If you’ve been following my reviews, you know I trend toward genre movies, and as someone who has written for Marvel Comics, I’m predisposed to seek out superhero movies, even if I don’t think they’ll be that great. Hey, I’m a nerd, what can I say? I don’t remember hearing about Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse until about a month before it dropped – the fourth quarter of 2018 was a busy one for me – and at that time I hadn’t seen Venom, so I missed out on the post-credits preview too, but I finally saw it just after Christmas, and I have to say it’s my favourite Spider-Man movie to date.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t read comics for a couple of years now, so even though I had heard of the “spiderverse” concept, and have some vague knowledge of a series featuring alternative reality versions of your friendly neighbourhood webhead, I went into this movie somewhat cold. I have never read a Miles Morales story in my life – the character debuted in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe in 2011, a kid of African-American and Latino parents, and I remember the controversy at the time: long-time readers took to the keyboards to complain that whitebread Peter Parker was being replaced because of political correctness. Well, that wasn’t the case – the Miles Spider-Man quickly caught on and after a while both he and Peter were operating in the same universe.
The movie focuses on Miles – it’s his origin story and first adventure – and expands into the multiverse, a concept that’s been a staple of comic books for decades, but not seen in the Marvel movies to date. I’ll talk about the animation and art design later, but I was hooked from the start. I really liked Miles from the get-go. He’s an awkward teen, but never played as a chump or a smartass, and at he’s at that age where he’s seeking to define himself, and it’s making for a bumpy time in his relationship with his cop dad. Right away, this opening gave me more characterization than any of the six previous live-action movies did. I liked Tobey Maguire, but got tired of his wide-eyed sap gig, Andrew Garfield’s Parker was a cool-dude bore, and I’m still on the fence about Tom Holland’s portrayal. I don’t know Shameik Moore or his work, but his voice work breathed a lot of life into Miles, so much so that I was on his side immediately.
The story isn’t overly complicated, and even if one isn’t familiar with comic book multiverses, I don’t think the multiple versions of Spider-Man are going to confuse many people, but I have to be honest, I didn’t love the main plot. Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, is overseeing a high tech project that he hopes will reunite him with his deceased wife and son by plucking them from an alternate universe where they still live. I don’t know if this storyline came from the comics, but it didn’t strike me as a Kingpin story – the Wilson Fisk from the comics that I’m familiar with is more like how he’s portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio in the Netflix show Daredevil, not some guy who oversees scientific projects like this. That seems more suited to Norman Osborn, who does appear as the Ultimate version of Green Goblin. Anyway, the project opens up transdimensional gateways to other Earths, and through it come other versions of the Spider-Man character: Spider-Man Noir, a pulp-detective type; Spider-Ham, a Warner Bros cartoon-style cartoon character; a manga version, where a robot is controlled by Japanese-American teen Peni Parker; Spider-Woman, whose secret identity is Gwen Stacy (a character I could totally go down a rabbit hole about, but won’t!); and a version of Peter Parker. In a nutshell, the story is this: Fisk’s project has damaged the fragile boundaries between alternative realities, and the combined forces of the Spider-People need to stop him before things get really bad. They have a personal stake in this too:; if they don’t return to their own realities, they’ll die, meaning that while they want to help finish things, they become physically less able to as their time in Miles’s universe goes on, leaving Miles to step up and become a hero. If you want to see how this plays out, go see the movie.
While I was a big fan of Miles, who is given the most depth, I also liked the two depictions of Peter Parker, neither of which are based on any of the cinematic versions. Both look as if they were designed with the actor Jake Gyllenhall in mind, and both are very different in character. The first version is a consummate hero, driven and focused, and idolized by Miles, but the second version is jaded, cynical, and aimless – still a hero, but it’s no longer a labour of love for him, or the result of a higher calling. I liked these characters because of the function they play in the story. Parker 1 is the hero Miles aspires to be, but he seems removed, as though he needs the mask to be the hero. In contrast, Parker 2, cynical as he is, seems more fully integrated and well rounded, showing Miles that he needn’t be two people in order to be heroic. I also liked that this character has an arc too, influenced by his growing relationship with Miles – it was very good writing that is rarely seen in live action superhero movies. I had a couple of issues with the plot – one I explained earlier with the Kingpin project, and one revolving around Gwen Stacy that would be a spoiler if I explained, so I won’t. I liked her character too, but I just have some issues with the concept of that character, which is nothing to do with her being a female Spider-Man. This movie’s version of Aunt May was great too – sort of in the middle ground between kind old granny Parker in the Tobey Maguire movies, and the MILFy version of Spider-Man: Homecoming. This Aunt May is the no-shit taking, grounded, smart, mature, contemporary sexagenarian woman – I wanted to see more of her in the movie, and if there’s a sequel, I’m sure she’ll feature in it.
As great as the writing is, the look of the movie is the best of any animated movie I’ve seen. With the exception of the Wilson Fisk design, which I absolutely hated (it looks to be heavily influenced by the work of legendary comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz, whose work I like), all the characters look great, stylized, but well conceived. The art direction of the movie is visually engaging too – most CGI animation is either too slick or too generic looking – I include big-budget productions like The Incredibles in that comment. Into The Spiderverse is really interesting to look at, and I found myself enjoying the visuals the same way I would looking up close at a painting. This movie has texture. I hope if you’ve seen it, you’ll agree with me. Sometimes the brain needs to see more than just a flat moving image, and by that I don’t mean 3D – there’s just something about the look of this movie that felt enriching to my eyes. something that made me look all over the screen for details.
Sony really stepped up their superhero game with this movie. They could have played it safe, but chose to do something much much different than the boilerplate plots that other movies in this genre are reluctant to push away from, but a shout out needs to go to Deadpool, because this movie likely would not have existed as is with that movie’s fairly groundbreaking approach to cinematic superheroes. Sure there’s no explicit violence or raunchy humour, but it shares that strong sense of irreverance that has shaken up the genre, something I hope the next phase of Marvel movies will listen to. Regardless of what you think of a Spider-Man movie that doesn’t have Peter Parker’s as the main version, this is a superhero with a real sense of heart at its core, and is a step up from most of the movies already released in this genre.
© Andrew Hope, 2019
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