Some things need no introduction.
3P Reviews Series: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spoilers: Yes. I also talk a lot about the Sam Rami Spider-Man movies for some reason.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Arachnophoria
This is the best superhero movie ever made.
I try to avoid definitive hyperbole, but I’ve run through all of the criteria and set this film up against anything even remotely superhero, and, at least by my reckoning, no other movie in the genre holds a candle to this one. It outmatches even many comics and shows in its artistry, detail, pacing, story, depth, and unity. A film like this doesn’t come around every day.
I want to start small with this review. I want to start with the spider.
Spiders are among the most despised animals in existence, and with very little reason. Global estimates for the number of people who die from spider bites each year has apparently never been studied. In the U.S., it’s been reported as maybe a few people each year. In Australia, no one has verifiably died from a spider bite in forty years. There are certainly species that have proven deadly to humans and others that are suspected to be dangerous, so bites from spiders ought to be taken seriously. But spider bites are so rare and other ailments so often misdiagnosed as spider bites, that for practical purposes, all spider species likely pose a negligible threat to humans.
Try telling the average American that. I can’t tell you how many ecology majors I’ve met who will jump and flail around if a spider comes anywhere near them. And those are people who spend much of their lives outside, with the spiders. Introduce a house spider to a more suburban person, and you’d think the creature was made out of asbestos and explosives.
It’s a bit odd, then, that one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world is spider-themed. We have web patterns and spider logos on everything from backpacks to birthday cakes. Spider-Man is ubiquitous, and people love him.
Sam Rami’s Spider-Man ushered in the current wave of superhero films. Superhero movies have been around for ages, but the modern aesthetic — the one that relies heavily on CGI to mimic the things characters can do in drawings but not in live-action — that’s all down to the 2002 Spider-Man film. And Spider-Man was a brilliant character to start with; his story is highly relatable to kids and teens alike, and more ethically stable than those of other popular heroes. Batman is a billionaire who uses his wealth to punch poor people while LARPing. Superman is a Jesus analogue who is so brilliant, he can solve all of the earth’s problems, which are almost exclusively monster-based. Iron Man is a war criminal who proves capitalism is great. Captain America is jingoistic propaganda.
But Spider-Man? Well, he’s a bit of a sellout, but in most iterations of the story, he doesn’t really come with any ethical baggage, at least for the writers and audience. Spider-Man’s morality is the most straightforward of almost any superhero: with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re able to help someone, you should. There are ways that you could spin this message to make it imply that the world has to rely on exceptional individuals to solve all of its problems, but you can’t spin it without corrupting the original message. Nowhere does it say anyone needs or should have great power. It’s just that if you have it, you bear the responsibility of using it for good. Not many people would argue with that mantra.
Spider-Man himself is not a perfect person, and sometimes takes questionable routes to solve problems. The series readily acknowledges this, baking it into his origin story and personal development.
In the Sam Rami version, Peter Parker is a wimp, a nerd, and generally unfulfilled, but not a bad person. He tries to be nice and enthuses over things that interest him, but the people around him take advantage of that. When he gains magical powers that make him much stronger than everyone else, he initially uses them to get what he always wanted: he wins a fight against a school bully, impresses his crush, and earns money to buy himself a car. But all of these are cheap uses of his powers, and don’t benefit anyone other than Peter. The pivotal moment in the first film is when Peter is slighted by the wrestling ring and retaliates by stepping aside when the ring gets robbed. The consequence of this, and of lying to get what he wanted, is that his uncle is shot and killed.
While we associate Uncle Ben’s death with Spider-Man’s motivation and him adopting the “with great power comes great responsibility” line, I think a lot of people forget that Peter’s first action after his uncle is killed is to chase down the killer, whom he indirectly murders. It’s not just Uncle Ben’s death, but also the realization that Peter himself is responsible and his lack of closure even after the murderer is dead that sends Peter down the path of superherodom. Many times after this scene, in all three of the Sam Rami movies, Peter falters in his attempt to live up to his uncle’s expectations. He kills all three of his main enemies in each of the films, despite not really wanting to. He kills the best friend of his father, makes his friend obsess over one thing for the rest of his life, and then leads to said friend’s death as well. Half of the times Mary-Jane and Aunt May are imperiled, it’s because of something Peter either did or didn’t do. And I don’t even have to mention dancing emo Peter.
