Monday, December 17, 2018

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman.
Written by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman based on comics and characters created by Steve Ditko and David Hine and Stan Lee and Brian Michael Bendis and Fabrice Sapolsky and Sara Pichelli.
Starring: Shameik Moore (Miles Morales / Spider-Man), Hailee Steinfeld (Gwen Stacy), Liev Schreiber (The Kingpin), Nicolas Cage (Spider-Man Noir), Mahershala Ali (Aaron Davis), Jake Johnson (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Kimiko Glenn (Peni Parker), Brian Tyree Henry (Jefferson Davis), John Mulaney (Spider-Ham), Luna Lauren Velez (Rio Morales), Lily Tomlin (Aunt May).
2018 has already been a good year for superhero movies – even to someone like me, who has grown somewhat weary of the constant barrage the genre has subjected viewers to in the last few years, and how they have overtaken movie culture in general. The reason for that weariness is mostly because most superhero movies – even the good ones – operate as if on rails. Ryan Coogler can make Black Panther arguably the best Marvel movie ever yet, but he can only make it so much his own film, because it has to satisfy the requirements of Marvel. Avengers: Infinity War is probably about as good as a movie of that tremendous bulk can be – given its dozens of characters, but that’s still only pretty good. Deadpool 2 can be refreshing and funny for a while – but it runs out of steam at some point. Incredibles 2 is inventive and fun from start to finish – but the plot is perhaps a little too old fashioned. Truly, the most original superhero movie of the years was Teen Titans Go the Movies – a film I adored, but too few people saw. Still, for the most part – this was a good year for superhero movies, as far as things go. And then, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse comes along, and really does blow the doors off. This is the best superhero movie of the year, the best animated film of the year, and the best Spider-Man movie ever. It may sound like hyperbole to say this, but I do believe it ranks with the best super hero films ever made. And most refreshingly, it is a blast of something truly original and unique.
The smartest thing the filmmakers involved with the film did was decide to make it animated. This frees them up from having to create another mess of CGI soup that most superhero movies eventually fall into, which all looks the same from film to film – here, they are able to craft truly innovative visuals. The second smartest thing they did was decide to focus on a different Spider-Man than Peter Parker – Miles Morales. Morales is a black teenager in Brooklyn in a different dimension than ours – although it looks almost identical. The origin story he has in becoming Spider-Man is similar to Peter Parker’s – bitten by a radioactive spider of course, and then movie has great fun with how it rolls that out (and then has to do so again and again and again). He doesn’t even really realize he has powers until he meets Parker himself – as Spider-Man, as Parker tries (and fails) to stop Kingpin and Doc Ock from running a super collider of some kind. In the process, this dimension’s Peter Parker is killed. But, the collider opens portals to other dimensions – and another Peter Parker – older, maybe wiser, certainly fatter – walks in. And he’s not the only Spider-person who does so.
In many ways, of course, this Spider-Man is similar to the other Spider-Man movies we’ve seen. The good news here is that we don’t need to suffer through another story of poor Uncle Ben and the line “with great power comes great responsibility” – two things this movie brings up, just so they can mock it a little, and move on. There is still a complicated relationship with Miles’ father – a cop, who wants what’s best for Miles, and is hard on him, and his Uncle – who his father doesn’t like at all. So the film is still grounded in recognizable emotional territory, without feeling like a retread.
But the story itself is bonkers in the best way – it is the type of story that only makes sense on the comic’s pages, or in an animated film like this, where anything is possible. Every frame of the film is packed with information – Easter eggs and cookies all around. But mainly, it just looks great – and so unlike any other animated film I have seen before, or like any superhero film I have seen before. They lean into the look of comics, without overdoing it. The action sequences are brilliant – and even when we get to a chaotic finale, everything is clear eyed and makes sense.
In short, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best kind of surprise – a movie in a genre that feels like its overdone and boring, but is actually a true breath of fresh air. This films has a vision all of its own – and while the stakes here are still universe altering, the film never forgets to have fun. Truly, this is a great superhero film – and more than that, just a great film.

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