31 December 2018

First Impressions: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

In what looks to be the Final Post of 2018, we're taking a look at a film I saw recently that unexpectedly blew me away. So much so that I gave it every award I have. I definitely want to shine some light on this number because like my anticipation leading up to it, it seems to have slid under the radar in a busy time of year. We're talking of course, about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). SPOILERS everywhere from here on out.

BFFs 4ever

Spider-Man dies! Granted we have seven Spider-People in this film, but it still hits hard seeing the most competent Spider-Man ever not getting out of a jam. It's emblematic of what this film does so well - trade on our common knowledge of the Spider-Man mythos to speed up the story, add new twists, and also insert a lot of jokes and great moments. I was arguing with someone recently that a film like Justice League (2017) was rushed at two hours and didn't have time to develop its characters. Spider-Verse balances much more characters in two hours and still allows us to get to know all of them, or in the case of Spider-Ham or Spider-Man Noir at least all we really need to know. It's not about run time, it's about how good the writing and characters actually are.

And Spider-Verse knocks it out of the park.

It's a sincere challenge to develop a whole new non-Peter Parker Spider-Man and this film does it with Miles Morales. It gives him a distinct origin from the Spider-Man we know, but with a series of events that develop to eventually hit all the beats we need. It's an ingenious way to sort-of reboot a character who has been rebooted quite a bit. Miles stands on his own as his own hero, and by the film's end when he claims his destiny and spray paints his own spidey-suit you know he's placed his own personality onto his hero role. It's very fulfilling to watch.

This is also true because of his status as a half-Puerto Rican/ half-African-American resident of Brooklyn, which feels so much more true to current NYC youth than the 1962 Queens White Boy that we've had in Peter Parker for the past fifty years. That culture and attitude is infused in every second of this movie, but never in a blatant way. It's a deft hand that makes this wacky, flashbang animated film feel more real than other recent installments. It's all about finding someone to replace the legacy of the fallen Peter Parker.

And the Peter we do spend a lot of time with, its an over-the-hill 38-year old from a universe we're more familiar with who is fat, jaded, and uninterested in heroics anymore. It's a Peter we haven't really seen before, and Miles' earnestness in getting him back in action, and even learning to be part of a team for the usually solo Spider-Man is a joy. There is all kinds of fun alternate universe bits, like Soda-Kola and signs for some weird Seth Rogen horse-racing movie. It's just slightly off, which is fun as hell to spot.

This is first and foremost a story about Morales finding his way as Spider-Man and I give the film credit for constantly focusing on that. It always knows where the real interesting parts of the story are. When all the Spider-Men are battling this movie's never in name version of the Sinister Six, the focus is wisely on Morales' search for the goober and his own inner conflict as he learns that the badass villain Prowler is his uncle Aaron. He is suddenly struck by the fact that his hero is an evil dude, someone who he wanted to be, and needs to fight him, while not hurting him, while more importantly, not being hurt BY him. Then he's shot by Kingpin, saving Morales, but also losing the uncle he loves and looked up to. It's crazy. Another film would have used this scene as a big action set-piece and lost sight of the conflict that's more important, but this film constantly looks so good that it doesn't have to rely on that action scene.

The best moment comes as Morales realizes his powers. There are a lot of these scenes in superhero movies. It not only references earlier Spider-Man movies (there's a lot of that), but for the first time it really shows what it must be like to leap off a building, plunge to the street below, and shoot a web hoping it latches on to something. There's great shot of him falling, but the camera is inversed so it looks like he's rising up to the building and claiming his place among great Spider-People. I was stunned.

The animation is truly breathtaking. I've never seen another film like it. I was annoyed at some blurry backgrounds here and there, to the point where I thought there were problems with the projector - but that was apparently intentional. The film was animated at 12 frames per second, which crazily feels like going backwards only a few years after Peter Jackson's 48 frames a second Hobbit movies. The difference is this has a purpose - it leaves the film feeling crisp and jerky - like reading a comic book! There is hatched shading, speech bubbles, big action blotches, and Kirby dots. It's the greatest comic to film translation ever and I wish all superhero films were animated now.

We don't need superhero films to be grounded in reality. They can be kid-like, silly, and fast and loose with physics and logic. These are stories inherently fantastic. This film had nearly no background for how the Spider gives Miles his powers and for that matter, how any villain or other hero exists. It simply doesn't matter. The film knows we're not here for background, or even crazy action - we're here for character and story. The fact that the film looks great from start to finish helps a lot.

The colors pop and race across the screen as literal dimensions collide. It leads to a fantastic conclusion as we get an environment of buildings and buses racing across the screen - perfect for a bunch of Spider-People to swing across. You can tell the intelligent work was put into this story - everything sets up everything else. It's amazing. This is also a love letter to Spider-Man lore as movies, comic books, old TV shows, and more are referenced in the background constantly. I can't list all the Easter Eggs here but it's LEGO Batman (2017) - esque in its cavalier attitude towards canon, instead focused on telling a hilarious, fast-paced, but ultimately still heart-breaking story.

The action! The drama! The spider-kicks

We haven't really even mentioned the voice cast. Unknown Shameik Moore anchors the film as Miles Morales and does a great job. I loved him singing along (poorly) to the movie's theme, Swae Lee's "Sunflower." It's a great character moment, a great song, and great cross-promotion. Other notables include borderline stunt casting of Nic Cage, John Mulaney, and Jake Johnson as various Spider-People. Cage keeps popping up in these things, which is great and this is somehow an incredble Mulaney vehicle as the doofy and self-aware living cartoon, Spider-Ham. Johnson is also well-suited as the fat, lazy, depressed Peter Parker. Lily Tomlin may be the best Aunt May ever, with a boost of spice, and Kathryn Hahn as a female Doc Ock is a great mix of loving that quickly turns sinister.

Of course, we've also got an animated Stan Lee cameo, in what will become one of his last roles. He's here more than the joke he appears as in most other Marvel movies, giving a sincere speech about Spider-Man and everyone's role as a hero, while retaining a sly "No Refunds!" wit. All the feels.

Now, the Spider-Fan in me had fun counting the Sinister Six in this film, which was a line-up never seen in the comics. It's all alternate universe so in good fun. They're never mentioned as such, but it was a good touch that we have six villains and six Spider-People to face them. They even line-up well. There's Tombstone to counter Spider-Man Noir, a more mechanical Scorpion to fight the Anime Spider, Doc Ock with a vendetta against the true Spider-Man, Prowler to battle Morales on a personal level, Kingpin to fund them all, and the Green Goblin, who we don't really see past the initial battle.

I was a little frustrated that the Kingpin was the big bad considering the recent apex by Vincent D'onofrio in Daredevil and the big screen lack of classic Spider-Villains like Kraven or Swarm or Vermin (okay, fine), but he's good to fill the role here of the millionaire / really strong douche that could conceivably fund the interdimensional portal thingie, with Doc Ock as a bitter lackey and other villains under his belt. Like most things in this film, it works.

What did you think of Spider-Verse? I rated it #2 on the year. I loved it so much. Am I crazy? Leave it below!

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