Back in October 2019, Martin Scorsese – director of very strong contender for my number one film of the year, The Irishman – criticized Marvel films, saying that these films are not cinema, but the equivalent of theme park rides. Scorsese has the right to his own opinion and has proven to be a mighty fine director of over five decades. That being said, his comments have elicited negative reactions. Unsurprisingly, this includes some filmmakers that have worked in the realms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cinema, like other forms of art, is subjective and some of the best films ever made are like the best theme parks; look no further than Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed blockbusters.
Since art is subjective, I would like to talk about the film that I have been obsessed with since its theatrical release one year ago, the animated masterpiece Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Recently, AIPT released its best films of the 2010s. I could’ve talked about Inception, Drive, Mad Max: Fury Road, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, all genre films that were never Oscar bait, but gained recognition at the Academy. It may be fair to say that Spider-Verse is still too recent, but it does stuff I haven’t seen before in both animation and cinema. In this recent era where Spider-Man can be fresh again, this is the most unique spin towards everyone’s favorite wall-crawler on the big screen.
Back in 2014 during the time of the Sony Pictures hack, it was revealed that the studio was making an animated Spider-Man movie that would be developed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The two had previously worked with Sony on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. However, that was overshadowed by a more exciting piece of news as Sony made a deal with Marvel Studios, so that Spider-Man would be introduced in the MCU. From his debut in Captain America: Civil War to having his own solo films with Homecoming and Far From Home, Tom Holland’s youthful performance as Peter Parker has been a major success that hopefully we’ll see more of in the near future.
However, there was still that animated Spidey movie in the works.
Since Sony has been part of Spider-Man since the early 2000s, we’ve seen the ups and downs this character has been through cinematically. From the wonder of Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man outings to the law of diminishing returns with every subsequent installment. Especially after the Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb era, there was a sense of mistrust over what Sony was trying to do with this franchise on their own. Despite the recent box office of Venom, as well as the upcoming release of Morbius, there is still some uncertainty. However, one year before its release, we got our first look of Spider-Verse, featuring Miles Morales wearing both his street clothes and Spidey gear as he swings through his home of Brooklyn; this was something new and exciting.
Inspired by former US president Barack Obama and actor Donald Glover’s unsuccessful online campaign to audition for The Amazing Spider-Man, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli introduced the African-American-Hispanic teenager Miles Morales, around the same time that Peter Parker died a heroic death in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man. After being bitten by a genetically-engineered spider, Miles develops spider-like abilities, similar to what his predecessor had. Despite his initial fear of these powers, not only does he have to carry the legacy of Peter Parker, he has to forge his own identity as Spider-Man.
Taking a lot of cues from the comics, Spider-Verse (co-written by producer Lord and co-director Rodney Rothman) centers on Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore). Miles is a normal kid who is suddenly confronted by great expectations, whether it is his place as a student of the Brooklyn Visions Academy or keeping a promise to a dying, blonde-haired Peter Parker by saving the multiverse. Throughout the whole film, Miles feels like he doesn’t have a choice, mainly because he was told so by his father. He faces ups and downs he faces in both his private life and superhero persona and ultimately doesn’t believe in himself.
After experiencing a tragic loss, and being rejected by the more competent Spider-people, Miles is left webbed up and gagged in his dorm. This leads to touching speech from his father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) – a parent who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his own son, and a policeman who despises vigilantism. He tells his son he does have a choice and whatever he chooses to do, he’ll be great. At that brief moment of bonding, Miles realizes he can’t be any other Spider-person, he has to be himself and thus ascends into the film’s most triumphant sequence. What’s Up, Danger?
