Saturday, December 15, 2018

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

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

Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language

Score: 5 out of 5

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best Spider-Man movie they've made since Sam Raimi was in charge of the franchise. The first animated outing to hit the big screen in... well, ever, this movie, unconnected to the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe that Spider-Man: Homecoming is part of, comes courtesy of the team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who produced it, with Lord co-writing the script), who have been together responsible for some of the most hilarious comedies, animated or live-action, of the 2010s. Into the Spider-Verse is, on the surface, a plainly straightforward film, lacking the big, subversive twist of The LEGO Movie or the raunchiness and post-modern meta humor of 21 Jump Street, its story about different versions of Spider-Man from parallel universes coming together being a lot less convoluted than it sounds. But if anything, it's precisely that fact that makes it stand out, especially from other superhero movies in the last decade, and winds up, if anything, resting at the heart of its story and themes. When you combine it with great and interesting characters, some fun humor that got some big laughs out of me, and some of the most beautiful animation I've ever seen, you get a film that emerges as one of the best I've seen all year, and a great way to end 2018.

Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is New York's friendly neighborhood superhero, balancing his personal life with his Aunt May and his girlfriend Mary-Jane Watson with his fighting criminals and supervillains. This movie is not about him. Rather, it is about Miles Morales, a brilliant but awkward teenage boy from Brooklyn who, as the son of a black police officer and a Puerto Rican nurse, feels out of place at the elite magnet high school he's just started attending, especially after his father embarrasses him in front of his new classmates on his first day. He'd much rather hang out with his cool uncle Aaron, who teaches him how to make graffiti art in the subways. One night, however, while out tagging with Aaron, Miles gets bit by his own radioactive spider, and soon wanders into a fight between Spider-Man and two of his most infamous villains, the Green Goblin and the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk. You see, Fisk's wife and son died in a car accident, and so he built a particle accelerator to open a portal to a parallel dimension so that he he can bring in versions of them from a universe where they didn't die. (The radioactive spider that bit Miles came through that portal.) Miles gets caught in the crossfire, and is forced to embrace his new role as Spider-Man 2.0 whether he likes it or not. Meanwhile, a side-effect of the rip in space-time that Fisk created is that a whole bunch of new Spider-Men from various alternate timelines have entered Miles' world: a middle-aged, out-of-shape, and cynical Peter Parker whose life has been slowly going downhill, a Gwen Stacy who got bit by the spider instead of Peter and became Spider-Woman (and wound up watching Peter die instead of it being the other way around), a black-and-white Peter from a 1930s hardboiled noir universe, a Peni Parker from an anime-inspired future New York who pilots a Spider-Mech that her late father built, and a Peter Porker, or Spider-Ham, from a wacky cartoon universe that runs on Looney Tunes physics. All of them, together with Miles, must work together to stop Fisk from reactivating the accelerator and doing something stupid with it, all while trying to get back to their home universes before they disintegrate out of existence in this strange new one.

Don't worry about how long that plot description is. You will understand everything as it's presented to you, even if you have only the barest familiarity with Spider-Man as a character from watching the movies. The film assumes that you know who he is and the basic beats of his backstory (if you don't, it refreshes you in the first few minutes), then it focuses squarely on a new story about Miles, the new Spider-Man taking up Peter's mantle. As a character, Miles (who'd previously been Spider-Man in the comics but is making his film debut here) is just as interesting and fleshed-out as Peter was in his movies, this film serving as his own origin story as we see a life with his parents Jeff and Rio and his school friends that's just as rich as Peter's life with Aunt May, Gwen Stacy, Mary-Jane, and the like. When he finds that he's now Spider-Man, it is just one more ball that he has to juggle in his already-hectic life, as he soon realizes, reading the "True Adventures of Spider-Man" comics that he collects, what sort of pressure has been dropped into his lap. Almost immediately, I loved Miles as the new version of the "blue-collar kid from the city" (Brooklyn this time instead of Queens) that Peter was originally written as, with Shameik Moore of the underrated Dope bringing him to life as a similarly awkward, gangly teen who doesn't think he's in any way ready to handle being Spider-Man, not with all the growing up he has yet to do.

