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Into the Spiderverse (2018)
~ Review by Grawlix (December 2018)
Though it may seem like an oddly highbrow concept for an animated superhero movie, the idea of a multiverse has been a comic book staple for decades. It seems virtually inevitable that comic writers would want to explore different variations on familiar characters, the most common of which being the “evil twin” though, into the modern day, it seems like no idea is truly off limits. In fact, pretty much every time a comic company has instituted a company-wide reboot of their properties (something that happens with disturbing frequency these days), it’s to pare down the chaos that an uncontrollably burgeoning multiverse has caused. So don’t be intimidated by the lofty metaphysics that Into the Spiderverse might suggest. The writers have clearly done this before.
Into the Spiderverse introduces Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) to the big screen. Miles is a biracial teen from Brooklyn. He’s a bright kid, having earned a spot in an exclusive charter high-school, but he has a rebellious streak too. He occasionally leaves graffiti (sticker) tags around the neighborhood, and also seems to idolize his ne’er-do-well uncle, much to the chagrin of his police officer father. On one sketchy excursion with his uncle, Miles is bitten by a strange spider and, as is tradition, gains superpowers like wall crawling, increased strength and agility, and… invisibility and shock blasts? Well, that’s a bit different.
Also, true to form, Miles finds himself almost immediately wrapped up in the mechanizations of a supervillain seemingly indiscriminately tearing holes in the fabric of reality via a contraption that looks like the large hadron collider crossed with the X-Men movies’ Cerebro. Such recklessness is sure to have dire consequences, but Miles and his newly minted spider powers can’t handle the problem alone. Luckily all this reality bending has enabled help to arrive in the form of several new Spider people who also need to reverse the cosmic damage, lest they end up trapped in the wrong reality forever.
When I first saw the trailers for Into the Spiderverse I was a little worried about the animation, which seemed oddly jerky, like it was deliberately dropping frames. As it turned out, there was nothing to fear. The visual design of Into the Spiderverse is one of its greatest strengths, with a style that changes dynamically to fit what’s happening on the screen. Normal, comparatively mundane scenes are rendered in fairly standard CG with animation that is smooth and only slightly exaggerated. But when the action ramps up, the film takes on a deliberately more comic book look, complete with on screen captions, onomatopoeia, and Ben-Day dots. Naturally, as reality twisting nature of the plot accelerates, the visuals follow suit, but things never get so abstract that you lose track of what’s going on. In fact, the continuity of the action remains amazingly lucid throughout. It seems like ever since Captain America: Civil War raised the bar with its multi-character battle royale, every other superhero movie has been following suit with wild melees that come as close to they can to sheer chaos without allowing the audience to lose their frame of reference, and Into the Spiderverse in capably continues this trend. The lively visuals extend to the depictions of individual characters too, always to brilliant effect. A mech-driving Japanese girl is rendered in an anime style while Spider-Ham, a funny-animal parody character dating from the 80’s and cut form the same cloth as Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, is depicted like a Looney Tune. And Spider-Man Noir, a hard boiled 20’s style detective (voiced, amusingly and unexpectedly by Nicholas Cage) is, of course, done solely in black in white. Such flights of visual fancy might seem like a weak gimmick in less committed circumstances, but the movie never misses a chance to add in a brilliant visual flourish and the end result is a feast for the senses.
The soundtrack is suitably complimentary as well. I’m not much of a hip-hop fan, but even I couldn’t help but be entertained by Miles bouncing his way across the city to Notorious B.I.G. and similar artists that fit the updated character and themes just fine.
If there’s a knock on Into the Spiderverse at all, it’s that sometimes, for all of the precautions it takes against this, there is a lot that gets thrown at the viewer that requires extracurricular knowledge to fully appreciate. The villains, for example, are all established characters from the Spider-Man mythos, but half of them aren’t even named on screen, much less get an explanation of their powers and why they should be considered dangerous to our Spider-Clique. This extends to the main baddie and his master plan, which is an understandable and even moving motivation if you’re familiar with the character, but may get lost in the sauce if you’re not.
The Spider-Gang don’t get a ton of individual development either, but this is mitigated a bit more by certain commonalities of origin they share, being different versions of a very-familiar central character (or archetype, as it were in this case). Each one gets a brilliantly staged introduction that highlights their main quirks and distinguishing qualities and as the story develops there’s even some heady rumination on the inevitability of tragedy that is apparently a cosmically preordained element required to galvanize a Spider-person’s sense of purpose. In other words, with great power must come great sacrifice. But still, it’s a lot, especially for a movie clearly targeted at a younger demographic, so one’s individual mileage will likely vary.
But really, these are just quibbles. At its core, Into the Spiderverse is a blast. A hyper-kinetic action yarn that still has plenty of room for humor and heart. You might say that the more you put in the more you’re likely to get out, but even if you walk in knowing nothing about the character, you’re still sure to be entertained by a well crafted story and fantastic action.
There are mid- and end-credit bonus scenes. Do NOT miss them.
Final Grade: A
The more familiar you are with Spider-Man lore, the more you’ll enjoy Into the Spiderverse, but even if you’ve never heard of the character, it’s still a colorful, rollicking good time, and a solid introduction of Spider-Tropes into modern times.
* Also, I want to reiterate that, though Into the Spiderverse may be its first big-budget, big screen depiction (in a superhero context, anyway), the whole multiverse thing is a common playground for comic writers. DC Comics, in particular, seem to have really embraced the narrative potential of mashing together sometimes extremely divergent versions of their standard characters and scenarios, often to highly entertaining effect. If you liked the core ideas of Into the Spiderverse, definitely check out some of DC’s animated, direct to video movies which often bend familiar ideas wildly out of shape and also occasionally get really, really dark.
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