However, despite Miles being the central protagonist, he is not the only Spider-Man and this is where the multiverse comes in. Inspired by the 2014 comic book storyline written by Dan Slott, the film introduces alternate universe versions of Spider-Man. All are coming together to save their various realities from being destroyed by the Kingpin’s particle accelerator. Each have their distinct personality and style of animation based on their own dimensions. Not only do they provide their own sense of drama and humor, but the premise plays with the whole idea of Spider-Man in the most meta way. It is reminiscent of The Lego Batman Movie, which acknowledges and pokes fun at that character’s media history. Spider-Verse acknowledges our pop culture understanding of Spider-Man, such as our over-awareness of his origin story. This is a film that does not have one, but seven origin stories. Some may be comedic, but they also do something more than any other Spider-Man movie. It conveys the idea anyone can be Spider-Man, whether you’re black or white, man or woman, or a cartoonish pig.
For the amount of heroes that appear here, there are also a number of villains thrown into the mix. Although too many villains can be a typical curse towards superhero movies (Spider-Man 3 being a prime example), Spider-Verse knows how to use the rogues gallery. Following Vincent D’Onofrio’s extraordinary performance on Daredevil, the Kingpin (voiced by Liev Schreiber) gets an animated makeover. His near all-black suit, resembles a black hole that compels any villian to do his bidding, from the monstrous Green Goblin to the mad scientist Doc Ock. The latter villain (Kathryn Hahn) is one of the great surprises. Not only is she a reinvention of one Spider-Man’s greatest enemies, she is also a key element of doing what the best comic-book adaptations should do: subvert fans’ expectations. You still have the reveal of Miles’ uncle Aaron as the Prowler from the comics, but the film cleverly plays with our emotions.
When Lord and Miller were approached by Sony (who would eventually make The Emoji Movie) to make this movie, the dynamic duo would only do it if they made it about Miles. It also had to present a form of animation that has never been done before. Ever since Toy Story in 1995 and the evolution (and degrading) of CG animated films over the years, we’re not as wowed nowadays. We’ve seen so much of it. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, and Rothman (along with a crew of 177 animators) Spider-Verse looks like you walked inside a comic book by literally using techniques from the medium, such as Ben-Day dots, the Kirby Krackle and onomatopoeia. By animating on 2’s – meaning that you are holding the same drawing for two frames – you also have this mixture of 2D and 3D animation that is so beautiful and rather psychedelic, you won’t be able spot every detail on the first viewing; and I’ve seen this film on the big screen five times. Even picking up the art book and watching videos about how the animation was done, I’m still feeling like I’m scratching the service.
From the exciting previews to the rave reviews from critics, Sony clearly had a hit on their hands and yet as its theatrical release approaches, there wasn’t much marketing. With its budget of $90 million, Spider-Verse made $375.5 million. It was a success, but is also the lowest-grossing Spider-Man film to date. Maybe not many people knew about it or perhaps there was some fatigue of yet another Spider-Man film. Whatever the reasons were, Spider-Verse did find its audience, as evidenced by the YouTube videos from people wanting to represent their love for the film and its main character. In terms of accolades, Spider-Verse gained its biggest award by winning the award for Best Animated Feature at the 91st Oscars, where the other culturally-significant superhero movie Black Panther won three awards.
With all this acclaim, it’s such a shame that the two creators behind Spider-Man are no longer with us to witness it all. 2018 was a phenomenal year for Spider-Man – through comics, films and a PS4 video game – but it was also a bittersweet one with the deaths of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Both pioneered the Everyman hero. I couldn’t think of a better tribute for these two men than Spider-Verse, not least of which is the traditional witty cameo from Stan Lee, who sells a Spider-Man costume to Miles, saying that “it always fits. Eventually.” This line goes back to that idea of anyone can wear the mask. The fact he says that this young boy of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, adds real significance.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens a lot of doors for animation, superhero films and cinema in general and we eagerly wait for the sequel to be released on April 8th, 2022. Hopefully, someone else will have come up with an animated superhero film that is just as imaginative. As a Spidey fan since watching the 90s cartoon at an early age, I will continue to watch Spider-Verse over and over again until I get bored with it. And I don’t know when that’s going to be. And since Christmas is upon us, with the repetitive nature of Xmas tracks, let’s play some Spidey Bells to lift our spirits.