It may be 2019 now but Hollywood works in interesting and mysterious ways, like for example, when they decide to premiere all the year’s best movies at the very tail end of December! Literally, I saw what is possibly the best movie of 2018, and definitely the best superhero movie, on New Year’s Day of 2019. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, coming from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the duo that brought us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street), is one of the most innovative, stunningly beautiful, absolutely jaw-dropping movies I’ve seen. Separate from past cinematic iterations of Spider-Man, Spider-Verse pulls from different stories within the comic world that the property lives in. Gone are the days of boring white boys playing the same origin story of Spider-Man! What we get now with Spider-Verse is a fresh new take on who gets to be Spider-Man, the acknowledgement of different Spider-People, and a fascinating culmination of everything the digital era of cinema has brought us in the 20th century.
Marvel has for so long partnered with Disney to bring us the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which does now include Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, but their decision to partner with Sony Pictures Animation is truly one of their best yet. This animated version has resulted in one of the most visually awe-inspiring films ever, combining CGI animation with traditional hand-drawn comic book techniques. The recreation of the half-tone backdrop to traditional comic books, the thought bubbles providing characterization and comic relief, and STUNNING action shots are all testaments of the filmmakers’ love of comic books as a visual medium. With the past decade or so of live-action adaptations of comic book stories, some good and some bad, the digital film industry has really come full circle. The inception of Marvel comic books as a medium, in the late Stan Lee’s vision, was to provide fantastical stories about empowered everyday people. It’s no coincidence then that the two most successful comic book movie adaptations of 2018 are Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
If you don’t already know, the film still is inherently an origin story, meant to be separate from past and current iterations of Spider-Man. It follows a young, Afrolatinx Brooklyn teenager named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who gets bit by a radioactive spider. Shocking, I know. The primary villain is the Trump-esque monster of a man Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who uses a female(!) Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn) to open multiple dimensions and alternate universes, unintentionally bringing together at least five other Spider-People (who all exist as separate entities in the comic books). These Spider-People include #dadbod Spider-Man/Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Woman/Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (John Mulaney, in the best role of his life), Peni Parker and SP//dr (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage). If they stay in Miles’ world too long, their bodies will disintegrate, so it is part of Miles’ hero journey to rise to the challenge of becoming the new Spider-Man (following the death of the previous one, voiced by Chris Pine), and send everybody back to their respective universes and destroy Kingpin.
I cannot emphasize enough how wise it was for this film to be animated, rather than live-action, especially when it comes to its story. As they say, design is function. The stakes in the story are high obviously because there are multiple universes about to collide into one and the Spider-People are at risk. In a live-action, this would easily turn into an Avengers: Age of Ultron or Man of Steel in which the point of the message would ultimately become about the catastrophic level of tragedy that would happen if the hero(s) were to fail. But, in an animated format, the filmmakers can pay more attention to the personal story of Miles becoming The Chosen One, while turning the colliding-universes aspect into a visually majestic feature of the story instead of the same old boring Destruction™ story that so many current super hero movies have. This format also allows for so much comic relief!
At the same time, there is a beautiful storyline of Miles’ relationship to his Dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and his uncle (Mahershala Ali) that is injected with so much heart and nuance. I cried at least twice just on that storyline alone. I loved that Spider-Verse made its protagonist an Afrolatinx character with the appropriate story and background nuances to reinforce his racial identity. It’s about time Spider-Man’s mantra of anyone can be behind the mask to actually and thoughtfully be realized. And, it’s made even better with the inclusion of the other Spider-People, like Gwen Stacy and Peni Parker.
There’s so much I love about this version of Spider-Man. Obviously from a visual perspective, it’s extremely clear that this is a major upgrade from Sony Pictures Animations’ recent projects (ahem, The LEGO Movie). I simply cannot shut up about the animation. But apart from that, the story is extremely well-done. The pacing, with all the bells and whistles this thing is trying to pull, shockingly works. There is so much detail put into this film that you never want it to end - so much to look at, and so much story to take in. The soundtrack is fresh, catchy, and a near* perfect accompaniment to the film. The film is extremely well cast, and their performances were all really heartwarming. Thoughtful representation is such a nice thing, you know?
* Only near perfect because they did decide to put abuser XXXTentacion on the soundtrack