The Spider with a thousand faces: A review of Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse

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Image owned by Marvel and Sony/Columbia and taken from Seattle Weekly

 

We’ve had six Spider-Man films in this young century, from three separate series. We’ve had ups, like Maguire and Holland’s outings and we’ve had downs like Garfield and Maguire’s last outing. We have never seen an animated Spider-Man movie, though we have had plenty of animated television for the webhead. Take away the Spider-Man and even the superhero hook of the feature, you still have one of the most remarkable animation achievements in recent years, a style which utterly blurs the distinction between traditional and CGI style.

It is a beautiful, nearly overwhelming accomplishment that is far more successful and triumphant than anyone, myself included, had ever considered possible. I had dismissed any  independent Sony-Marvel project following Spider-man’s rightful reintroduction in the form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Last October’s Venom, while financially solid, was seen as proof of Sony’s half-hearted desire to milk the webslinger in spite of the qualities Tom Holland has brought to the cinematic table. Into the Spider-verse reveals a new, artistic alternative to the lazy live action cash grabs Venom aspires to and shows that Sony can make good on their license in a way that doesn’t do injustice to Marvel’s most successful character. If anything, Sony’s latest Spider-film, animated or otherwise, is the best on-screen take of the wall-crawler ever made. It tackles better than even 2004’s Spider-Man 2 and 2017’s Spider-Man Homecoming what Spider-Man is as a character and what he reflects positively in the human spirit and more importantly than that as well, how appropriately flexible one can be in re-imagining such a universal archetype.

Despite my initial skepticism of a animated Spider-Man film existing at all, what with the countless prior TV adaptations dating all the way back to the 1960s, to Tom Holland having successfully integrated into the MCU, this seemed like a pale-faced cash grab from an animation company that gave us the most obvious and shameless cash grab ever: The Emoji Movie. However, Lord and Miller, the duo behind the better than expected Lego Movie, produced this film and their influence shows both in well conceived humor and understanding how Spider-Man works.

Focusing in on a popular, modern version of the character, the initially controversial black/latino Miles Morales, Into the Spider-verse uses this up and coming wall-crawler as both a surprisingly rock solid cinematic introduction to the character on its own merits as well as selling the concept that Peter Parker is not nor never again will be the only Spider-Man to think of popularly. There isn’t even just one Peter Parker.

I’ve always been keen to any property tackling the “multiverse” theory, that of countless alternate universes ,with who knows how many different imaginable deviations. Star Trek, Bioshock, Rick & Morty and Marvel , alongside rival superhero company DC, have delved deep into alternate universes as a crutch for clearing up continuity issues and creative storytelling. Rick and Morty’s core conceptual identity is about their being infinite universes and the existential horror that comes with that knowledge. Here in the Spider-verse, it’s a celebration of Spidey’s appropriate flexibility.

Tired of the Peter Parker you know, love and may be getting sick of on the big screen or small page? Well, there isn’t only a racially diverse new Spider-Man in Miles, there is an alternate universe Gwen Stacy with a dead Peter Parker as motivation, a 30s Noir  private eye Spider-Man voiced perfectly by Nicolas Cage with his own dead Uncle Ben. Let’s not forget an animeesque Japanese American teen girl with a mech suit evoking Evangelion and Overwatch’s D.VA and Looney Tunes inspired Spider-Ham with the same bonkers origin( a spider that is bitten by a radioactive pig). The hint of even more cool and intriguing Spider-individuals in future films makes this a prospective series for viewers for all seasons.

Despite the lustre of ideas which the film puts forth, it manages to stay focused on Miles’ as a compelling new take on the story and character. Despite miles’ ethnic and cultural difference from Peter, he is still relatable in confronting his high school and teenage life challenges as well as internal strife relating to his police officer father and more preferable and cool Uncle Aaron, voiced by Mahershala Ali. The film treats Miles seriously as its own thing rather than just another variation on Peter. He’s different enough but not so different to alienate Spider-purists.

I could dabble deeper into how the narrative, dealing with the character mythos connected with the worn yet oddly fresh enough “multiple universe theory”,congeals peerlessly, but that would be edging close to risking spoilers and Into the Spider-verse manages to do something else well that wasn’t expected: surprise you with what shouldn’t really be all that surprised by in hindsight. I am not referring to how the utterly idiosyncratic animation style, which is a seemingly impossible mix of CGI and traditional, works amazingly well. I am referring to narrative and character moments which are convincingly presented as shocking even if there are plenty of  well hidden clues which avoid the realm of “duh”.

About that animation. It is worth viewing the film multiple times just to look at it as well as for the monumental number of easter eggs hidden throughout, not all of them relating to Spider-man. There is, as expected, a poignant cameo by  Stan the Man, as well as many tell tale signs to tip you off that Miles’ universe is not our own. It is subtle fanservice and world-building at its best. Even when it isn’t, it still somehow works when it’s as subtle as one of Spider-Ham’s cartoon anvils.

The animation, though entirely CG, does make it look like a bewildering hydra of comic-dot style and rotoscoping which creates a movement that at times seems stop-motion or even claymation. It is miraculous in how it all works out from initially looking too bizarre to eventually seeming as natural a look as you could hope for in a Spider-Man film. As has been espoused already by others, it is like an actual graphic novel come to life. You know it works when you stop noticing what it’s going for and you’re simply enjoying it for what it is.   It is not like anything out there and its unique status isn’t lost on Sony. They’re trying to patent the technology used for the film so no one else can capture the look.

It captures the liberating feel of not just a Spider-man multiverse but a superhero universe. It’s about how the Spider-Man identity is not unique to just one man or even one version of said man: Peter Parker. Even if we never get the abilities of Spider-Man, we can all aspire to be as good as the man/woman/pig. Even Spider-Man himself can aspire to be as good again as his legacy suggests, such as an alternate, overweight and down and out Peter Parker, played forlornly by Jake Johnston, voicing the tired Spider-mentor to Miles. The film, despite its exuberant joy, never wavers from how harsh life for any web-slinging vigilante can be as the key ingredient to being the most optimistic hero is suffering through trauma. Loss  is part in parcel to all the Spiders in Into the Spider-verse and remembering that was the most important thing that had to be included in the many, many things included.

Peter Parker is not the only Spider-Man. And that is not just fine. It’s refreshingly spectacular.

 

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