While watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse it occurred to me how narrow-minded and timid studios are when it comes to thinking of new ways to tell stories. Yes, I already knew this, but sometimes, it takes a movie like Into the Spider-Verse to throw it into sharp relief.
More and more audiences have been noticing the staleness, in both DC and Marvel, in how they frame their action scenes as well as their stories. Marvel has ushered in a new age of the studio as the auteur and in the process brought back the assembly line production of the olden days of Hollywood. They’ve reproduced the efficiency and the functionality of the system, but they’ve also little care or worry about the content or the style.
I mention all of this because Into the Spider-Verse is such a breath of fresh air, not just for the genre, but for the form as well. Pixar’s animation is flawless, but their prowess seems to more and more lie in animating every blade of grass and strand of hair. It’s gorgeous, but the animation is supposed to free us from reality not reproduce it so faithfully we can’t tell the difference.
Into the Spider-Verse is never ashamed of its cartoon roots and in fact leans into its surrealism to great effect. Comics and cartoons are two sides of the same coin; with each form almost an extension of other. Both lack a fidelity to the laws of physics most movies are wed to while also being able to play with time in a more abstract sense than even movies do.
Incredibles 2 was a mess of a movie, but its action was thrilling and inventive because Brad Bird was allowed to handle the visual depiction himself without being forced to hand it over to a separate department. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a mess and is an exhilarating spectacle to behold with a script chock full of gonzo bonkers storytelling twists and turns.
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are the ones getting all the love and kudos. While Lord helped write the screenplay along with Rodney Rothman and Peter Ramsey; and Miller helped produce the film; they are not the names that you should be committing to memory. They are the names already known to us, so we cite them over Ramsey, Rothman, and others.
The names on the tip of our tongues should also include Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman; the directors of Into the Spider-Verse. Lord and Miller may have had some input and even helped it get off the ground. But let us not forget the names of Rothman, Ramsey, and Persichetti. Like Tinkers to Evers to Chance, they are a crucial trinity to the success of this groundbreaking and joyous cinematic experiment.
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), much like Peter Parker (Chris Pine) once was, is just an average kid. Confused and scared, Miles never asked for any of this. But after getting bitten by the infamous radioactive spider, he finds himself thrust into greatness.
A lesser comic book movie would have left it at that and been fine. But Into the Spider-Verse, turns it up to eleven and introduces not just Spider-Men from alternate realities but alternate Peter Parkers. It does so while also, killing off the actual Parker.
In addition to pushing the form into new and exciting places, Into the Spider-Verse, also deconstructs the Spider-Man mythos and Parker himself. Even better it does so without denigrating the actual character. Unlike most deconstructions which believe that in order to look at a character truthfully you have to ground it in “realism.” A realism that isn’t actually realism. More an exaggerated machismo tone hellbent on doing everything the opposite of what we’re used to seeing of the character.
The Spider-Persons of the alternate realities are prisms of the original Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Even Miles is an updated version of the iconic web-slinger. Each version has their own Uncle Ben/Father/Friend who has died. The deaths of Uncle Ben, like the deaths of Jonathan Kent, are not meant to be purely tragic fuel for their angst. They illustrate, each in their own way, a pulsating reminder of there are things you can not control.
In the case of Miles, he has a loving family and is attending a private school for gifted students. Miles has both a father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), a Black cop and a mother, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. Miles Morales is a rarity; if only because he does not come from a broken home or tragic beginnings to fulfill his destiny. Spider-Man exists and is a real hero until a tragic incident leaving Miles alone to figure out his newfound powers.
Even his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is unable to help him. Miles is left to stop Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) on his own until he meets Peter Parker (Jake Johnson). Describing the plot of Into the Spider-Verse calls to mind the moment of The Big Lebowski where the Dude intones, “Lotta ins, lotta outs.”
Kingpin wants to open up a door to alternate realities regardless of the cost to the one he’s in. Thus we get a plethora of variations on the Spider-Man character. We get Johnson’s Parker, whose life has taken a few wrong turns. Unshaven, depressed, with a little bit of a belly, he is not the mentor Miles wanted. Divorced and barely making ends meet he arrives in the new dimension in a worn out Spider-Man costume and sweatpants.
Soon they meet Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), otherwise known to Miles as Gwen Stacy, the cool new girl at school he’s been crushing on. Gwen and Peter make up the basic trio who help Miles as they try to find a way to get them home and stop Kingpin.
It’s hard to describe the joy I had watching Into the Spider-Verse; of seeing a movie relish and lean into its characters and playing with them. Steinfeld’s Gwen is a punky loner who, much like alternate Peter, wants to go in alone. Both have lost someone they love and so believe the job of Spider-Man must be a lonely one.
Miles does not agree. Even after he experiences his own tragic loss, his first instinct is to run to his father. For reasons, you’ll understand after seeing the movie he can’t, but the desire is there. Unlike all the other iterations he doesn’t believe being a hero means going it alone. Miles already understands how great power demands great responsibility, but that doesn’t mean sequestering yourself away from human interaction.
Into the Spider-Verse, along with Black Panther, has a diverse and fresh soundtrack. Hip-hop mixed with an electronica vibe that doesn’t feel like it was made to copy every other musical score currently out in theaters. It has a personality and a style; two things that separate it from almost every other modern day comic book movie.
Ramsey, Rothman, and Persichetti imbue the film with a sense of urgency, humor, and gravitas. The mixture of visual styles makes for a heady concoction. I especially liked the decision to focus on the shapes of objects making them pop out of the scene. It lends a texture lacking in even the most visual live-action comic book movie; a sense of reality by exaggeration.
Movies aren’t real but rather warped mirror images. Somehow it’s in the funhouse version of reality things seem more real. The art production team led by Patrick O’Keefe succeeds with such exacting talent I still think about them days after the movie is over. Moments such as when Miles slaps a sticker on a street sign. Or when he jumps off a skyscraper, his body arched as he free falls.
There is much I haven’t even touched on about Into the Spider-Verse. Nic Cage as a black and white noir Spider-Man, John Mulvaney’s talking pig from a cartoon universe, the character design of Kingpin, and much more. In fact, if there is a complaint is that the “too muchness” of the movie is a bit too much. Oscar Isaac is listed in the credits, and yet I can’t recall his character at all.
Ramsey, Rothman, and Persichetti spin fifty plates, and they do a herculean job of keeping them all spinning. But this comes at the expense of character development of all the varying Spider-People. At one point a character loses a trusted friend, and I found myself not really caring. It’s all a little bit overwhelming which leads to at crucial moments we the audience feeling underwhelmed.
When I say I was breathless by the time the credits rolled I’m not being hyperbolic. I felt invigorated and a little out of breath. The film is a brave new step for comic book movies but what exactly the lesson other studios will take from this remains to be seen.
Into the Spider-Verse is daring, shockingly so for a studio film. For once I wasn’t checked out during the obligatory third act battle. A beautiful marriage of style and narrative I found myself deliriously overjoyed by the end. I can’t wait to see it again.