Forty years ago studio executives could not be moved to introduce a villain in Superman: the Movie that was the least bit more outlandish than Lex Luthor or General Zod. So, no Bizarro, no Mr. Mxyzptlk, no Toy Man, no Parasite. No Darkseid, nor his parademon hordes from the planet Apokolips. Executives looked down on comic books in general as silly kids’ stuff, pablum for idiots; a flying man in long underwear was about as much as their pocketbooks could stomach.
I mention that classic film, and the circumstances under which it was filmed, to underscore just how far the superhero genre has evolved since that time, to the point where we are now excited to see a superhero film – a cartoon, no less – that involves multiple, parallel universes and multiple, diverse versions of the same, very famous superhero. Can you imagine pitching such a project to executives in 1978?
Thankfully, it is 2018, and we live in a time where one of the year’s best films involves multiple dimensions and multiple Spider-Men, err, persons, err, organisms. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a triumph of original, dynamic storytelling and probably the greatest, most innovative tribute to the art form of comic books, period.
When this project was first announced, one could sense the world’s collective eye-roll and groan at the thought of yet another big-screen iteration of your friendly neighborhood web-slinger. In fifteen years the character has already been portrayed by three different actors. And besides which, wasn’t he busy hanging out with the Avengers now? What gives? Surely, the moviegoing public has had its fill of Peter Parker, right?
Well, that’s the thing. Into the Spider-Verse is not about Peter Parker. Not exactly, anyway.
This time our protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameikh Moore), a bright, fun-loving teenager with two loving parents, who is having trouble fitting in at his new school, who one day gets bitten by a very special arachnid and starts displaying the powers of . . . you know what, I’ll stop right there, because you already know that part. Things get weird when Miles witnesses a crazy reactor explosion and before long finds himself crossing paths with Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), but not the Peter Parker you already know. No, this is a beer-bellied, 40-year-old Spider-Man whose life is a monumental train wreck, and the last thing he wants is to train some gawky kid how to be the next Spider-Man. Problem is, Peter is something of a refugee; that reactor coughed him up from another earth, in another dimension, and very quickly he finds himself not feeling so great, coming to the conclusion that he has to find a way to get back to his home dimension before he, well, dies. And Miles is just the person to help him. Heaven help them both.
If that sounded like a lot, trust me, it is only a fraction of the madness that goes on in this ‘toon. There is soooo much I am not telling you right now. But comic fans, Spidey fans in particular, will have much to fawn over. Thankfully, though, this does not happen at the expense of getting your Average Joe Moviegoer engaged as well. There is something for everyone to enjoy here.
If you fancy yourself an animation buff, this thing is going to . . . I don’t know, do things to your brain. You have seen nothing which remotely resembles Into the Spider-Verse. Forget Pixar, Aardman, Laika, Illumination . . . this beast is one of a kind. For one thing, even though the cartoon is computer generated, the frame rate has been reduced, giving a vintage, not-quite-so-fluid quality to the way characters move; they’re just the right amount of “jerky.” If the movie has a signature style, it is in how four-color halftone printing technique is cleverly replicated and subtly laid into the surfaces of everyone and everything; you can actually see “printing dots” making up the textures of the characters’ faces, as well as other surfaces. Split screens are employed judiciously, to give off the impression of comic panels. The film is fearless in how experimental it gets with effects and accents; backgrounds turn into flat, hand-drawn art, for just an instant, during action sequences, and some elements of a shot will momentarily have an old-school red/blue double-vision 3D quality to them, for no apparent reason. This animation crew earned somebody’s trust and probably made a studio exec or two skittish along the way; this is a nervy, bold cartoon that dares you to dislike it (you won’t).
But all the tech and pretty pictures would mean nothing without a strong story, great characters and laser-precise comic timing, all of which this movie has in abundance. Jake Johnson proves once again why he’s your go-to for underachieving schlubs; his Peter is a curmudgeon, past his prime and, strangely, the exact kind of person Miles needs to learn from. And speaking of Miles, as a protagonist he is a real achievement; to become another Spider-Man, one we will root for, he had to be interesting enough to never invite comparisons to Classic Parker. Mission accomplished; once his world gets established – from his awkward high school existence to his loving, if occasionally contentious, relationship with his parents and an uncle he idolizes – not once will you regard him as a phony Spidey, a pretender to the throne. And ultimately that is the film’s overarching thesis: that anyone can wear the mask, that anyone can become their own hero.
Best comic book movie ever? Hmmmm, that’s a bold statement, but a strong argument can certainly be made. This is confident, free-spirited moviemaking, athletic in tone and with a warm, oversized heart at its center. It’s definitely the best Spider-Man movie ever, and watching it on the big screen is the best holiday gift you could give yourself this season.