Saturday, December 29, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

After the misfires that were the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films, and two out of three varyingly disappointing Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, what a treat it has been to see two films within a year and a half that perfectly capture much of what’s great about Spider-Man. These two films are of course Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and this year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (with special mention going to the 2004 Spider-Man 2, which is a superb overall film, if an inferior representation of the character).

Recently I compared Homecoming to Spider-Man 2 (which you can check out here), discussing what Homecoming finally gets right about the character, like his humor, the costume, his powers (and his excitement over them), and most importantly, the underlying humanity that makes him a relatable character, and how crime-fighting is often a burden on his personal life. Not only does Into the Spider-Verse get all of these things right as well, but it also explicitly calls attention to them through the circumstances of its plot, where five alternate-dimension Spider-People end up populating the world shared by the film’s primary Spider-Man hero, Miles Morales.

As these Spider-People interact, the film becomes very self-aware about the conventions and traits of Spider-Man, but this self-awareness is never treated with campy, winking cleverness or smug self-satisfaction, but is instead either genuinely funny or powerfully affecting, and sometimes both. For instance, after Miles loses his own version of Peter’s Uncle Ben, the Spider-People comfort Miles by describing how losing someone close to them affected them in similar ways.* The film is full of touching moments like this, where the various Spider-People marvel over the warm sense of inclusivity they feel over discovering others just like them. It’s here that Into the Spider-Verse creatively adds to the depictions of Spider-Man seen in other films: it puts a button on the sense of isolation Spider-Man can sometimes feel, while simultaneously helping the Spider-People overcome that isolation through their having shared it.

* This moment is largely played seriously, although it is mildly amusing when, after one of the Spider-People states that he lost his Uncle Ben, Spider-Man Noir obtusely follows up with, “For me it was my Uncle Benjamin.”

We can see this sense of isolation in the all three of the film’s main Spider-People, which include a version of Gwen Stacy who has become Spider-Woman, and an older, alternate-dimension Peter Parker. Gwen’s best friend (Peter) died, and she has avoided making friends ever since, while the older Peter lost Mary Jane when the stress of being Spider-man and his fear of raising a child came between them. However, this sense of isolation is clearest in Miles’s emotional arc. It’s evident in the scene where the other characters comfort him, but it’s perhaps even more affecting in terms of Miles’s efforts to become his own version of Spider-Man.

Newly empowered, Miles struggles with his control over his abilities throughout the film. Often his lack of control is played for laughs, like when his hands inconveniently stick to various objects (a familiar trope from all of the other Spider-Man origin stories we’ve seen in films over the years, although even here, the film is delightfully aware of it, as Miles turns to the first issue of a Spider-Man comic to figure out how to deal with the problem). However, late in the film, his lack of control motivates the other Spider-People to prevent him from joining them for the climactic fight; he’d be a liability rather than an asset. Thus even among a highly-exclusive in-group uniquely suited to understanding what he’s going through, Miles still feels isolated and alone. When he finally masters his powers and joins the others, his triumph is given poignancy, both through older Peter’s pride in Miles’s progress (itself reflective of older Peter’s arc in overcoming his fear of parenting), and though Gwen pointedly calling him Spider-Man before saying goodbye and returning to her own dimension. By bestowing the title on him, Gwen is effectively welcoming Miles into the ranks of the other Spider-People while also implicitly acknowledging the existence of a kinship that none of them ever thought they could share.

Perhaps the best examples of story beats played both for laughs and for poignancy involve the older version of Peter. As Peter describes his life to Miles, not only do we see him losing Mary Jane, but we also hear about him burying Aunt May, and falling into depression. His depression over Mary Jane is largely played for laughs: he cries in the shower while wearing his costume, and becomes too emotionally attached to a nature documentary about seahorses after learning that they mate for life. However, his loneliness also becomes poignant at various points, most notably when he, Miles, and Gwen go to the still-living version of Aunt May in Miles’s dimension. Earlier in the film, the Peter Parker version of Spider-Man in Miles’s dimension is killed, and thus when Aunt May and older Peter meet here, they are each encountering a loved one whom they thought they’d never see again. The scene is rife with pathos, at least until Aunt May begins to notice all of the unflattering differences between this older version of Peter and the in-his-prime version whom she knew. Likewise, later older Peter encounters the Mary Jane in Miles’s dimension at a fundraiser, and when she mistakes him for a waiter and asks for more bread for her table, he tries to apologize to her for his behavior toward his version of Mary Jane (while also masking it as an apology for failing to provide her table with bread).

Into the Spider-Verse also has the added advantage of being an animated film, thus granting it certain liberties in the depictions of its characters. This film has the best representation yet of Spider-Man’s spider sense, largely because it simply borrows from the comics by depicting it as wavy lines radiating from Spider-Man’s head. Likewise, some of the Spider-People are rendered in their own animation style: Spider-Ham is animated in a two-dimensional, hand-drawn cartoon style, while the Japanese-American Peni Parker and her mech SP//dr are drawn like Japanese anime characters (complete with a noticeably lower animation frame rate).

