Thoughts on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Posted on December 16, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 28 Comments
In no particular order:
1. I was entertained by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse all the way through, but about two-thirds in, this actual thought surfaced in my brain: Jesus, this film is entertaining. By which I mean that the part of my brain that stores the skills I used for years as a professional movie critic was so impressed by how well this film was put together it felt obliged to comment on it. I was compelled to admire the craftsmanship. I’m not going to say that this is a perfect film, but I can say without fear of contradiction that it’s difficult to see how they could have done a better version of this particular story. There’s very little here that feels out of place, or inessential, or rote and flabby. Given how far we are into the Superhero Era of film, and how ossified its traditions have become (“oh, look, it’s the third act boss battle”), this is a small miracle.
2. It’s also a film where its chosen medium — animation — is exactly right for it. I think there’s a still a bit of aesthetic snobbery around animation, ironically particularly when it comes to superhero films. It’s still assumed to be a compliment if you say something along the lines of “that was good enough to have been live action.” In point of fact, this particular film wouldn’t have been better served as live action; live action and all its aesthetic requirements and expectations would have made it worse. The abstracting remove from reality that animation provides fits the film’s multiverse story and allows it to be a “comic book film” in a way that most live-action superhero films can’t manage or look silly doing (see: Ang Lee’s Hulk). In live action, this film as it is would have come across as campy; in animation, it’s just doing its thing. This is of course more about our own expectations for live action and animation than it is about the mediums themselves. But you work with what you have.
3. Relatedly, it’s nice to see that the conduit between live action and animation can flow both ways. Disney recently has been making “live action” remakes of their animated features to considerable financial success, if not exactly cinematic triumph (ask me sometime to recount all the failures of the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast, and then settle in, we’ll be there for a while). Having one of the Marvel properties head the other direction, and rather more successfully as a creative endeavor, is heartening. I’d be delighted to see more animated superhero films of this quality.
(And, yes, nerds, before you bring it up, I know all about the DC animated track of films. But inasmuch as the one of those that’s received the widest theatrical distribution was Teen Titans Go! To the Movies — which I enjoyed, incidentally — let me say we’d be comparing apples and oranges, cinematically speaking.)
4. I liked that this film (and its filmmakers) were aware of the universe in which we, the audience, live in, i.e., one in which the “superhero origin story,” both in a general sense and how it relates to Spider-Man in particular, is understood and is mostly passe. Spiderman: Homecoming, the most recent live action Spider-Man film, dealt with this by not dealing with it; it knew we knew about Uncle Ben and so on and so forth. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse can’t just dispense with the origin story, because it actually has to introduce not just Miles Morales as Spider-Man but several others as well. But it solves the problem compactly and cleverly and, again, in a way that works best in an animated medium. In a general sense, this film is knowing: Knowing what we know about Spider-Man and superhero films, knowing what we’re tired of, and working with that to give us the information we need without making a big deal about it.
5. Going into this film, I was aware of Miles Morales as Spider-Man in an abstract sense, but hadn’t read the comics he’d starred in, or knew much about what distinguished him from either Peter Parker or that version of Spider-Man. To that end I thought this movie did a very fine job of setting up all the ways that he is different from, and all the ways he parallels, Peter Parker and that particular iteration of the web-slinger. I really liked his relationship with his family, and how the film made him into an awkward teen but not a loser — Miles Morales has to learn how to be in the world not just as Spider-Man but also as Miles Morales. That’s a lot to convey, and the film does a pretty admirable job.
And while other people will better essay Miles’ ethnic background and why it’s important it’s portrayed in film, I’ll just say I’m here for it, and for a view of New York City — and superhero-ness — that’s not just centered on the white experience. In a larger sense, it’s not for nothing that two of 2018’s best films center on a black Marvel superhero, and that those two black superheroes have substantially different challenges they have to deal with, in the course of their respective films.
6. I said on Twitter last night that I thought Into the Spider-Verse might be the best Spider-Man film out there. In the cold light of the next morning, I will continue to stand by that assessment, with the caveat that it’s possibly not the best first Spider-Man movie to watch, since it traffics in the audience’s built-in awareness of who Spider-Man (the Peter Parker version) is and what he’s been through. Without getting into spoiler territory, I think it’s accurate to say that Into the Spider-Verse assumes that you’ve seen the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films at least. I figure that’s a not unreasonable assumption.
(Also, it appears to largely ignore the third Raimi movie, the Spider-Man films starring Andrew Garfield, and for the moment at least does not seem to have much to do with the Tom Holland-era idea that Spider-Man is part of a larger Marvel universe, so no palling around with Iron Man or Captain America. This is all fine and I didn’t miss any of it, especially since delving into the “Spiderverse” meant there was more than enough going on anyway, superhero-wise.)
