Review – Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)

After appearing in eight live-action blockbuster films since his debut in 2002, including his latest incarnation in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man Homecoming, and Avengers: Infinity War, and showcasing the character masterfully in interactive form in this year’s Marvel’s Spider-Man on PlayStation 4, I could easily see how someone might think there is little else left to do with Spidey that hasn’t already been done yet. If we were to firmly hold on that opinion, we would be proven so wrong by the character’s first foray into animated feature films, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and it would all dissipate even in the opening credits. Fresh, fun, and funny are all descriptors that fit this true marvel of a film snugger than any Spider-Suit, and in being these things, this film gives me immediate anticipation for a world of Spider-films that I didn’t think possible.

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While all other Spider-Man motion pictures have focused squarely on Peter Parker, this film centers on a character that mainstream audiences may not know that well: Miles Morales (voiced very well by Shameik Moore, an actor unfamiliar to me prior to this). A young student bitten by a radioactive spider, he sounds almost identical to Peter in a quick descriptor, but Miles has some distinctions. With a mixed heritage, Miles has an African-American father and a Latina mother, which should let you know just this far into it that he’s distinct. Miles struggles with knowing who he wants to be. His father, Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Moore) is a cop who only wants the best for his son, but Miles relates easier to his uncle, Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali), who encourages the artistic (albeit illegal) graffiti tags of his nephew. His times sneaking out of his private school to go tagging in the subway system lead him to happen upon a massive fight between Spider-Man (Chris Pine) and a massive Green Goblin that collides with a particle accelerator built by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).

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That collision upsets the very nature of space and time, and because of it, a confluence of other heroes find their way into Miles’ world: one of whom is Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, further establishing himself here as a great deliverer of comedy). While we are used to seeing Parker either young or in his prime, this Spidey has seen better days and hasn’t seen a gym in a while. He’s not alone; we also meet Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her SP//dr mech, and the truly absurd Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Each is just trying to get back home to their respective planes of existence, but it may take every hero, including the young Miles, to make that happen.

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I’ll leave the story at that, in order to avoid spoilers, but I will say that was so impressed with how it told a story with so much going on. It’s no small feat to see an animated feature that children will actively want to see go that strongly into the complexities of bringing so many character types together and come out a winner. A consistent tone can be especially difficult to pull off in franchise films trying to sell to every denominator of the audience, but this film knows exactly what it wants to be, whether you’ve ever seen anything like it or not. After being incredibly underwhelmed by Sony‘s handling of the recent Venom film, I held out thoughts that they don’t know what they are doing on their own, apart from Marvel. It was entirely possible that this entire film could implode, but it was consistently entertaining, visually and thematically in its story.

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I did see this film in 3D, but even thinking about it outside of that, there is so much to be said about the animation process that this entire film is built upon. It’s truly stunning to witness this film’s particular style. Word is that Sony is looking to patent their processes used to create the film, but whatever happens along those lines, they are truly onto something here that is special. The slightly stuttered frame rate, Ben-Day dot coloring, bright light patterns, and so much more come together in granting a palpable visual energy that is simultaneously new, yet familiar, in its capturing of natural movement. Even more impressive is that energy carries over even in still-shots, and we probably now have the most impressive visualization of Spider-Sense ever. Conversations even feel better here than they do in many animated features. Scenes are staged in ways that turn things wrong side up, and just as you get used to something, the filmmakers change the positioning of characters, even while never making things unrecognizable or disorienting. Add to that the artistic usage of speech bubbles and onomatopoeia at every place possible, and you get the distinction of being something that feels like nothing we’ve ever seen before. In a similar but far more impressive way, it’s like Phil Lord and Christopher Miller‘s other foray into children’s entertainment, The Lego Movie. The level of detail that they go to in making it feel different is impressive and appreciated.

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Musically, the film includes licensed rap music alongside its score, and all of it absolutely fits. I can’t recall another comic-book movie that plays even on the same court of what they are doing here, but it all works magically here. The closest that comes to mind is Kendrick Lamar on Black Panther, but even there, we don’t have the level of collaboration amongst a variety of artists. I haven’t been compelled to buy a film soundtrack in quite a while, but with this, I’m finding it really hard to say no. Just like the visuals, it makes a very, very deep impression, and it’s a welcome change from the usual scores we get with hero films.

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My minor criticisms would be on the film’s villains, and the adage goes that a film is only as good as they are. Coming off of Vincent Donofrio‘s stellar take on the Kingpin on Marvel’s Daredevil series, it’s a shame when the most distinct take away here is the exaggerated build of the character. There are a number of other villains that assemble as well, but discussing beyond that is a trip to the spoiler zone. Let’s just say they’re a mixed bag. The heroes provide the most laughs, and while the current target with hero films seems to increase the laugh-per-minute ratio (whether it fits or not), I didn’t feel that was the case here. Every joke came naturally, albeit amidst a world and circumstances that were highly unnatural. I’d rather be smiling throughout than laughing when it feels unnatural to the source material, and this film held balance here.

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Content-wise, there seemed to be some mild language in some lyrics and dialogue. Expect nothing in regards to inappropriate sexual content, and while there is the typical fighting of a comic-book film, there was nothing excessive with violence, outside of the well-handled death of a character. Violence isn’t reveled in as it is with other films, and maybe that’s because the visuals are packing the punch that they do. Thematically, the boy coming-of-age story may seem played out on paper, but there is some interesting nuance to Miles’ relationship with his father and uncle that makes it involving to watch. Additionally, Peter, Gwen, and the group provide a mentor group for Miles that is much needed as he struggles with his powers. With each coming from a different life entirely, I drew upon the diversity of their group for a FREE Bible Study for Geeks Under Grace that I will link here when published. It’s great to see such mix of animation styles and character personalities somehow fit so well together, and to me, it can act as illustration for how different individuals can work together for Christ.

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All-in-all, I found myself really involved with this film. It obviously opens the door for much more to come potentially from animated Spider-Verse films (stick around after the credits to see why), and I am totally down for that after this. The tribute at the end for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made me emotional all over again, and only through their creation of the character could we have the celebration of it that is here. With style for Miles, this film carves a unique place in the pop-culture landscape, honoring what came before while still being entirely its own thing. It will be interesting to see how mass audiences take to it with its reality-bending premise, but if they can strap in and hang-on, they are in for a real treat!

9.25

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