets a bar that future Miles films will struggle to clear—how do you go back to regular stories about Spider-Man struggling with school and the unappreciative world after this kind of cosmic adventure? It feels like every future movie in this series needs to be a Spider-Verse movie, and hopefully Sony will figure out how to keep this premise delivering. But regardless of what the future brings, this movie is wonderful, and I heartily recommend it.