Plenty of other superheroes have moments like these in their stories, but those are usually fairly minor setbacks that pale in comparison to big, bombastic action setpieces as far as what the audience remembers when they walk out of the theatre. Further, much of the inner conflict other superheroes experience either has little basis (i.e., the tragic death was not at all preventable), or doesn’t impact them for very long (Tony Stark has anxiety issues and wants to retire? That’s no fun, let’s put him in back in a suit and shoot him into space!)
Spider-Man, meanwhile, is defined by his struggles. It’s a big part of what makes him so relatable. He’s constantly getting pushed around, thrown like a ragdoll in fights while juggling way too many things at once. A train is derailing, his mentor has turned into a monster and is throwing something at him, the pizza is getting cold, a baby is stuck in a burning building somewhere, someone is trying to uncover his secret identity, there’s a robbery in progress, he needs to pick up the groceries for his aunt, his powers aren’t working properly, and prom is tomorrow!
A few things are going to fall by the wayside. What matters in the Spider-Man stories is how Peter responds. It gets to him when he can’t make ends meet, or when he has to give up something he wants in order to do the right thing — which is often. Spider-Man is inherently more than Peter Parker, which is why is matters that Peter pushes himself to be better than his base instincts. Peter Parker has rent, a family, a stamina bar, mortality, the need to eat. Spider-Man doesn’t. Peter can’t juggle all of those things — be a good person, be happy, crack jokes, save the day. But Spider-Man can. He has to.
Like Batman and Superman, Spider-Man is the symbol he wears. But rather than represent fear or hope, the spider on his outfit stands for something a bit more complicated. It stands for all the weirdos out there who like spiders, the little guys who are always getting knocked around, but who do their best anyway, who help, even when their role is thankless and they’re outshined or even castigated. Sometimes they’re spooky, and sometimes they hurt people. But mostly they don’t. Spider-Man isn’t exactly a direct analogue for spiders themselves, but he is a sort of a PR person for the little guy, spider or otherwise. He’s the best version of them. But, crucially, where Spider-Man is a symbol, the person who wears that symbol is flesh-and-blood. They can falter, they can make mistakes. They can fall. Spider-man can’t.
Anyway, this review is about Into the Spider-Verse, isn’t it?
Part Two: Spiders-Men
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an animated superhero film about New York teen Miles Morales, who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superpowers from it. While trying to figure out what’s happened to him, Miles stumbles upon Spider-Man, the resident superhero with similar abilities, trying to stop a dimension-breaking laser experiment. The villain running the experiment, Kingpin, kills Spider-Man before he can stop it, leaving Miles the only witness and Spider-Man’s de facto replacement. While mourning and contemplating how he can live up to the role of Spider-Man, Miles discovers other Spider-Men have come through the portal from their own dimensions. After trials and tribulations, Miles forms a close friendship with the other Spider-Men, stops Kingpin, and comes into his own, thus becoming the new Spider-Man for New York.
Even the extended plot is fairly standard fare for a superhero flick: Miles has a loving family who don’t understand him, an uncle he loves who turns out to be working for Kingpin, funny normal kid moments, a hobby, a crush, and an initially contentious relationship with his mentor that turns into a heartfelt student-teacher relationship they both learn from. The film isn’t perfect — it has moments of awkward dialogue, a sometimes scattered pace, and action scenes that are a lot to take in, especially on first viewing.
It makes up for every single one of its flaws. In fact, it turns many of them around and makes them the most important parts of the movie.
