Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing

Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Writer: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman

Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the mad geniuses behind such family-friendly works as The LEGO Movie and such adult comedy turns as 21 Jump Street, seem to have made breaking all the rules and conventions of modern cinema into an art form all their own.  Almost anything they set their mind to appears on the stage with no irony and no apologies. They know what they are, they present themselves as such, and leave the audience to accept or reject as they will. I can’t help but respect that kind of gumption, so anytime I see one or both of their names behind just about anything, my interest is fastened.

Into the Spider-Verse is no exception. At first glance, it seemed like something better suited for the direct-to-video fare, but so did The LEGO Movie, and look how that turned out. It could be said that the ostensibly unassuming presentation was used both to lull us into a false sense of security ladened with conventional expectations for the team to upend as well as a means of setting the stage for reflective commentary on the thematic dimensions of the work itself.  Let’s just say I was more eager for this viewing than I had for most other superhero film releases recently.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Intense large-scale action violence/destruction/explosions and close-up fighting/confrontation, nearly always between a Spider-person and enemies (monsters, bad guys, etc.). Frequent suspense/peril and potential for mortal danger. Chases, pursuits, narrow escapes; multiverse portal dangerously destabilizes the city. For the most part, superhero powers/laser-type weapons are used for fights/combat, but an actual gun is used to injure/kill a few characters. And (spoiler alert!) characters do die: Not only does one Peter Parker/Spider-Man die at the hands of a supervillain fairly early in the film, but so does an important secondary character later on. In quick flashbacks, various Spideys share whom they’ve lost; a villain’s personal losses are also shown.

Language/Crude Humor: “What the…” (unfinished), “crap,” “hell,” “dang,” and “freakin’”.

Sexual Content: Miles flirts with Gwen using a “shoulder touch” move he learns from his Uncle Aaron. They later make eyes at each other but don’t go further than hugging.  A married couple embraces.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Some youths get in perilous situations against their parents’ wishes.

Positive Content:  Strong messages about friendship, mentoring, perseverance, the importance of power and responsibility, and working with others for the greater good. Characters must learn both to trust themselves and to rely on others. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith to succeed.

Miles, like Peter Parker before him, actively works to find his place in a world where he’s got powers only other Spider-people can understand. Miles is courageous, committed to doing the right thing, even when it puts him at risk. Miles’ parents are supportive, encouraging, make it clear they have high expectations but also love him unconditionally. Peter, Gwen Stacy, other Spider-people each have talents, strengths they share with the group. Peter particularly helps train and mentor Miles–and learns something about teamwork and selflessness.

Review

Where both animation and Spider-Man are concerned, our frenemies at Sony have been dropping the ball more often than not.  Sure I’ve caught wind of a particular friendly neighborhood hero making a splash on the PS4 recently, but aside from that, what have they done for us? On film, Spidey hasn’t been anything impressive since 2004 (which, yes, was fourteen years ago as of the time of this writing), with his legally uneasy venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe be something approaching an exception, but certainly not a credit to Sony in any meaningful way.

Business being business, it’s perfectly clear that Sony needs to do something in order to justify the iron grip they have on Spidey’s film rights, lest the folks and the Mouse House start asking for their toys back. Not an easy feat, given that they’ve tried just about everything they could, especially after those milquetoast-to-retched films starring Andrew Garfield. What was needed at this point for this franchise more than anything was a fresh pair of eyes with a daring soul behind them to revitalize the energy and panache that everyone’s favorite wallcrawler is known for.

As fate would have it, Sony managed to get their feelers out on two noteworthy pairs of eyes to do just that. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the visionaries who gave us The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street, came onto the scene with a markedly unique way not only of seeing things but of doing things. Ever since they had their brief day in the sun with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, they made it clear they came to play in a way few would even consider, let alone attempt.

