Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse one of The Year’s Best Films!
So…there’s that. But I can’t simply post a screen shot of Ralphie’s teacher from A Christmas Story writing “A++++++++++” on her chalkboard and be done with it, because we know that’s not how I roll.
Short version for the unfamiliar: In a world where Peter Parker, the spectacular Spider-Man (Chris Pine, nailing the snappy patter), has been one of NYC’s favorite super-heroes for years, Shameik Moore (Dope, The Get-Down) is Miles Morales, a Brooklyn teen attending a magnet school but trying to live as ordinary a life as possible with his black police-officer dad and Puerto Rican hospital-admin mom (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry and Dexter‘s Lauren Velez). Naturally it’s not long before Miles endures the requisite Spider-origin: a bite from a radioactive spider, fantastic super-powers, and a tragic death that could’ve been prevented if the bite victim hadn’t just stood there and done nothing.
Miles’ situation isn’t exactly like Peter’s. His spider-powers come from more obscure species. His parents are both alive. He fits in at school just fine. He has a graffiti hobby kept on the down-low. But he has the important things in common: decent grades, an understanding of responsibility, and a knack for wrong-place/wrong-time happenstance that could get him killed. Shortly after his powers begin to manifest, Miles stumbles into ground zero inside a terrible, Fringe-inspired project overseen by the Kingpin (Liev Schrieber, trying out a curiously Noo Yawk accent). Wilson Fisk and his villainous minions give Miles arguably the worst day ever, centered around a big science accident that leads to the weirdest day ever, when Spider-powered strangers from alternate Earths begin popping up all around. They don’t belong, they can’t stay, and if they don’t go back soon, it may spell the end of reality as they know it — all their realities.
What’s one teen supposed to do? Especially when he really, really just wants to live a normal life and isn’t emotionally equipped to leap into life-or-death superhuman conflict?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Miles’ amazing friends include Jake Johnson (New Girl) as an older, pudgier, failed Peter Parker; Hallee Steinfeld (True Grit, Bumblebee) as Spider-Woman, from a timeline where old girlfriend Gwen Stacy was bitten instead of Peter; former A-lister Nicolas Cage in a bit of self-parody as Spider-Man Noir (a black-and-white Nazi-fighting version introduced in a great video game); Kimiko Glenn (Orange is the New Black) as Peni Parker, a happy-anime kid driving an Evangelion-inspired spider-powered mini-mech; and, recreating a cherished memory from my childhood, stand-up comedian John Mulaney as Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, who’s exactly what he sounds like and ready for some merchandising, thirty years overdue.
Other familiar faces representing for Spider-comics include Lily Tomlin as a thoroughly modern Aunt May; Zoe Kravitz (Mad Max: Fury Road) as a mostly quiet Mary Jane; and Academy Award Winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage) as Miles’ shifty Uncle Aaron. Natalie Morales (Tommy’s eventual girlfriend Lucy from Parks & Rec) gets a line or two as one of Miles’ teachers. Voices on the wrong side of history include Kathryn Hahn (Ben’s campaign manager from Parks & Rec), Jorma Taccone (from the Parks & Rec Gryzzl team), and Marvin “Krondon” Jones III (from Black Lightning, not Parks & Rec).
In his first posthumous role (but not his last), Stan Lee makes his requisite cameo, this time as a costume shop owner who sells Miles his first Spider-togs, and throws in some knowing encouragement for free — giving his personal blessing to pass on Peter’s mantle, so to speak.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- something something power something something responsibility
- Fear is the mindkiller.
- We can be heroes! YOU can be a hero! And YOU can be a hero! No, seriously, this is an excellent moral. Sorry if it sounded sarcastic. And this moral goes for literally everyone, not just white guys.
- When something has to be done and you’re the only one who can do it, stop stalling with excuses.
- Not all parents of movie teens have to be short-sighted idiots who never listen and never change their minds.
- Breaking the space-time continuum just to resurrect your dead loved ones has always been, and will always be, the worst idea.
- Sooner or later it’ll be time to pass on your legacy to someone else younger than you, so it’s no use being a selfish, spoiled brat about clutching onto things you incorrectly think should always be yours and yours alone. (None of the characters explicitly experience this, but it merits mentioning to some middle-age, stick-in-the-mud fans.)
Nitpicking? If you’ve read the first twelve issues of Miles’ original stories in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man by creators Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli (plus guest artists Chris Samnee and David Marquez), you’ll already be aware of a few plot twists and therefore may not gasp at a certain super-villain revelation as loudly as the kids in our theater did. Thankfully Spider-Verse avoids and/or undoes some of the later, more traumatic developments in Miles’ life. I was extremely okay with their exclusion.
I’m not well versed on spray-paint chemistry, but its use in one scene for costume modification purposes seems awfully free of consequences. It’s been about nineteen years since the last time I tried modifying fabrics, but I can’t believe the stuff would dry in mere seconds. I fully expected to see the wearer leaving hand- and footprints all over the next battle, but I can see how that would’ve jarred with the entire point of that moment.
Strong recommendation for older viewers with slower eyes: sit farther back in the theater so you can better take in the nonstop adrenaline rush. Much of the action comes at a relentless, breakneck speed that makes the agitated, jump-cut editing of ’80s music videos look like Tarkovsky films.