There’s so much to love about it. For one, it’s genuinely hilarious. Not all of the jokes land, but the film earns its pedigree as a comedy. There are beautiful little moments tucked all around the film, easily lost in the intensity of everything else in the piece, but delightful once found again. Gwen giving an obviously fake name for no reason, realizing it, and rambling to try to cover her tracks, is among them. So is Miles trying to escape the security officer at his school by hiding in a room, only to realize the room he’s hiding in belongs to said security officer. My favorite, though, might be Peter B. Parker, whom I will henceforth describe as Schlubby Spider-Man, trying to take one more bite of pizza before being sucked into a trans-dimensional worm hole that has manifested in his one-room apartment. Big mood.
The film works on many different levels, but it’s one of the best examples of a film that effectively integrates the cultural dialogue into its plot without depending on it. Arguably, the film is more enjoyable if you know who Spider-Man is, know how many times the character has been rebooted, how comics work, and generally recognize the established tropes and characters the film is playing to. The film assumes that these things are so pervasive within popular culture that it often doesn’t bother to explain what these tropes are. Aunt May is well aware of Peter Parker being Spider-Man, in contrast to the myriad versions of the character who is utterly oblivious to her nephew’s other job. Schlubby Spider-Man is schlubby because the Sam Rami films are almost two decades old now, and the films themselves feel dated. Miles’ Uncle Aaron gets shot by Kingpin when Aaron discovers Miles is Spider-Man and refuses to hurt him — a parallel to the more well-known Uncle Ben narrative that serves a similar function, while also subverting the trope of a secret villain turning on their supposed loved ones. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Aaron, a black man who turns out to be a criminal, shows unquestioning compassion toward his nephew when his family comes at odds with his criminal activities. I also doubt it’s a coincidence that Kingpin, a white man, murders Aaron for without hesitation for not following orders.
Context adds layers to the story, both in small ways and large ones, but what makes Into the Spider-Verse different from other highly referential films is that context isn’t necessary. The execution of the plot is such that someone with no familiarity with super heroes could still follow along and respond appropriately to emotional moments in the film. It’s intuitive. It might throw a lot of information at you, and you might recognize that you’re missing context that other people have, but the story is explicit in its key points without being condescending. You know that Uncle Aaron is making the sympathetic decision even if you haven’t seen half a dozen other films where the kindly uncle turns face and throws his relative off a cliff. You also know that Kingpin is unsympathetic for killing Aaron despite his own tragic backstory, even if you lack an understanding of uneven power dynamics, white people’s commodification of black people, police shootings, and the complexities of organized criminal operations. You still understand the nuances of the situation for the characters, which makes it easier to make those connections to the real world should you learn about them later.
The best stories, in my opinion, unfold from a simple but engaging baseline. This is one of those. If this were the first movie to introduce Spider-Man, and every other reference therein, if Spider-Man, New York, superheroes, comics, Stan-Lee, Loony Tunes, film noir, Rubik’s Cubes — spiders — didn’t exist, you could still probably follow the film. What matters is the characters, their motivations, and their relationships with one another, all of which are established clearly and obviously through the dialogue and character actions.
The characters are a big part of this. The film has a fairly large cast — Miles’ parents, Aunt May, Uncle Aaron, Doc Ock, Kingpin, Mary-Jane, and, oh yeah, seven Spider-Men. Yet it feels very self-contained and structured. Not a moment is wasted, and even with additional villains or side characters, the core characters are well-drawn and most of them are given their own arcs. Compare this to the larger Marvel films and you’ll realize how crucial a well-polished cast is.
Miles is the most nuanced and complex of the characters as the main protagonist, and we’ll get to him, but I think Peter B. Parker serves as an excellent example for now of how the film presents its characters.
Starting with the very first scene, a runner throughout the film is the slight variations on the same introduction for the various Spider-Men. It’s a cute homage to the plethora of reboots over the past few years, but also sets up the tone for how the series intends to present its multi-verse concept. Already, that’s kind of brilliant, and there really aren’t that many other characters you can do that with. James Bond? Bumblebee? Bilbo Baggins? Anyway. The Peter Parker we see at the start of the film, the one who dies, is based on the Sam Rami version, but a bit cooler and more of what the popular culture sees the character as. Instead of saving M.J. from the car thrown through the window by puller her aside, he just punches the car back out the window. The Schlubby Spider-Man we see later is this same guy, but older. And brunette.
