Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Seeing an animated Marvel film doing so well critically might feel a bit weird. Why should it? The animated stream of comic book flicks has been substantially consistent for many years, from Warner Bros.' Batman: Mask of the Phantasm to the various Justice League and Avengers films that have been going on for years. These films usually haven't made much of a stink outside their hardcore fanbases. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is far from the first notable animated comic book film, and many comic aficionados know this.
What made this one stick? What made Spider-Verse become a household name that everyone and their many degrees of connections just had to see? Why, if this is not the first animated comic film (or even close to it) is this the first of its kind to make such a name for itself? It has a few contributing factors working in its favour, but the hype is real. You may leave the film feeling like you yourself are a part of a new parallel dimension, where animated comic book films aren't just good: they may be even better than their live action counter parts. I'm no Marvel expert myself, but I've seen most of Marvel's output because I watch many films. All things considered, this might be the best film Marvel has ever made.
Now, let's bring in those factors. The first directive was to establish that this film contains infinite possibilities (since we have access to endless amounts of parallel dimension, of which we only get a taste of a varied few). Well, Spider-Verse takes advantage of this in many clever ways. We get references to past Spider-man films (the good and the awful), Spider-Man memes (including the greatest post-credits scene my immature side has ever guffawed at), and a bevy of different Spider beings from the comic book world. We get Miles Morales (a young middle school student struggling to find his purpose), Peter Parker (in two polar opposite takes on him), and a series of other brilliant versions that truly open the door to how limitless this concept truly can be.
The film is self referential as if it was directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice), but it was actually worked on by multiple directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, and Rodney Rothman. Rothman worked on the screenplay with Phil Lord. The amount of pop culture that has stemmed from all that are involved is immeasurable (Undeclared, The Lego Movie, Rise of the Guardians, Clone High, and Rothman having written for David Letterman. The list is endless). We now know where this knack for self awareness, and fourth wall breaking comes from. This self awareness leads into the second asset that Spider-Verse proudly boasts: its phenomenal animation style. Its comic book nature (full of stippled dots and all), combined with a strong artistic direction (how do these cartoon characters still feel so lifelike?) already seal the deal; toss in thought bubbles, panels and visible effects, and you have the truest form of a graphic novel coming to life that I've seen.
Sure, at the end of the day this is still a Marvel film (under Sony, of course), so it can be very by-the-book (the comic book, too). What makes Spider-Verse special is that it chooses to tell this same origin story (whether its Spider-Man's or any other superhero's) in a way that truly connects. Morales is not fitting in to where he is placed (a prestigious private middle school). He identifies more with his rebellious uncle than his police officer father. That line about power and responsibility that has been said to death in previous films comes in at full force here. For a good chunk of the film, Morales can't even figure out his powers. For him, responsibility comes at the hands of self worth. He's reached puberty (a point he brings up enough times), but he hasn't figured it all out.
With the many iterations of Spider-Man present (including female heroes, heroes of colour and even non human renditions), we know that all of these versions have had their own hardships. I know all of them come from actual comics and weren't created just for this film, so their tales can likely be discovered in full (I personally don't know much about them outside of what the film told me). Firstly, we can understand that these origin tales have happened to many people, confirming that this is a universal take for all. In 2018 (2019 by the time I got my act together to review this film), representation and addressing everyone is so important. Spider-Verse's small glimpse into a future with full representation is a damn good start. Secondly, we can see that this same discussion of responsibility has affected each of these incarnations differently (including just the two Peter Parkers alone). Since Spider-Verse doesn't mind flirting with darker topics (like actual deaths), these messages are driven home effectively. With all of this considered, Spider-Verse does a great job at stepping over its predictability in two ways. The first way was by making the trip to each plot point worth it.
The second was by making each vehicle to did plot points unpredictable in their own ways. I'm not just talking about the breath taking climax (what a psychedelic trip-out that takes full advantage of all of it's creative concepts). Even some of the basic scenes. Morales has to figure out his powers, and the ways he does so work, because having other Spider beings allows him to gestate at his own pace for a while. Perhaps the scene where he figures it all out is a slight cliche, but it didn't come from nowhere. All of the previous material preempted this very moment. It's predictable, but it doesn't feel cheap or lazy. Plus, Morales is a loveable enough character; don't you want things to just click for him?
The animation is mind boggling. The story is engaging. The possibilities are never ending. The climax is like you've entered a dream world and it's all falling in on you. Spider Verse is grandeur in every sense of the word. It's not just refreshing: it's mesmerizing. So many creative artistic choices happen that you have to rewatch to get them all. So many subtle jokes happen too (that's another thing: this is a genuinely funny film that does the typical Marvel joke setups right). At the end of the day, there really isn't much to truly complain about here. As a comic film, it does its basic job whilst reaching for the stars. Any other attempt at trying to pull off this type of film might feel pale in comparison, truly. With great power comes great responsibility. Spider-Verse knew its responsibility, and it hit all of the right notes (finally, a solid Spider-Man film).
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.