For me, arguably their most impressive capability is to turn what is almost universally considered an inalienable weakness in the essential fabric of the film and somehow make it into its greatest strength. Sure, The LEGO Movie seems like little more than a feature-length advertisement for the LEGO brand. In fact, in many ways, it is exactly that. But it makes no apologies for being so, and still manages to tell an effective and affecting family-friendly story with that seemingly cynical vision in mind. It’s straight up alchemy, I tells ya.

With Sony and Spider-Man, there’s enough material for mockery and self-deprecation to be had for days on end. This is not an area of storytelling to which Lord and Miller (their names together would make a good name for either a beer or a law firm, now that I think on it…) are in any way adverse. If The LEGO Batman Movie is an indication of anything, it would seem these guys have self-aware humor down to a science. With that established, it should be no surprise that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has more than enough meta to satiate the internet trolls who only seem to be able to comprehend that sort of comedy.

Never let it be said that Lord and Miller are ones to cave to the asinine nihilism to which an unbridled cynic all too often falls prey. There is a heart to all their productions that actually has something meaningful behind the bite and farce, and Into the Spider-Verse is one of the most well-polished and refined examples in their entire oeuvre. I’m tempted to call it their finest work to date.  At the very least, it’s the best Spidey film since Sam Raimi’s turns over a decade ago.

It should be stated from the outset that, yes, this is another origin story. Thankfully, it is not Peter Parker’s origin story. The screenplay, penned by Lord and Rodney Rothman, recognizes and respects the audience’s familiarity with everything about Uncle Ben, and great power, and great responsibility, and what have you. “You already know the rest” is a recurring statement. In the midst of the expected self-effacement, there is a level of style and flare to the whole project rarely seen outside of an episode of The Amazing World of Gumball.

“What it lacks in substance, it makes up for with style” is a statement I’ve had to make far too often in my history of critical thought. Thankfully, the trio of directors here are professional and daring enough to ask the dangerous question, “¿Por qué no los dos?” Unorthodox camera maneuvers, candidly chosen audio clips from side characters to accentuate the protagonist’s inner thoughts, effective and appropriate use of comic-style panels and compositions; the film is just bursting to the seams with ingenuity of execution.

If not Peter Parker’s, then whose story is it? It turns out that in the comics a few years ago, a young Afro-Latino boy from Brooklyn named Miles Morales was introduced as the new big web-slinger in town. He was such a hit with the reader base, that his version of New York went on to be carried by Marvel as the new official canon. It is young Morales, here played by Dope star Shameik Moore, who gets the lion’s share of development and attention.

His is an enviable life for one of his position. His father, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), is an NYPD cop with an unshaken sense of duty, and his mother Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez) is a nurse with a solid grip on her position as the glue holding her small family together. With all the good that the MCU has done for its viewers, it is fair to ask whether it’s too much to get more superhero fare for the younger crowds–ones for whom the brash vulgarity and college dorm room-style debauchery of the Guardians is less than suitable. With Into the Spider-Verse, such an offering now acts as a clarion call to all other studios with similar film rights. A comical scene from the trailers depicting Miles’ first day at a new boarding school shows in one stroke just how enormously blessed he his as well as being riotously funny.

Miles’ regular mild-mannered life is compelling and interesting enough on its own. Even without a radioactive eight-legged creepy crawly eventually doing what it does and adding another layer of complication to his life (or two…or three…), I could see a very rewarding narrative experience from him, his family, and his friends. With that being said, this is still a superhero flick, and things gotta get shaking in that direction.

Much like Peter, Miles shares an intimate relationship with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), but one that enables his creative activity of graffiti and sticker patching the city. Needless to say, its a hobby that his dad would not approve of under usual circumstances, and the eventual development of this arrangement sends young Miles into a tailspin of heroism and villainy that he never would have expected. To make things a bit more unnerving, it turns out that Miles’ world already has a Spider-Man (Chris Pine), and one who is best suited to guide our young hero into his newfound life of wall-crawling and crime-fighting. Thanks to the villainous efforts of a giant-sized version of the Green Goblin, Miles will be finding help in a more unconventional and less desirable way.