Schlubby Spider-Man is what happened to Spider-Man after the Sam Rami films. Maybe not technically within the universe, but he’s supposed to evoke the same sort of emotional response in the audience. As Spider-Man got older in his universe, he got the fairy-tale ending everyone wanted, but kept going. Within just a few minutes, the film explains that he started to become bored with saving New York, fell into a rut with his marriage, started to get seriously injured in his escapades, lost his last remaining family, failed at having an ordinary human life, and, well, became depressed. The film never goes so far as to say that explicitly, but it uses the sort of imagery that implies not just sorrow, but clinical depression. He fixates, lacks motivation, finds comfort in food, isolates himself. M.J. tries to call him repeatedly, but he can’t muster the ability to even answer the phone.
Through the rest of the story, Schlubby Spider-Man is still Spider-Man, and still knows his business, to a degree that Miles often finds him impressive or even intimidating. But this Spider-Man has been at the job long enough that it’s lost its luster and his own life has fallen apart so much that he relies on his own costume as an escape. He can’t move forward, and he can’t relive the glory days, so he stagnates.
If you were a kid when the Sam Rami movies came out (hello), you might see some of yourself in Schlubby Spider-Man. Our heroes are written to reflect us, which is why different iterations of the same character often change with the new generations who write them. I, for one, share a deep and abiding sympathy for how much Schlubby Spider-Man loves his pizza. The man needs his ‘za. But, if I’m honest, that’s now the only thing. The reality of growing up and realizing adulthood isn’t structured or simple like childhood is a scary one, but it’s scary in a way childhood doesn’t do a good job preparing you for. Realizing you don’t know how to do something and having no one there to help you through it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through, and it’s come up in completely different scenarios, too. I might be lucky enough that the problems that face Schlubby Spider-Man aren’t one’s I’ll ever have to deal with, but everyone has their own personal struggles, and not all of them are supervillain-based.
It’s worth noting that while Schlubby Spider-Man completes his arc, not by sacrificing himself because he has nothing left to live for, but by returning to his world and trying again with M.J. He doesn’t necessarily go back to crime fighting, he tries to move forward. And we don’t see whether it works out. Life’s not easy like that. But maybe, you know? Maybe it’ll be okay.
Part Three: The Leap
Movies With Mikey did an utterly gorgeous video essay on the technical prowess of this film, and that video is one of the reasons I loved this film even before I saw it. I don’t intend to reiterate the points Mikey so succinctly makes, so please watch it. It’s worth it.
One of the things I haven’t seen many people talk about in depth is why this film looks the way it does. It’s impressive, it looks like a comic book, and it had to invent new technologies to create the effects it wanted. But, aside from homage and because the people working on it are gods of their craft, why? Why put in so much effort, why make this film the beautiful piece of art that it is, when it could have skirted by on name recognition alone? Why is a film called “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” one of the most ambitious and resonant films of 2019? Why take the mandate to put out a new Spider-Man film and turn it into something that more than deserves the Oscar it won?
Because you can.
Because it’s hard as hell, and because you’re human, and because this is a film that needs to exist. This is a film for you.
The What’s Up, Danger? sequence is the one everyone talks about, and deservedly so. It makes me weep tears of joy. Literally. That’s how much I love this film. I think that some people might be surprised to learn what it is specifically that makes be teary-eyed about this scene, especially since it comes up plenty of other times before: it’s the sound effects.
Comics are a visual medium that simulate the same sort of movement and interactions that film does. However, as a fixed medium that plays out through illustrated panels, comics have to find ways to indicate interactions between objects depicted that are intuitive in real life but not intuitive in still images. Most of comic layout is dedicated to this problem, and there are several solutions. One is to illustrate an interaction through several panels. Another is to vary panel size or shape, to play around with the edges and gutter to indicate noise or movement. Comics usually have text associated, so the text can be used to clarify what a character is doing. By far and away the most common solution, though, is to add extra lines and onomatopoeia words to simulate everything from smell to a particular noise. In any other medium, it would be gauche, childish even, to add a “SLAP” and some jagged lines to a character slamming their hand on a table. Not in comics. Some play with sound and motion indicators more subtly than others, and some go the classical route of excluding them altogether, but comic standards across the board have normalized it to such a degree that these effects become an art style in and of themselves, like font or line weight.