The other Spider-People who get brought through the portal all have their own twists on Peter Parker's backstory, the older version of Peter himself (originally intended to be Tobey Maguire's take from the Sam Raimi films all grown up) being just the start of it. Peter finds himself unwittingly forced into the role of Miles' mentor once it becomes clear that the kid is still coming to terms with his new superpowers, Jake Johnson portraying him as a man who's grown bitter after over two decades of superheroics but who still has a good heart underneath, one who finds that Miles has as much to teach him about being a hero as he does Miles. Hailee Steinfeld's Gwen Stacy is chiefly a foil to Miles, somebody whose superheroics put her through similar hardships in her personal life to those that both Miles and Peter went through but who managed to come out of it with a rosy outlook on life, more committed than ever to doing the right thing. While the other Spider-People exist more as comic relief, between Spider-Man Noir's old-fashioned grit (brought to life by Nicolas Cage as a guy confounded by the bright colors of a Rubik's cube), Peni Parker's anime riffs, and Spider-Ham's wackiness, even they get their own moments to shine. And the fact that their backstories, while differing in the fine details, echo so well that the film jokes about it winds up resting at the core of its chief message, laid out during the mid-credits scene when the film lays out a quote from the late Stan Lee about what it means to be a superhero. It doesn't matter who you are on the outside, being a superhero is about what you have inside you, and all of these Spider-People have it even though some may be very unconventional takes on the character. Make no mistake, as contemporary as the film's setting is, the story and themes are as "Silver Age" as it gets, hearkening back to the days when the "hero" part of the word "superhero" was at least as important as having superpowers -- and an indirect but unmistakable rebuke to that contingent of comic book fans who would insist on maintaining the characters' surface-level features (including their original identities) at all cost, even if they're behaving in ways that go against everything they might've once stood for.

This attitude, of creatively reimagining the characters for the modern age but at the same time keeping the core ideas behind them fully intact, extends to the rest of the cast, including the villains. Some of the reinventions are so out-there on the surface that to describe them would invite spoilers (wait 'til you see this film's version of Doc Ock), but when they do show up, you'll know exactly who they are. And all of them are brought to life with beautiful animation designed to evoke the comic books upon which it's based, the style doing more than just recreating the word bubbles and frames of comic panels. It's immediately noticeable in the slight stutter of the characters' movement, meant to evoke the progression of still imagery in a comic, and in the different designs of the different Spider-People, with Miles, Peter, and Gwen all drawn in a grounded, realistic style that contrasts with the monochrome of Spider-Man Noir, the anime influence of Penny, and the cartoon animation of Spider-Ham. Even when it's sitting still, this film, while animated with computers, deftly captures the hand-drawn look of a comic book panel. But it's when the action starts that this movie absolutely pops, directors Bob Perschetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman using the medium to its fullest to deliver the sort of creative visuals that simply couldn't exist in live-action without an astronomical special effects budget. Fights are rendered with splashes of color where, for a split-second, everything fades out except whoever is getting hit and whoever is doing the hitting. The action is plentiful and well-shot, never forgetting what a proper scene of such is supposed to look like in motion even as it draws from a still image medium for its look. It's most apparent during the climatic battle, when it feels as though they just went all-out in a world of shifting dimensions that the folks at the Marvel Cinematic Universe should take notes on, especially for when they go back into other dimensions with the next Doctor Strange or Captain Marvel movie. No matter how you slice it, this movie looks good.

The Bottom Line

It's gonna be hard deciding whether this or Black Panther is my favorite superhero movie of 2018. A feast for the eyes with an excellent cast, a well-written story, and a heart of gold, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse stands as one of the best movies of the year, and definitely the best animated film.

Oh, and if you know a certain Spider-Man-related meme, the post-credits stinger is absolutely hilarious.

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