I thought I was through talking about movies and such for now (even if I was exaggerating a tad for dramatic effect), but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is so notable that it seemed worthy of giving, uh, note. Inasmuch as everyone and their mother is talking about this thing, I’ll try to keep things boiled down to the stuff which seems most salient for me.
A. Spider-Verse is my new favourite superhero movie by default. This is because I’ve never previously encountered a superhero movie that I’d feel comfortable appending “favourite” onto.
I love comics; I’ve even drafted more than a few bad comic book pages that I already feel kinda embarrassed about. But I’ve never been, specifically, into superhero comics. This can be an irksome position in that, at least as far as North America is concerned, the two are often synonymous. It’s like living in the 1930s-50s and really loving movies, but not being too crazy about all the cowboy flicks and John Wayne vehicles. You’re outta luck for being the statistical outlier.
Spider-Verse is the kind of movie that can make someone like me feel invested in superhero comics, in how it connects the joys of the superhero story to the joys of the comics medium itself.
The movie, with its multiverse conceit and multiple riffs on the Spider-Man origin story, is technically of a piece with the sort of meta, postmodern nudge-nudge-wink-wink pop culture schtick so popular these days; which acknowledges the audience’s trope-savviness and uses this as an excuse to paper over uninspired storytelling because, hey, the movie’s laughing along with the audience, get it?
Except that this isn’t really Spider-Verse’s schtick, because at its core is the coming-of-age story of the teenage Miles Morales, which uses the Spider-Man origin story as a metaphor for becoming a complete person and discovering one’s vocation. It deftly shows how arriving at this point involves all sorts of formative influences, from one’s unchosen family and societal/cultural milieu, to chosen heroes/role models/mentors and chosen roles. The protagonist must successfully navigate these things in order to arrive at who they are. The hero’s journey in this movie is an interior, cognitive one which happens as much in our lives as it does on the screen. Thus it is necessary that we see a plurality of Spider-People in the movie illustrating how this cognitive drama takes a variety of different forms, and that there is no monolithic, one-size-fits-all manner of doing it (and thus is the movie’s celebrated diversity angle an integral part of its own thematic concerns and not merely cheap posturing).
I cannot think of another big-budget movie which does this so well, and so well specifically within the contemporary pop-cultural context.
B. Spider-Verse is maybe, maybe my favourite animated movie to be released since Spirited Away all the back in 2001. It is, anyhow, one of the most visually distinctive animated movies I’ve ever seen.
This gets back to my earlier point about the movie linking its joys to the joys of the comic medium itself, and it does this through an overly literal attempt at transferring the aesthetic experience of reading a comic book onto film. The result is a hyper-stylized affair that continually holds in tension the flat, iconic look of the superhero comic and the three dimensional world of film, and it somehow completely works. It subverts the misguided idea that art must always strive for greater realism in order to become better, that the “comic book aesthetic” needs to be legitimated by being given a LOTR style production makeover. The only other animated movie that has been so visually distinctive in recent memory for me is Song of the Sea, and even that was held back a bit in its storytelling by some arguably crusty childrens’ movie cliches. Anyway, it makes The Incredibles 2 look like mush. And I really liked that one.
More to the point: in an age where every animated movie looks like the same CG goop, and where every live-action popcorn movie looks like, well, the same CG goop, Spider-Verse is proof that it doesn’t have to be this way. There doesn’t have to be some binary choice between distinctive-but-niche arthouse auteur affairs and bland, homogenized entertainment for the masses. You can make stunningly unique, aesthetically uncompromising popular art that is capable of resonating with a large audience.
You just have to try.