The film takes liberties with other character designs as well, particularly Kingpin, who resembles a cave troll more than a human being: he’s as wide as a pair of double doors, and features a hunchback so pronounced it appears as though his head is affixed firmly to the center of his chest. The animators have great fun with this character design, sometimes having his inky blackness take up half or more of the frame, all coming to a point in his tiny head.

In general, the film’s visuals are a delight: a neon-drenched color palate highlights cityscapes, slapstick comedy is effectively-timed throughout, and unlike the live-action films, the action scenes are unhampered by the need to make Spider-Man’s acrobatics resemble real-world physics. Instead, the film embraces the grace and dexterity of Spider-Man’s comic book representations, complete with contorted leaps, exaggerated poses, wild foreshortening, and other wonderful animation tricks (a great New York Times article discusses how the film's directors insisted on rethinking how to animate its characters). The film even takes a page from the comics in depicting characters’ thoughts as dialogue boxes, and in certain impactful moments, punches or leaps are accented with inserts of hand-drawn, comic book-like images in place of the regular, computer generated stylization that dominates the film. 

Overall, Into the Spider-Verse is a wonderful addition to the other existing Spider-Man films, one that functions as a sort of free play with the iconography, conventions, tropes, and traits that have become so familiar from Spider-Man’s pop culture saturation. The film shows that the ingredients can be mixed around and applied to different characters, settings, and situations and still be incredibly compelling, so long as the character’s relatable humanity remains at the core.

Other thoughts:

- Into the Spider-Verse is Miles Morales’s origin story, but that doesn’t stop the film from providing rushed montages for the origin stories of all of the other versions of Spider-Man in the film. These origin stories are perhaps the most reflexive parts of the film, given the many times we’ve seen this origin depicted in films over the past sixteen years, and the film knows it. Every time a Spider-Person reveals their origin, we see them splayed out on the cover of their own comic book at the start of the montage sequence that follows, where the character seems as tired of narrating his/her origin as viewers are likely of hearing it.

- The version of Spider-Man that begins the film as the Spider-Man of note in Miles’s dimension is in his prime, and has attained the kind of success our regular version of Peter Parker only fantasizes about, particularly in his possessing what is essentially a version of the Batcave underneath Aunt May’s house, complete with fancily-displayed alternate costumes, Spider-Man brand products, and what looks like a supercomputer. If Spider-Man’s failures and foibles are a part of what make him interesting, then it’s appropriate that the most successful version of the character is killed off early in the film.

- Miles Morales is the creation of Brian Michael Bendis, the main creative force behind Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics, which re-imagined and rebooted a lot of the familiar Marvel heroes in a way to make them more accessible for new readers. In the Ultimate line, Bendis eventually killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Morales, a move partly inspired by the election of Barack Obama and by Donald Glover’s campaign to audition for a then-upcoming Spider-Man film. I’ve never read comics featuring Morales, but Into the Spider-Verse shows him to be just as compelling a character as Parker, insofar as each of them struggle with insecurities and the problems created by being a superhero. More than this though, he's also significant for incorporating more diversity into comic book movies. For a good discussion of the importance of racial representation in this and other comic book films, check out this episode of The Comics Canon podcast featuring a crossover with VOX ATL. In a sneaky tribute, “B. Bendis” also appears as one of the contacts in Miles’s phone. 

- The film also creates humor by undercutting its own gravitas. One great example involves the spider bite that will empower Miles. When he's bitten, the film cuts to a shot of the radiation rapidly altering Miles's blood cells, complete with stirring music indicating his empowerment, only to cut away from this shot (and this music) to show Miles unceremoniously swatting the spider off his hand and exiting the frame.

- Even Kingpin gets his own sympathetic motivation for his behavior: he wants to open a portal to another dimension to steal away an alternate version of his deceased wife and son, who died in a car accident. It's always nice when stories provide sympathetic motivations for antagonists, as it gives the story more weight.

- I still have a few nitpicks. The spider that bites Miles seems to be from another dimension -- we see it glitch and scatter just like the alternate-dimension Spider-People do at various points. How, then, did it arrive in Miles's dimension even before Kingpin activated the dimensional portal? My second nitpick is that the film's final climactic moments seem a bit rote: all of the other Spider-People have returned to their dimensions, so Miles just beats up Kingpin and turns off the portal. Moreover, Kingpin seems to give Miles too much leeway to recover from a beating at one point, dumbly standing over Miles and doing nothing while Miles slowly gets up. Slight slip in the direction here.

- Even the Columbia logo at the start of the film gets in on the reflexive fun: in addition to the familiar modern one of a woman raising a torch, we also see flashes of past versions, as well as entirely made up ones, like one where the woman is a cowgirl shooting pistols into the air.

- Stan Lee makes an appearance here, as he does in all of the Marvel films, but his recent death makes his appearance bittersweet, especially because his brief conversation with Miles can be read as a comment about what it takes to be Spider-Man.

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