A Spiderverse of Possibility
By Jordan Bosch
Miles Morales was created in 2011 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli as a way of bringing some diversity to Marvel Comics and to rejuvenate the Spider-Man hero.
The Black Hispanic teenager who picks up the mantel of Spider-Man was received warmly by many, including the late Stan Lee; though some reacted to his addition to the Marvel canon with disapproval, to put it lightly.
They cried the usual complaints that hold no water about political correctness without understanding what this meant for the kids who actually read Spider-Man comics, kids from backgrounds unlike theirs who recognize and resonate with this Spider-Man in a way they never did with Peter Parker. Diversity matters in the stories and characters we consume, and no movie illustrates that quite as well as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, appropriately enough, Miles Morales’ first movie.
Produced by The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Into the Spider-Verse seemed like a strange project since its announcement. Sony already had a Spider-Man in Tom Holland, and one who with his connection to the MCU had a lot of promise going forward. So developing a new Spider-Man movie in animation, concurrent to that seemed like an unusual and confusing move. Yet as Into the Spider-Verse makes clear, there are tons of Spider-People across the spectrum of Marvel Comics, and who’s to say their stories aren’t as worth telling as Peter Parkers’?
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a New York teenager struggling to fit in at his new prep school. Against the wishes of his police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry), he spends a lot of time with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages his graffiti art. When he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and subsequently witnesses the death of Spider-Man, he tries without much success to take up the role of the friendly neighbourhood hero. But as a result of a catastrophic scientific experiment conducted by the villain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) gone wrong, parallel universes have been opened on Miles’ dimension, and an alternate older Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) emerges to become his teacher, as well as a few other Spider-people from across the multiverse.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that took so much unbridled joy in being a comic book movie. Certainly it’s the most unashamed of the comic book style since Ang Lee’s Hulk, incorporating panel transitions, thought balloons, and establishing text, though cleverly only after Miles is bitten. It really delights in being able to be big and weird too, and is more stylish than any movie from either Marvel or DC, with some sequences looking like they come from an Edgar Wright film (Scott Pilgrim most notably of course).
A lot of this comes down to the animation, which is magnificent. Like The Peanuts Movie it manages to find a great medium between CG and something approximating traditional animation, yet it’s completely its own, capable of being vibrant and stark, dark and rough, downright surreal, and accommodating to different styles; which becomes necessary for the introductions of Spider-Noir (a perfect Nicolas Cage), looking like something out of a Frank Miller comic, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and SP//dr, who are anime, and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), animated like a Looney Tune. All of these characters, as disparate as they are, work great, and the film is that much more visually impressive for their presence. This is an extremely energized movie, quick and sharp in its action scenes but never losing focus. The team fights could rival any of those from anyAvengers film. And every frame seems to be in motion, rich with creativity and detail -it’s genuinely some revolutionary technique on display.
All of this would be wonderful on its own, but Into the Spider-Verse is also telling Miles Morales’ story, and does an excellent job with that. Due to exceptionally economic characterization, you quickly understand his insecurity and his family dynamic, so that when he’s trying with difficulty to be Spider-Man you know why he’s so motivated without having to say anything. Shameik Moore truly gives an impassioned performance too. As for Jake Johnson, he’s great as the older Spider-Man, a divorced, cynical bum with little real passion or interest in mentoring Miles. It’s such a different interpretation of Peter Parker, and I love that it’s not entirely taken as a joke, as the temptation might have been. The film emphasizes the real personal drama he’s been through. Hailee Steinfeld is superb as Gwen Stacy (Spider-Woman or Spider-Gwen, whichever you prefer), certainly a break-out character with the most awesome suit of the bunch. Henry and Schreiber give their characters unexpected depth, Ali is great (better here than in Green Book), and the cast also features Chris Pine, Kathryn Hahn, Zoe Kravitz, and Lily Tomlin.
The message of the movie is a powerful one, and it’s intrinsically tied to that theme of why diverse representation is important. Each incarnation of Spider-Man has something different to offer in their story, abilities, personalities, and convictions, but they’re all heroes. And they all can exist simultaneously and in harmony. It’s a very touching sentiment -almost as touching as Stan Lee’s cameo which in light of his death, is much more meaningful and poignant -his best one.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse celebrates comic books like few other comic book movies have. Its’ style, animation, creativity, performances, writing, and strong humour make it the best animated movie of the year, and the most fun I’ve had in a movie this year. But it’s love of the medium it’s adapting and earnest encouragement of opening up its multiverse to all, actually makes me want to read some of these series and further get to know these diverse characters and stories. And I’m not a comics fan, so for a film to do that, it’s something special!