Into the Spider-Verse is arguably the best Spider-Man film; I also think it’s pretty high up there in the rankings of superhero films in general, and it’s also among the best films of the year. I realize that last bit might be contentious, since an animated superhero film does not have the same gravity as, say, Roma. But here’s the thing. Of any film, ask: What is it, in itself, and how well does it realize being that thing? Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a Spider-Man film, a superhero film and an entertainment. As all of those things, it excels. As I said earlier, it’s hard to see how it could be a better version of itself than it is. And in a year where Black Panther can (and should be) seriously considered for Best Picture accolades, I think it’s pretty safe to argue that another, different superhero film that also hits all the marks it sets for itself can be considered one of the best films of 2018 as well. Again, it’s a craftsmanship thing.
So, yeah: Go see it. You won’t regret it.
In case you’re wondering how I’d rank the Spider-Man films:
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse
3. Spider-Man 2
4. Spider-Man: Homecoming
5. Captain America: Civil War
6. The Amazing Spider-Man
7. Spider-Man 3
8. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The last two are essentially tied, which is not a good thing for either of them.
Ironically, I suspect Andrew Garfield might be the best overall actor among the Peter Parkers, but I’m not sure the films he was in served him well in that regard.
My friend’s brother is an editor on this film and I’m glad you liked it! I pointed him to this review and maybe he’ll chime in.
A friend of mine warned me, and I’m passing it on: The movie is full of triggers for photosensitive (migraine, epilepsy, other) people. See here.
I think I disagree about the Ang Lee Hulk? That was the one with the in-your-face comic-book frames around the most comic-booky scenes, right? I actually enjoyed that cinematic pretension, and enjoyed the movie despite not being a huge Hulk fan, and didn’t find myself going “okay, I get it; enough already”. YMMV, and probably does.
As for Black Panther, I think that what’s remarkable about that film is that *it’s a good movie* first and foremost. The fact that it has superheroes and their appurtenances is secondary. The fact that it’s dominated by Black actors and yet still palatable to large white audiences is in no way secondary, and is hopefully a wakeup call to the rest of Hollywood*. It would be nice if the whole “dead brother walking” meme just went away, other than for historians of bad 20th century TV. It’s no news that Black actors can act. It shouldn’t be news that they can also do big box office.
* Plus, it generated the deliciously horrible joke that Martin Freeman is the Tolkein white guy in the film.
For me Hulk was “I see what you’re trying to do here, and I can appreciate the attempt, but it’s not working.”
It does specifically reference the 3rd Raimi movie once, during Peter’s origin recap.
It’s definitely up there as one of the best films I’ve seen this year and I’m very much in two minds as to whether I want a sequel. Although more Spider-Man Noir would be peachy keen.
Right at the beginning they do reference Spiderman 3, with the joke about the dance, and the cringey bit in S3 when he gets the Venom suit at first. They didn’t do it in the black suit, but the reference was clear to me at least.
Thoroughly enjoyed it, agree with what you said. Nic Cage was also pretty good, need to go find the Noir Spiderman and Spiderham comics
Really enjoyed it as well. It was the most fan-aware comic book movie I’ve seen, which made it fast, funny, snarky, snarky, and ready for, as my 12 year old said, Sequel! My kids were completely cracking up at the post-credit scene as well, but I’m not as hip.
I’m looking arts to seeing this, I just don’t know when I’ll get the chance. But since you mentioned it, and I recently watched both versions withing a couple months, what are your feelings on Beauty and the Beast?
Just beautifully done, really enjoyed it. (But yes, if you are prone to seizures, maybe not the movie for you since they have a couple of segments where it’s very flash strobey with lights and images.) It’s a movie that shows total love for the entire history of Spider-Man and the concept as used and played with in Marvel’s multiverses and alternate time-lines. I watched it with an audience of all ages that I would have to characterize as highly enthusiastic. I certainly hope there’s a sequel. And you have to stay all the way to the end for the post-credits scene, which anyone over 45 is going to keel over laughing about.
But the best Spider-Man films are the ones with the only credible Peter Parker, Tom Holland.
For me, the Oscar race runs from A to B, i.e., A Star Is Born to Black Panther.
I feel like I know Jackson Maine. Lady Gaga is a series of revelations.
And Black Panther? Brilliant social commentary with the two Black Panthers from Wakanda and Oakland, Shakespearean tragedy as superhero drama, fabulous sci-fi world building…
But really, John, when are you going to comment on Astounding, the most seriously acclaimed book ever on the history and literature of science fiction?