Animated films have adopted their own version of indicators to signify, for instance, heat, character shock, and motion blur, none of which translate to traditional 2-D animation well otherwise. However, most 3-D films are able to use cutting-edge visual effects to simulate these phenomena far more realistically, and because it’s less obtrusive, realistic representations are often favored over the stylization of motion and noise indicators.
Not Spider-Verse. Into the Spider-Verse relishes stylism and makes extensive use of indicators all throughout its run, from the heat rising off of Miles’ mother’s soup to characters tapping on things to ambient noises within the environment. Int he What’s Up, Danger? sequence, almost every footstep, every time Miles interacts with something, there’s a little onomatopoeia word or a jagged white line that accompanies it.
These lines are displaced by a frame or two and disappear immediately. They do not exist in comics, because they can’t; they can only exist in animation. But they’re in the style of comic interaction lines, and they serve a similar purpose, emphasizing the impact of a character. They also come in as a substitute for motion blur, another thing largely unique to this film.
The effect is to make this film feel like what a comic is simulating, take you into the imagination of a child reading Spider-Man for the first time and absorbing the images, aware of what the comic looks like, and delighted by its unique quirks. Comics often aren’t realistic, but that’s no obstacle to them being immersive. Few books are easier to sink into.
Add to that how the scene shows Miles ascending buildings and obstacles he fell down earlier when he first tried to become Spider-Man, in the same order, now having mastered his powers, and you can see why this scene is so important.
Every single artistic decision in this film means something, on multiple levels. The linework overlaid on the 3-D character models makes them more expressive and shows a unity between modern and traditional animation. The Kirby and Ben Day dots that give this film much of its unique look are simultaneously tributes to two of the most influential comic book creators of the past century, but they are utilized in the film in its own way through the medium of animation to give the film texture, relying on particle effects techniques invented by Disney and PIXAR for their film juggernauts. This film combines street art, Chuck Jones cartoons, anime, newsprint, topical modern issues, YA novel trends, superhero movies, memes, graphic novels, and, you know, about half a billion other things, and somehow, it all works. This film isn’t just a love letter to comics: it’s a sky-written ballad raining roses on all who see it.
It’s a lot to take in. I can tell you, getting to the ending for the first time, my little head nearly popped from trying to take in all of the detail at once. It took me four hours to watch it. The movie is two hours long. It is one of my sincerest regrets that I did not see this film in theatres when it came out, but perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise, because I cannot watch this movie without a pause or rewind button. Like Gris, it’s almost embarrassing how many screenshots I took while making this review.
I’ve gone on for a long time, and I could go on for longer, but I’d like to leave you with a quick look at Miles Morales.
Many superheroes have multiple people who take up their identities, and in recent years especially, the larger comics producers have made an effort to include story lines with female and minority versions of many of their heroes. Actually, this isn’t even really a new phenomenon; when I was a kid, I knew the John Stewart version of Green Lantern pretty much exclusively (which made the trailers for the Green Lantern movie very confusing, by the way). In the 20th century, diversification of the superhero roster was often used for marketing purposes (it’s like Hulk, but for girls!), or to give the main heroes themed sidekicks and love interests. This wasn’t always a bad thing, by any means, but you can often take a look at some of the older counterparts to well-known superheroes (Batgirl and Supergirl come to mind), and see a lack of care in making these characters their own people. Often, they were either identical to the main hero save their appearance and name, or they were blatant stereotypes that lost the entire reason anyone liked the hero in the first place.
In the last decade or so, comics have become more savvy to how to write versions of heroes that come from more diverse backgrounds and have their own stories and motivations. Many of them have become popular on par with their original heroes, to the point where some characters like Captain Marvel are now know primarily as their female or nonwhite iterations. In the books. The films are often a different story. Marvel in particular is noted for its resistance to giving any nonwhite or female characters leading roles until basically Black Panther. This, despite having female and nonwhite characters as part of its core cast since the very first MCU film.