Pretty soon, the identity of the “one and only Spider-Man” becomes a lot less “one and only” fairly quickly. Thanks to some interdimensional finagling by the local mob boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), a bevy of other spider-folk make their way into the drama with varying levels of charm and charisma to earn their keep. The first to whom we are properly introduced is another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), but one who’s largely come down on his luck and is fairly disenchanted with the idea of hero work.  Already among Miles’ group of new acquaintances at the boarding school is the headstrong and slick Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who makes quick work as a fan favorite, both here and from the comics. It is these three who mainly hold up the story, but more otherworldy web-slinging mishaps stumble onto the stage.

Nicholas Cage delivers everywhere it counts as the shady “Noir” Spider-Man, operating only in black and white except where Rubik’s cubes are concerned. Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) comes straight out of a G-rated version of Ghost in the Shell complete with a rad spider-bot with which she shares a psychic link. The scene-stealer was certainly John Mulaney’s turn as Peter Porker/Spider-Hog, who, yes, has been an actual character in the Marvel canon since 1983–LONG before that one-off gag in The Simpsons Movie, thank you very much.

Like Lord and Miller’s magnum opus, all this might seem at first glance to be overstuffed. It can be said that it is in some places, but never once does the film forget that this is first and foremost Miles Morales’ story. What was particularly satisfying to me is that young Miles’ struggling with his newfound ability and identity was believably rendered across the whole plot. He doesn’t immediately become a honed master over his powers overnight (especially since his array of powers includes some tricks that the other spideys lack), but stumbles and trips over them as much as he did over his place at the boarding school. The development is palpable and believable. It really begs to be seen more than once.

I honestly wonder again how these guys manage to deliver solid and rewarding character drama alongside all the expected meta humor with such confidence and aplomb. I don’t mind a good deconstruction comedy every now and again, especially when it’s called for. One of my favorite flicks this year was Teen Titans GO! To the Movies, and that was nothing if not a multi-dimensional deconstruction derby of self-effacement.

With that said, one could reasonably feel a bit underserved by the total lack of any real drama, stakes, or payoff going on there. Into the Spider-Verse gives us the best of both worlds. As irreverent as the film is towards what Spider-Man has become in recent years, it has all the reverence in the world for what he should be at heart. Top that off with arguably the most effective Stan Lee cameo of them all, and you’ve got a work that is more than worthy of praise and patronage.

What’s more is that all the side characters earn their place by accentuating the story without ever detracting from it. Aunt May is here realized as a tough-as-nails tech maestro voiced by none other than Lily Tomlin (Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus) and helps to kick everybody into gear when needed. The Doc Ock of Miles’ plane of existence is a genderbent mad scientist voiced by Kathryn Hahn who wound up being a lot more fun than I expected. Honestly, the only major player here who feels rather lukewarm is Kingpin. Sure, his background is fleshed out enough to give weight to his motivations, but only barely, and not in any way with which we’re not already familiar. He serves his purpose, but in a rather perfunctory manner.

What is it about Lord and Miller that they so consistently give us the breath of fresh air we so often need? And how do they manage to persuade the producers to let them have a go at it time and again? Into the Spider-Verse has redefined what an animated movie, and superhero blockbuster movie, and a Spider-Man movie can be all in one fell swoop. The term “leap of faith” becomes a mantra spoken in times of resolution throughout the movie. It could be seen as Lord and Miller giving a backhanded admonition to the film industry as a whole. Perhaps some more daring productions would do us all some good. At the very least, this was the first time in a VERY long time that I’ve actively yearned for a follow-up or a sequel to a Spider-Man movie (one has been greenlit, thank God).

It’s clear these guys want you to expect a sequel as well, considering the after credits scenes (PLURAL). I strongly suggest you keep around for both of them, dear reader. You won’t be disappointed.

Positives

+ Brilliant writing + Style AND Substance + Effective handling of multiple character threads + Demands and justifies a sequel

Negatives

- Villain doesn’t work very well

The Bottom Line

Lord and Miller, continue working your magic.

 

9.2

Tyrone Barnes

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