I didn’t think it was possible for me to be this genuinely excited by a comic-book movie anymore. Even when they’re really gripping and really engaging — like, say, the grim noirish grit of Logan; or the sci-fi soap opera of the Avengers saga, the next installment of which I do eagerly await — they’ve ceased being truly surprising in that way that fans of science fiction (which is what superhero stories are, after all) like me crave. Often they lack the thrill of their pulpy roots, when writers and artists could dare to be weird or experimental because the financial stakes were comparatively low, a new story would be starting in a few weeks anyway, and the readers were up for anything.
But this? Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has a verve that few big-budget movies seem to be able to muster at the moment. It doesn’t feel focus-grouped or corralled by marketing executives into a watered-down box designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, nor does it feel calculated to sell as much merch as possible... and yet, not ironically, this is probably what will guarantee that it ends up beloved by parents and kids, geeks and nongeeks alike. (It also offers at least as many options for pushing made-in-China plastic crap with logos and characters slapped on it as other superhero flicks, too. So that’s good? *sigh*) It’s not that Spider-Verse doesn’t do all the things a primarily moneymaking movie venture should, if you were looking at this from purely an accounting perspective. It just does it in a way that is incredibly fun and fresh and that legitimately engages with its source material on the levels of story, visuals, and mythology all at once. What’s more, it succeeds in doing all of that without, I think, alienating those who come to it with little foreknowledge.
I feel confident in saying this because I’m somewhere in the middle: sorta aware of the larger mythology around the Spider-Man character but not deeply steeped in it. I’m sure there are nods to the superfans that I missed here, and I’m sure there are little details I delighted in that will slip by more casual viewers. Yet I feel certain that anyone with even only the barest inklings about how franchise storytelling and iconic characters work will grasp the big picture here enough to be supremely entertained by it.
Like, it doesn’t matter whether you come into the film knowing that there’s a whole subset of Spider-Man stories featuring not Peter Parker from Queens as the bitten-by-a-radioactive-insect vigilante crimefighter, but Miles Morales from Brooklyn as same. If you hadn’t already heard about the concept of multiple universes, Spider-Verse will clue you in, quickly and slyly and without stopping the fast-paced plot in its tracks. (Geekery for beginners!) And of course everyone who goes to the movies is familiar with the notion of rebooting and remaking, which comes in for an almighty meta snarking here. So anyone is ready for teen Miles (the voice of Shameik Moore) to get bitten, get powers, fumpher around trying to get a grip on them... and then encounter other versions of Spider-Man from other universes, all brought together because superbaddie crime boss Kingpin (the voice of Liev Schreiber) has mad-scienced a universe-hopping atomic collider right there in the middle of New York City for nefarious (and yet potentially heartbreaking) reasons of his own, and now the barriers between universes are breaking down. All of multiverse reality is threatened, unless the many various Spider-Mans can work together to stop Kingpin and his machine. (The entirely terrific voice cast includes a lot of big names: Nicolas Cage, Lily Tomlin, Chris Pine, Kathryn Hahn, Mahershala Ali, Hailee Steinfeld, and Zoë Kravitz.)
In so many ways, this is the best animated movie of the year. Perhaps the best in several years. For one big thing, it does something new, something uniquely animated with its animation. This is not an animated movie that is concerned with photorealism, with trying to look like it isn’t animated. This is a digitally animated movie, but the texture here is that of print — the moire patterns of cheaply printed pulp comics — and that of hand-drawn — the wild pop of 90s anime — and other nondigital vibes, sourced from the inspirations for the multiple alt-Spideys we meet here, as well as the reality-shaking proposition that one universe may not be enough. Visual styles collide here like universes collide: in a way that’s at once dangerous and synergistic, complementary yet clashing, the familiar suddenly tinged with the strange. If animated movies seem to have forgotten just how visually adventurous they can be, Spider-Verse is a huge honking smack of a reminder.
Spider-Verse isn’t sparking only with visual wit but with the verbal kind, too. The screenplay is by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, the former of Lord and Miller, the team that brought us the wildly inventive Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies, The Lego Movie, and the delightfully bonkers Jump Street reboots; Rothman contributed to the script for 22 Jump Street. All that same cleverness and sharp comic awareness of how formulaic movies can be subverted and embraced at the same time is on display here, too. (This makes me sad and angry all over again that Lord and Miller didn’t get finish doing their thing with the Han Solo movie.) But there’s a new element at ingenious play, too, with the movie’s multiverse conceit: it means that all bets are off, and we can trust none of our instincts about what movies can and cannot do. What does it mean, for instance, if there’s more than one titular hero present? Can a Spider-Man be defeated if there are other Spider-Mans around to continue the fight? It comes as an unsettling but absolutely electrifying realization that you literally cannot anticipate what will happen next. It feels like discovering storytelling anew.
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