Updated: Jul 7, 2020
It’s films like this that make me happy that, after more than a century of filmmaking, people can still come along and do something new.
It's rare that an animated film that's as experimental as this one would rake in money at the box office, but this is no fluke. The studio had to have a clear map to this final product, and the filmmakers delivered by showing they know how to turn animation on its head by using familiar elements.
Granted, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, essentially uses tools from existing animation styles that have been pioneered up until now, but it found a way to blend it all into a vehicle that delivers one of 2018’s best movies.
It’s got a universal story, a diverse cast, and an origin myth for the superhero of tomorrow (I'm telling ya, people will someday think Miles Morales, not Peter Parker, when they think of Spider-Man.)
Below is a list of things I liked or didn’t like about this film, in no particular order. Like, share and comment with your own thoughts.
As always, spoilers ahead!
1) Did I mention the stellar animation?
Sony Pictures Animation, where you been all our lives?
The answer: making much shittier movies. They’ve been pumping out Hotel Transylvania films and a mess of other Pixar and Dreamworks wannabe flicks since 2002. But Spider-Verse is their crowning achievement thus far.
For one, they stopped trying to be those other studios. They don't have the technology or budget to match Pixar, with it’s well-rendered frames that make every hair on someone’s head look real and move naturally. Instead, they made their own style by blending a lotta cool art into one cohesive vision.
Anything that can blend multiple types of animation in a seamless and non-schticky way deserves huge props, but what I was struck by mostly is how this film LOOKS like a comic book. I’m not even just talking about the clear uses of thought bubbles and text boxes with classic lettering. Every aesthetic decision on how this film looks was clearly crafted to mimic the medium the film is channeling.
You’ve got a brilliant coupling of stop-motion style animation (an homage to the static images of comics themselves, perhaps) coupled with computer generated images and a street art style. That’s all beyond cool, but hopefully you also spotted the use of Ben-Day dots -- the color palette style used in lots of print media but that was pioneered by comic books.
With so many different iterations of Spider-Man, it only makes sense to use different animation throughout, but they found a way to do it so it wasn’t jarring. All the styles actually enhance and play off of each other.
I could seriously gush about the visual execution all day, so I’ll just leave this topic by saying this may be one of the most innovative and visually striking pieces of animation I’ve ever seen. If this doesn’t win an Oscar over Pixar’s lukewarm Incredibles 2, people should riot.
If you want to look into just HOW they crafted such a unique style for this film, you may want to start here.
2) Hey, I know this story!
Too often, movies focus on the wrong things that make popular movies successful. They think it’s the quippy comedy or the bright colors or the cartoonishness. Certainly, those things help. But special effects and flash is not where successful filmmakers start.
Really, they start at storyboards, with a simple plot and theme that are easy to add layers onto without muddying the whole premise if something isn’t working. If you look at every Pixar film, for instance, they are essentially all about the same thing: a coming-of-age story that is more about family than whatever obstacles our characters have to overcome.
That’s exactly what Spider-Verse is. It’s about a young kid thrust into unknown territory, trying to cope with his newfound powers while holding his family and friends together. Pepper in a sort of Karate Kid master-and-pupil storyline, and you’ve got a tried and true movie formula.
Now, I'm not saying that every story has to be the same in order to be good. I'm just saying that storytelling, at it's core, is about people. It may sound narcissistic, but we're all basically only interested in hearing about ourselves when we're listening to stories. It's why Stan Lee wrote his characters with human flaws in the first place: it makes them relatable.
Yes, this is a superhero movie, but really it’s got to be about something universal. Compelling stories are an exploration of the human condition. Boring stories often only attempt at being entertaining and flashy.
An example of where it can go wrong is 2018’s Venom, also by Sony Pictures. It seemed at first to want to be a thriller about Eddie Brock grappling with and learning to live with this evil thing inside of him. That would have been a compelling story. But Venom veered wildly into also trying to be a love story and a comedy and a horror flick and, and, and…!