Miles Morales is one of the most popular of the nonwhite superhero reboots, and his stories are noted for their depth and complexity, to the point of being some of the best Spider-Man material out there. So when Marvel finally made its long-anticipated Spider-Man film and opted to cast yet another white Peter Parker under the mask, despite the two other live-action Spider-Man series starring the exact same character, you can understand why people were a bit salty. Tom Holland is fine, no disrespect to the actor, but it’s not like the Marvel Spider-Man movies bring much new to the table. The series has since hinted that Miles will eventually be part of the MCU, but the studio is doing its best to drag its feet on the issue.
Enter Spider-Verse, a film that not only stars this wonderful character and introduces him to the film scene, it does not hold back. If you wanted to summarize Spider-Verse as a single story outside of its broader context, it is a character study of Miles Morales. You have here a mixed-race kid who comes from a relatively affluent family but resents his parents’ efforts to push him toward a more sterile education environment, instead seeking to connect to his cultural roots and family history through his fun but somewhat sketchy uncle. Even without any of the Spider-Man lore attached to him, Miles is a well-rounded and interesting character. He’s funny and expressive, but also flawed, which is what makes you instantly love the character in his early scenes.
Once he gets bitten and has to take up the mantle of Spider-Man, you can completely see the parallels between him and Peter Parker, being an inexperienced and often awkward teenager who nonetheless has a big heart and feels a responsibility to live up to his potential. The big difference here, though, is that Miles already knows what Spider-Man is supposed to be. He lives in a world where Spider-Man has been a hero for years, so he’s not just making things up on the fly like Parker. On the one hand, that gives him a baseline to work with, but it comes with the steep cost of also knowing exactly how far he has yet to go. Imagine being told that you, you personally, have to be the next Steve Irwin, regardless of previous skills or capabilities, and that if you don’t live up to his legacy, the world is going to crumble and burn, the oceans are going to turn to poison, and everyone is going to die.
Well, imagine you’re the only one who knows that, anyway. Miles is told and shown, repeatedly, that he is inadequate. Even among the other Spider-Men, he is the damsel in distress, at best a lookout or decoy, at worst, an inconvenience. And what hurts more as the story goes on is that the intensity with which Miles is brought low just continues to intensify even as he starts to recognize his powers and forms meaningful relationships with the other Spider-Men. Miles practically starts his story seeing Spider-Man die, and then, after he’s learned that his uncle was working for the villain and tried to kill him, after he’s held that same uncle dying in his arms, after he’s gained the respect of his teacher and a fellow student, the other Spider-Men leave him behind. His mentor is going to die. And it’s all his fault.
We need our heroes to go through more than us, because their success gives us strength. Miles, despite everything in the deck stacked against him, pulls through and makes his own costume. The What’s Up, Danger? sequence follows his lowest point, which makes it all the stronger by comparison. He leaves the other Spider-Men, having earned his place as their equal. But what, specifically, incites the transition from Miles, tied up in his room, to Miles, Spider-Man?
His family, for one. It’s his father coming to talk to him that gives Miles the motivation to break free and try a very literal Leap of Faith. It’s also himself. He breaks out on his own. And it’s also the other Spider-Men. For all of their nay-saying, the connection he’s built up with Schlubby Spider-Man and Gwen and the others is important, because he’s saving the city, but he’s also saving them. In particular, he knows that Schlubby Spider-Man intends to stay behind and die in order to close the portal, a parallel to Miles’ encounter with the Peter Parker from his own universe (this movie has a lot of internal parallels, by the way — just another reason I love it). He’s not going to fail Spider-Man again.
You need motivation. You need to trust yourself. But most importantly, you need support. Individually, people can do amazing things, but you can’t do everything alone. This is a superhero movie about one hero, sure, but Miles doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Well over a hundred people made this film. It’s okay to need help. It’s how you get to where you are. And then, once you’re able, help someone else do the same. Anyone can be Spider-Man.