I was in the same situation as you coming into this movie, Miles-Morales-knowledge-wise, and I was delighted and blown away. Best Animated Feature Oscar.
(Oh, and GeoffHart: actually, Freeman *and Andy Serkis* were the Tolkein White Guys in Black Panther, and I’m half-convinced Marvel set them up for that, in Civil War and Age of Ultron, respectively, just for the joke.)
Alan: Yes, of course! (Smacks forehead.) How could I forget Andy Serkis?
I just came back from Into the Spider-Verse. The family and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
There are some flabby parts, and that is not due to dimensional phasing.
I’ve been spoiled by the Incredibles 1 and 2 for animated superhero movies, and Batman: The Animated Series (and a couple other DC offerings), so have a high bar with the Spider-Verse. The main stumbling block will be coaxing DH to see it in the theater, rather than waiting until it gets released in a format we can stream from somewhere.
I really want to see it in cinemas, but there’s two things holding me back. One is that in the trailers the animation looked really choppy, to the point where it actually bothered me.
The other one is, that my local one only shows it in German and doesn’t have the a screening in English (like it does for some of the other big budget movies), which is kind of a dealbreaker. There’s still a chance though, they only have their program until the 19th online, so maybe during the end of thr week. Also, I’m visiting my parents over the holidays, and their theater might show it in English. (In fact, it *does* on Wednesday, but I won’t get there before Saturday)
“What is it, in itself, and how well does it realize being that thing?”
That is what so many reviewers never seem to get – and it is certainly also true of novels; most other art forms too, probably.
Lately I can’t shake the suspicion that in some college laboratory, probably at Caltech, a bunch of nerdy kids are irradiating black widow spiders and subjecting themselves to being bitten, hoping to achieve Spiderman-like powers.
Am I crazy for thinking this? I’m losing sleep.
I called Caltech’s biology lab and they assured me that they were not mis-treating black widows or any other type of spiders, and further, that if I didn’t want my mouth webbed permanently shut I should not inquire further. Hope this helps you sleep better.
There was a live action remake of Beauty and the Beast? Huh. I don’t think anyone I know saw that, and I’ve got friends (with kids) who see everything Disney.
@wiredog seriously? Emma Watson as Belle…
John, please recount all the failures of the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast for us?
There was a live action remake of Beauty and the Beast? Huh. I don’t think anyone I know saw that, and I’ve got friends (with kids) who see everything Disney.
It grossed $1.2 Billion. My adult daughter saw it. There was even some controversy over making the character of Lafoo homosexual in the text of the movie. It got pushed fairly heavily, FWIW.
I loved Loved LOVED Into the Spider-verse. Solid emotional beats, logical motivations, jaw-dropping visuals and just so much dang fun. Tons of visual gags and easter eggs for fans (I will never not laugh when I see the Spidey-Mobile, for example) sit alongside fun re-imaginings of existing characters. So much thought went into the execution that I was delighted, as was my adult daughter.
I recommend the 3D version of this movie.
Speaking of trigger warnings. Not seizures, but nausea.
We loved Into the Spider-Verse! (especially after seeing it back-to-back with The Grinch, which was solidly…OK. There just isn’t a comparison.)
Honestly, the only serious contender this movie should have for Best Animated Feature is Incredibles 2. Ralph Breaks the Internet was pretty good, but I think Incredibles and Spider-Verse are a notch above. Incredibles will probably win because of Pixar momentum and because, as you said, this movie is somewhat dependent on a basic familiarity with Peter Parker-as-Spider-Man lore. But it’s beautifully animated, it’s hilarious, and it does exactly what it set out to do. It succeeds as a movie on every count. And the Stan Lee cameo (of course there is one)…right in the feels. My husband and I agreed on the way out of the theater that we would happily watch a full movie about any of the Spider-people shown (except maybe Spider-Pig, who would do better as a series of shorts) in the future.
I’m looking forward to this.
BTW, you are wrong about the live action beauty and the beast remake. it’s actually better than the original cartoon. And I know because I have seen both a billion times with my daughter.
Agree agree agree with your review. The only thing I would add is that while other people will essay better than I could about how important it is to have female Spideys, I’m here for all of that, too.
It was also the best soundtrack for a Spider-Man movie, and possible for any Marvel movie. The MCU movies feature boring “what sounds good with this explosion” soundtracks. The tracks for Spider-Verse not only added more dimension and life to the city, but they sounded like what Miles would be listening to in his regular life, yet are original songs.
So yeah, that got purchased tonight.