Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

For all the superhero films that have been released in the last decade there have been few that get things right.  Either the directors hate the source material, have no idea what to do with the characters, can't figure out how to present a decent villain or, when things get good, undercut themselves at every step.  The different series featuring Spider-Man, until recently, have had a bad habit of doing that.

Take the first two movies.  Sam Raimi, one of my favorite directors, makes a halfway decent first one, and then makes one of the best comic book films of all time with the second - only to throw together a muddy plot and Peter Parker doing a silly dance for the third.  Well, can't win them all, but I was sure Raimi, one of my favorite directors, could pull things together to make up for it.

In steps the studio, out goes Raimi, and in comes The Amazing Spider-Man - two dull movies, and a unnecessarily rebooted series put out of its misery before a third egg could be laid.  Then comes Spider-Man: Homecoming, rebooting the series yet again and finally connecting him with the Avengers, and following it up with another well-received film.  That is until Disney and Sony decided to do a web-measuring contest, which threw the whole thing into limbo while the two media giants duked it out.  It is almost as if the universe has it in for our favorite Arachno-American. 

That may be the case, and it may not just be this universe.  Into this whole back and forth stepped a new contender: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated tale of an inner city son of a police officer who suddenly finds himself taking on the responsibility for the safety of not just his home town, but also his entire dimension.

Peter Parker (Chris Pine) has been Spider-Man for awhile now in his particular world, which we are shown is quite similar (though different enough in many ways) to the one in which Sam Raimi's movies took place - even coming equipped with a well-deserved jab at the the third film.  As always, while New Yorkers go about their daily lives, Spidey is dealing with all sorts of strange bad guys and their nefarious plans.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), like all kids, idolizes Spider-Man.  While he doesn't come right out and show it, he also respects his dad Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) while also admiring his Uncle Aaron's (Mahershala Ali) relative freedom.  While his dad tries to teach him the value of education, his uncle tries to teach him how to be himself and live his dreams.  These have recently come into conflict as Miles has recently been accepted on a scholarship to a school for gifted students, suddenly taking him away from his friends and his familiar neighborhood and surrounding him with what he sees as hostile, or at least indifferent, strangers.

On an outing with his uncle he is bit by one of those radioactive spiders that seem to get around a bit.  When he starts displaying spider-like symptoms, he goes back to verify it was just a normal spider.  Unfortunately, it is not, and he also unwittingly stumbles upon a battle between Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and the Prowler.  It seems that the crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is trying to open a portal to another dimension, and Spider-Man is seriously concerned about the consequences.  He senses Morales is like him and enlists his help, but the boy is forced to flee with the Prowler in hot pursuit.

One of the consequences of opening up the portal is that it has allowed a number of other Spider-People - the mopey, dysfunctional Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy aka Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Spiderman Noir (Nicolas Cage), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and the anime-style Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her spider-powered robot sidekick.  As Morales begins to grow into his powers he must take quickly learn the ropes, as all the other versions need to get back to their dimensions or risk destruction.  It is also up to him to close the rift in reality for good and prevent Kingpin from destroying New York, and perhaps the world.

Spider-Man 3 was criticized for having too many villains, and I think that is partially a fair assessment, but an even better one is that it just piled on villains and gave them no reason for being there and nothing to do.  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gives us a full menagerie, but this time around it feels like there is a point to it.  All of them are in the employ of Kingpin and both the Prowler and Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn) have major roles within the plot.  In fact, Doc Ock's reveal is one of the best that I have seen in any of the superhero films.  Kingpin's reasons for trying to open a portal to another dimension are somewhat sympathetic, although obviously selfish, as he simply can't seem to understand that he is the reason things happened the way they did, and it's going to go the same way no matter what dimension he opens. 

That brings up a question I have been asking for awhile: if three villains in one movie can have a range of sympathies or bring up questions of what type of backstory they may have in that universe, why is it so hard for so many of the live-action films to come up with one good villain?  Ten years of Marvel films, and there are only Red Skull, Loki and Thanos that are truly memorable, multi-faceted villains.  DC hasn't really managed any, save the first couple of Tim Burton Batman films and Heath Ledger's take as the Joker - and even then it's two people playing different versions of the same character.  Many of these villains have as much history as the heroes do, and that is another thing I loved about seeing them introduced in Spider-Verse: after all these years it is assumed you know who they are, what they can do and what their motives are.  They are allowed to play off their history rather than messing with it too much, and that which is changed is specifically because we are looking at a different dimension than we have met them in before.

The animation in this is wonderful, attempting to make it look both like old-school comic books while also giving the people and the world a realistic vibe.  Even though it is PG, there are many more chances taken than in PG-13 films (in fact, only the lack of swearing probably saved it from that higher rating), and it really doesn't pull any punches or try hard to dumb things down.  People die, there are hard facts presented, and none of the heroes are perfect.  What is generally perfect, though, is the voice acting.  Everyone truly feels like they are interacting.  Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with Mary Hidalgo, managed to assemble a voice cast that gave what they could and invested their characters with the emotions that they needed to pull it off. 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also tends to overcome many of the problems about gender and race-swapping that a number of live-action films have been running into.  Making it clear that this alternative dimension will have some things different is a big part of it, but also making Miles Morales an everyday kid who by chance ends up with a world of responsibility on his shoulders does drive home the point that Lord, Miller and Morales's voice actor Shameik Moore wanted to make: it's not a special destiny that made Spider-Man a superhero, but pure chance, and it is ultimately up to whoever gets the power to use it wisely.  Since Alchemax, Kingpin's research company, doesn't seem too good at spider-wrangling, literally anyone could have ended up being bitten.  It's something this movie has been rightfully praised for, although it is kind of ironic that this film gets praised for the same point Star Wars: The Last Jedi tried to make, and in fact does many of the same things.  Perhaps, despite what people might want to think, comic book fans may be a tad more grown up and accepting than others.

Which, again, brings me back to the point that the live action films need to take a hint from this film and move beyond doing the same stories over and over again.  Make the heroes someone we can identify with, and make the villains more than just an obstacle that shoots lights and makes threats.  Even if Morales never becomes part of the official Avengers universe, I do hope that we get to see more of him, even in just animated form, as he continues to grow into his role.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Time: 117 minutes
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Liev Schreiber, Kathryn Hahn, Mahershala Ali, Bryan Tyree Henry
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman


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