Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
Animation can be extraordinary. The powers of imagination that it unlocks are infinite, and the variety of styles and aesthetics the medium can produce are endless. The scholar Lev Manovich even goes as far as to create a persuasive argument around the idea that live-action cinema has just been a popular stage in the history of animation-as-entertainment, and that digital cinema has opened up a whole new universe of possibilities to would-be filmmakers/animators.[i] Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, 2018) is a good example of these possibilities. It is a film that looks unlike any other, transforming the aesthetic of a comic book and putting it up onto our cinema screens, infusing every shot with a specked, cartoonish beauty that captures some of the essence of the childish adoration and nostalgia for comic books in glorious visual style. It is a movie of great beauty, and this undoubtedly accounts for many of the positive reviews it has received since it became a surprise hit upon its release. My experience of the film is not quite so glowing, though I recognise that this is down to the ever-relevant factor of expectation – the overwhelmingly positive reviews raising my expectations to a level that Spiderverse could not quite reach.
Another part of my disappointment is down to the fact that this is basically just yet another rehashing of the Spiderman origin story. This Spiderman is not Peter Parker but Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), and there are many new characters and altered details, but nevertheless, it is the story of an innocent kid being bitten by a radioactive spider, and having to accept that his power brings new responsibilities. And the first half drags. We get it, he’s a kid with a lot on his plate already. We get it, he struggles at first to adapt to his new powers and can’t control his sticky hands. We’re just waiting for the bits we’ve seen before to be over so we can get to the part which is truly original to Spiderman on film: the multiverse. And that’s when the film comes into its own, throwing all kinds of ingenious ideas and characters into the mix. Some of them are exciting – the possibility of multiple Peter Parkers (Jake Johnson and Chris Pine) and Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) all inhabiting the same world and interacting with each other. Others are quirky and hilarious – with an anime version of Spiderman (Peni Parker, voiced by Kimiko Glenn), the childishly drawn pig Peter Porker (John Mulaney) and Noir Spiderman (the one and only Nicolas Cage). These details elevate the movie with their humour and inventiveness, and you only wish you could spend more time enjoying them.
And this really is the basis for the movie – style and quirky humour first and foremost, in a similar vein to The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017), this is very much what I’d expect from a Lego Spiderman effort. More than this, though, Spiderverse is a nerd’s paradise. It is full of self-referential comedy and Easter eggs that would simply annoy some viewers but which plays right into the hands of a certain type of comic book fan. It is geeky and science-y, providing typical sci-fi explanations for events and pulling characters and universes together like some kind of fanatic fever dream.
This fever only heightens with the explosive climax, with colours, characters, and bits of debris flying all over the shop in a hypnotic cacophony of chaos and spectacle. Spiderverse very much (and probably quite literally) throws the kitchen sink at its finale, indulging in exactly the kind of hectic battle scene that the Marvel films have often been criticised for. Nevertheless, you can’t argue with the attractiveness of the show here, with colours and animation style really making it feel fresh and keeping it entertaining. What is less interesting is the bad guy. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) looks cool here, but there is a very half-hearted effort to give him some humanity and reason for his actions, and he ends up being rather forgettable, the female Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn) seeming a much more exciting and dangerous prospect of villainy.
The coda to this film tries to tie all of what we have seen together into a fable on the nature of heroism. The message, it tells us, is that anyone and everyone can be special, if they only believe in themselves (where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, Syndrome from The Incredibles [Brad Bird, 2004]. Doesn’t seem like such a nice message now, does it?). While this is a decent alternative take on the individualistic nature of superheroes, promoting qualities of teamwork and self-belief over innate ability, it does feel rather tacked onto the end of the film, and as Morales settles down in his bed in a shot that mirrors the film’s opening, I can’t help but feel that the experience has been more style than substance. A cinematic experience that for all its colours and aesthetic beauty I will soon largely forget. Let’s hope that other innovative, imaginative animation is not doomed to the same fate.
At time of writing, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is available to watch on Netflix.
[i] From Manovich’s fascinating essay “What is Digital Cinema?”, a version of which can be found here: http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/what-is-digital-cinema