So what’s to like? Yes, we know there’re already a lot of Spider-films with multiple renditions of Spider-Man. In its better moments the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire trilogy captured the original vibe of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko three-year classic run, starring the plucky everyteen whose problems outnumbered his wins. The Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield reboot pondered what if Spidey starred in Dawson’s Creek, and was differently entertaining until the encore face-planted in mud. The Jon Watts/Tom Holland re-reboot recaptured his youthfulness and motormouth sarcastic streak, but is very much a thing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which the overall tone is Serious Drama regardless of chuckle quotient.
Spider-Verse knows we haven’t forgotten them and rightly assumes we’d rather not see Uncle Ben get shot seven more times. Brisk recaps capture split-second highlights from most of its predecessors, albeit in slightly skewed alt-timeline do-overs. (They give the Spider-Man 2 car defenestration a more satisfying response, and cheerfully throw shade at the nadir of Spider-Man 3.) The knowing nods are a nice touch, but mercifully the audience isn’t required to have seen all of those films before enjoying this one. It wisely remembers the old adage, often forgotten or willfully scorned by today’s comics creators, that every comic book is someone’s first. Newcomers are absolutely welcomed; gatekeepers of “canon” are too, if they play nice and share their toys with others.
What follows, then, is a senses-shattering extravaganza that celebrates some classic super-tropes and takes a sledgehammer to others. Heroic role-modeling, sashays through the fourth wall, high adventure, science fiction, winking satire, and, yes, a bit of terror coexist and mingle in Miles’ kaleidoscopic new world. Characters drawn in multiple animation styles merge into a single shared universe, where 4th-dimensional cinema intersects with the 2-dimensional printed page. After that fateful spider-bite, Miles’ world shifts radically as panels, captions, sound effects, old-fashioned Ben Day dots, and actual comics pages come to life and begin to occupy dynamic, three-dimensional storytelling spaces all around him.
Comic-book devices on the big screen generally look awkward, cheesy, and retro in the hands of outsiders who know zilch about comics beyond their fading memories of Hi and Lois, but who think it’s funny to go there anyway, not unlike journalists still writing hackneyed “Zap! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” headlines some thirty-plus years after Watchmen and Maus. Fortunately the minds behind Spider-Verse are no such amateurs — three credited directors along with producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the geniuses behind The Lego Movie (Lord also co-wrote, with co-director Rodney Rothman). Sometimes a long list of writer/director credits implies conflict and/or executive meddling. Here, the collaboration is a wonder to behold, a synchronized dance through multimedia unrealities of pretend-stop-motion CG (a la The Lego Movie), street-art writ large, anime homage, imitation Zip-A-Tone, chromatic aberration, Looney Tunes wackiness, Sienkiewicz ink-scratched expressionism, and more more more…often within the same scene, particularly in the hallucinogenic head-trip of a climactic final battle where New York Cities collide. None of it belongs together, but all of it works beautifully together.
This flashy art mash-up wouldn’t mean quite so much if the underpinnings were only skin-deep. The central figures of Spider-Verse bear their own emotional burdens — fat Peter and the pain of his wrecked marriage, Spider-Gwen’s regretful introversion, Kingpin’s primary motive that’s about more than money — but they leave ample room on the central stage for Miles himself. Shameik Moore perfectly conveys the initial bravado, the awkwardness, and the confused fragility of a teen way in over his head, which — if he’s to succeed and live till the end of the film — has to be led toward some daunting realizations and the sort of confidence that comes only when a once-and-future hero determines what needs to be done, what only they can do. Tragedy changes Miles’ life, but it won’t define who he is.
We’ve seen glimmers of some of that in other super-hero films to varying degrees, but Spider-Verse challenges the reigning paradigm with an almost antiquated approach: ultimately, a fresh sense of uplifting optimism. Learning how to be a hero sucks sometimes. Getting good at it rules. Super-heroes have their dark times and their angst, too often making civic duty look like drudgery, a death march they must perform because the writers made them do it in hopes that the audience will relish their suffering. Miles and the Spider-gang reach back to the 20th century, ostensibly simpler times (HA.), and retrofit the old-school joy of super-heroism into their revolutionary, multi-faceted canvas.
There’s a time and place for Serious Super-Hero Drama, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse revivifies a lost sensation from those old comics that made the Marvel heroes awesome in the eyes of their original fans: the unabashed thrill of doing the right thing.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the Into the Spider-Verse end credits. The credits in themselves are loaded with entertainment, including a montage of Spider-hero silhouette armies (including one alarming shot of Spider-Ham roasting on a spit, right before the tables are turned) as well as the full-length version of that new classic Christmas carol “Spidey Bells”, which devolves into self-aware deep regret by the end.
On a more somber note, there’s a dedication to Spidey-s co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who both died this year five months apart, as well as a heartfelt quote from Stan about who can be a hero. (For those just joining us: Stan never thought of heroism as an elite club. Ever.)
For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know what happened after the end credits without seeing it a second time, although you are really missing out on a high note…
[insert space for courtesy extra-strength spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…fast-forward 81 years into the future, when Miguel O’Hara a.k.a. Spider-Man 2099 (special guest Oscar Isaac, listed in the credits as playing “Interesting Person #1”) and his hologram assistant Lyla (Greta Lee) are relieved the universe wasn’t destroyed, but still have work to do. Using future-tech, Our Hero travels to Earth-67 to meet the star of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon…only to find the two of them trapped in the “Spider-Man Pointing At Spider-Man” meme. And neither of them will stop pointing or shut up. It took some of us a good while to stop laughing.