SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE Overturned All My Expectations

It was with some humor that I first encountered the news that Sony was going to be releasing an animated Spider-Man film. The deal with Marvel had already gone through, and I knew some version of the webslinger would be making an appearance in the MCU. How many versions of Peter Parker do we need? Surely there is some saturation point for this one particular Marvel character. Yet here we are, almost a full year later, and not only has Peter Parker appeared in his latest live action incarnation, but Spider-Man: Homecoming was one of the more celebrated recent Marvel films, despite still having a foot firmly planted at Sony. Thus, it should be no surprise that I was skeptical of this new animated film, despite some very good signs going in; things like the inclusion of Miles Morales, voiced by the incredible Shameik Moore (Dope). Still, even if I had known the entire cast going in, or known about the incredible animation and even some of the surprising easter eggs I would find, nothing really could have prepared me for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The latest installment in what has become a saga of changing Spider-People adventures is a true accomplishment of film making, telling a complicated and dense story with style and wit and humor, while also finally bringing the diversity that wall crawler’s home of NYC demands for this story to have any reality at all. Fun and exciting and beautifully animated, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse has easily become my favorite comic film of all time simply by combining a truly human and humane narrative with the freedom of the form from which it springs, comic books themselves.

Into the Spiderverse has many different versions of “Spider-Man/Person” in it, from various different dimensions across the multi-verse, but it is essentially the story of Miles Morales. Miles gains his powers in a world where there is already a Spider-Man, and when that one is killed tragically, he must decide if he has what it takes to replace him. Also, other dimensional spider-beings keep spilling into his world and complicating things until they end up helping him. Now, look, I have some reservations about inter-dimensional story tell. That was a nerdy sentence, but let me explain. There have been times, in a number of different media, where the theory of a multi-verse seems to have been deployed to cover for some other flaw in storytelling. Perhaps one has written one’s self into a corner and needs some way to bring an “out” into the dramatic tension, or needs to add new spice to a lagging story line. Or worse, behind the scenes business wrangling has created continuity issues that are not easily resolved, and so you posit other dimensions to compensate for, let’s say, moving from one network to another. The point is, as a reader and viewer who finds himself at times skeptical of macguffins and deus ex machina, the very presence of a potential cross-dimensional loop hole can often cause me to enter any narrative with my guard up.

Not only is the multi-verse well-represented both narratively and theoretically in this film, but Into The Spider-Verse works the idea of multiple and co-existing dimensions aesthetically into the very art of the animation. The film utilizes different animation styles and techniques to create this reality-bending aspect, and skillfully works characters that might be new or different for folks who have only a casual familiarity with the comics flawlessly into the story. There are layers and covalents that work in tandem, compliment each other, and build something new. This diversity of realities is also present in the identities and perspectives on display. This is a film concerned with how so many folks can connect with and identify with the Spider-Man mythos. Growing up, I was appreciative of the continuous universe of Marvel. While DC seemed to have multiple story lines for one character that were disconnected from each other, Marvel seemed to all be connected into one living and continuous universe. I loved that. However, it can be incredibly limiting in the kinds of stories you can tell. The Spider-Person of yesterday might not be the most interesting, engaging, or exciting version of that story for now. This film gives us a view of that, how whatever it is we think we mean by Spider-Man lives in each of these disparate iterations, aspects which are more true and specific name or gender or whatever other markers. This film celebrates the multiplicity of comic book reality, and deploys it to tell a complicated story which goes against our assumptions of being chosen, and lift up the decisions that make humans good.

The film is not only a success ideologically or aesthetically; Into The Spider-verse features one of the best voice casts I have ever heard. Shameik Moore is endearing as Mile Morales, and Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker is a perfect combination of pathetic and heroic. Hailee Stanfield’s Gwen Stacy is strong and compelling, my only complaint being I wish she had been given more character beats. The character is important in the film, but could have had more to do where we saw who she was. Still, what is there is great. Lily Tomlin as Aunt May was a revelation, bringing attitude to a character who is too often portrayed as meek and mild. I had not expected to have some of my favorite story beats come from and through Aunt May, but it was a delight. I have to say, from a surprise Nicholas Cage to a compelling Mahershala Ali, this cast is awesome top to bottom. However, I would be remiss not to highlight John Mulaney as Spider-Ham (Peter Porker). I know, the inclusion of Spider-Ham is the kind of winking gag, dripping with obscure fan service, that could derail a film like this. It could. However it really does not here. Mulaney is hilarious, but Peter Porker is not just a gag. Even as a gag, he works, but he also is a part of this team of connected icons from across dimensional realities.

The animation of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a triumph of design. It is not only beautiful but effective as a way to tell a story, literally using different kinds of images and dimensions to tell a story of the meeting of multiple realities. The action works differently than in other films, with the edges blurring like an image we are literally seeing. The layers of character design and background art work together perfectly, and the aesthetics of the film represent more than just its comic book forbears. Yes, there is a certain pulpy comics quality to it, but there is also a hip-hop flare more representative of what is an urban story told in a diverse NYC. From the needle drops of both contemporary and classic hip hop, to the art design, cityscapes, and even the inclusion of graffiti, the film takes seriously the urban context of its story and works it into the fabric of the film itself. Not that is purely a hip-hop narrative, but it represents more completely and wholistically this aspect of the city which is itself a character in the narrative. This film takes place almost entirely in Brooklyn, and the art of the film strives to make the BK more than a setting to what is happening. Not only this aspect, but also Miles himself, is perhaps the first Spider-Man to not only be a talented teen of color, but also have a sick hand style.

All these elements catapult this film into contention for my favorite film of 2018, and at least my favorite comic book film. Still, it is not just the artistic triumph this film represents that has me excited to recommend it to you. Too often, stories we tell about heroes, not just of the ‘super” variety, but of any stripe, are about fate. One is placed on an inescapable and immovable path toward a calling of some kind. One cannot help but be the hero one is called or ordained to be. This film seems, to me, to not be about fate. We are presented, yes, with a multiplicity of worlds in which there must be a Spider-something. Sure, this could lead one to see fate, that is no matter what multiple variety of circumstances, there must be a hero in the shape of a spider. Still, what makes each of these beings, a variety of humans and other species, genders, and races and identities, what makes them the hero is the choices they make. Spider-Man must be, across time and space, but Peter Parker is negotiable. Anyone with the ability, opportunity, and willingness to help can do so. The being of the spider, the fulfilling of that call or any call, is not the answering of a genetic or tradition or societally defined calling. To answer this call is to respond to need, to make a decision about the world, and about yourself. Knowing you can make a difference. That is what finally sold me. The reality that anyone can wear the mask, and that who they are is defined by what they do as Spider-whatever. Thus we have, finally, a comic film which allows for the promise that comic books seem to make. Heroes can exist, do exist, and are defined not by any one identity or power or dimensional circumstances, but only by the decisions they make and the people they choose to be.


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