BEST OF 2018: The Unique Vision of SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
As the year rounds itself out, I’m taking a look at some of the best movies 2018 had to offer, many of which (though not all) will land somewhere on my top ten of the year. Some of these are reviews, but many are just some thoughts about what I responded to about the movie and why it stayed with me this year. This is the 13th in a series of entries. The last few were for First Man, Bad Times at the El Royale and Roma.
I’m a Spider-Man fan but I’m not one for endless Spider-Man origin stories. I love the first hour of Raimi’s Spider-Man specifically because it handles the origin story about as well as anyone could have. And I love the entirety of the second film, which I think still ranks among the best in the genre. The third Raimi film was a failure of over-ambition. After that movie disappointed, however, I was kind of done with Spider-Man at the cinema. My favorite character was best enjoyed on the page.
Only I loved Tom Holland’s portrayal of Peter Parker so much in Civil War that I totally bought into the reboot Marvel concocted. I skipped the two Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies, mainly because I felt the body of Raimi’s trilogy was still warm and it didn’t appear there were many new or interesting ideas in that short-lived reboot (right or wrong, it looked like a cheap cash grab). What was clear, however, was that Homecoming — with that Tom Holland take on the character — would be something different.
Homecoming had the benefit of being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it also made some important decisions on its own — the best one being to yada-yada much of the origin story (the importance of this decision cannot be stated enough). Like Spider-Man 2 before it, coming out of Homecoming, I wasn’t sure I could enjoy a Spider-Man movie more. They were both, in their own and very different ways, peak Spider-Man.
Enter Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a cinematic experience exploding with ideas and vision — a worthy addition to the Mount Rushmore of Spider-Man movies. The screenplay is clever in its gags and has a sharp understanding of Spider-Man’s and the different adaptations place in the culture. It knows full well audiences are sick of origin stories, specifically Spider-Man origin stories and it uses that knowledge to not only garner laughs, but to double-down on the origin tale as a much-discussed juxtaposition to previous lore.
The animation is unconventional and it’s bold. The makers made a real choice to animate their film in a way that (at times) nudges the audience towards what they should be looking at and when. There is a depth to it and there are rules to the way it plays with that depth. The closer we get, the clearer the pixelated hallmarks of the old, conventional mass-generated comic book seem to get. Backgrounds are blurred with images echoing each other in ways that makes you wonder, Wait, was I suppose to get a pair of 3-D glasses? This, admittedly, may not work for everyone and that’s part of what is so exciting about this venture. Not everyone will be on board with the animation (I’ve even read takes that hate it), but it has integrity and with that comes respectability. For the rest of us, we’re too busy being wowed by it.
Also, the movie is very, very funny and the really cool thing about its humor is that it’s funny in a very different way than Homecoming. Amid the rapid pace of a chaotic morning, we are introduced to Miles Morales and his family and by the time Miles walks into his new high school I was completely on board with Miles, his dad and his mom. The dynamics between Miles and his family are completely different from the ones between Peter Parker and Aunt May in Homecoming (which, in turn, was completely different from Tobey Maguire’s Parker and Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May).
And at this point, this movie is just getting started. The central concept of the film — where variations of the “Spider-Man” from different dimensions all convene in Miles’s reality — is more than a little hokey and shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does.
Consider what we’re dealing with: Spider-Man Noir (a trench coat-donning take on the character from a noirish, black-and-white dimension and voiced by Nicholas Cage), Spider-Gwen (an un-fridging, alternate universe take on Gwen Stacy, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Parker (the Spider-Man in Miles’s universe voiced by Chris Pine), Peter B. Parker (a slightly crappier version of Chris Pine’s Spider-Man, voiced by Jake Johnson), Spider-Ham (the secret identity of talking pig, Peter Porker, as voiced by John Mulaney), and Peni Parker (a sort of anime-version of the Spider-Man legend whose back story is so weird I will leave it to the film to explain)…
This movie is, on one level, insane. Yet all of these bizarre characters and concepts never take away from the heart of the narrative which focuses on Miles coming to grips with his new role and powers. There is a consistent and grounded emotional thread that keeps everything in perspective. This is going to sound silly, but I was enthralled.
Credit the production team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with their directors, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman for blending the story and vision and creating something as entertaining and unique as Into the Spider-Verse.
The voice work is fantastic across the board but special kudos to Bryan Tyree Henry (a 2018 MVP contender), Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson and Shameik Moore. I hope to see a whole lot more of the Morales Spider-Man and their contributions are a big reason why.
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