Pick one thing and stick with it. It’s basic storytelling that sometimes gets lost as filmmakers move through the process. I’m sure it mostly comes about from executives checking in on a project and deciding that a film is missing this or that -- things that are in successful Marvel productions and therefore must be in all other films. Those elements get thrown in to appease the money bags but then only amount to feeling forced (you know, because they were).
The Spider-Verse crew kept their eyes on the narrative prize the entire time and it shows. This is the story of a young man learning how to be a hero. Everything else is ancillary and we don’t lose sight of that while other things take over the narrative for a couple scenes or so.
3) True to character
This film is uniquely plugged in to a specific aspect of what makes Spider-Man such a lovable character: that there’s nothing about his superhero persona that requires him to be a white boy from Queens.
If the multiverse iterations of Spider-Man (or -Woman, or -Ham...) weren’t enough to pick up on the theme here, the film actually closes with a Miles Morales monologue about how “anyone can wear the mask.”
It’s something that the late Stan Lee actually talked about a lot when describing his love for the character. Any kid can picture themselves beneath that suit. There’s an unintended appeal, in having Spider-Man covered head-to-toe in his iconic costume, in allowing anyone to love the character. Making this the central spidey theme of the movie is not only a modern message of inclusiveness, it’s an attention to the very heart of the character this film is exploring.
We've had Spider-Man films ad nauseum since 2001 and this is the first one to make that point? Way to hit the mark.
4) John Fucking Mulaney (really the whole cast)
I acknowledge that I’m biased in highlighting just one performance out of a top-to-bottom stellar cast. I absolutely love Mulaney’s stand-up (Kid Gorgeous is one of the best specials of 2018.) But Mulaney was also the perfect casting choice for Peter Porker AKA Spider-Ham. His quippy and at-times shrieking delivery was welcome in every instance it graced the sound system. Nicolas Cage as Noir Spidey was another great payoff, as was Jake Johnson as an aged Peter Parker. I also thought Mahershala Ali and Hailee Steinfeld both brought a lot of emotion to their performances.
5) The soundtrack
You can’t make Spider-Man from Brooklyn and not have a great hip-hop lineup to compliment him. This entire soundtrack is comprised of new pop and hip-hop releases, many of which were written specifically for this movie.
Movie studios should get credit for creating projects that get big names like Li'l Wayne or up-and-comers like Post Malone on board for new collaborative singles on a movie. Not to mention, there’s a spotlight being shown here on lesser-known acts like Duckwrth and Shaboozey’s trappy as fuck 2018 single “Start a Riot.”
This film seized the sonic opportunity to get more hype for the movie through the song artists it pursued. But most importantly, it all ties into the film by being exactly the kind of music we can picture Mile Morales listening to.
Which is “our” Spidey?
I struggled to find something I didn’t like about this film. It’s that good.
But! Nothing is perfect, and there has to be something they could have done better.
Well, in my opinion, they missed the mark on explaining just which Peter Parker belongs in “our world.”
The first spidey we meet, voiced by Chris Pine, alludes to the fact that he’s the one from Sam Raimi’s live-action trilogy in the early 2000s. He even recaps all of the crazy feats that particular Spidey did, like stopping the train, battling the Green Goblin, and that famous upside-down kiss with MJ. That seems to indicate that Miles Morales lives in the universe of those films. But, if that’s supposed to be the same Spider-Man, why is he blonde when that cinematic version was played by the brunette-headed Toby McGuire?
The later Spidey we meet, voiced by Jake Johnson, is supposedly from our universe as in "Real Earth" (per Johnson and the filmmakers, not to mention the literal structure of the Marvel Comics universes.)
Though that’s not really ever explained outright in the film either. They just say he’s from a different Earth and leave it at that.
I would assume that, since Sony movies are not actually part of the MCU (owned by Disney), they may have been purposefully vague in nailing down just which Earth we’re dealing with (comics fans will know that there are several Earths and several Earth versions of the Marvel heroes.) They can't really get into all the specifics, because Disney is still setting the pieces of which Avengers characters belong in all these different properties.
I also appreciate that only comic geeks like me even care if what we’re seeing is part of the main continuity or some Ultimate Universe continuity instead. Average moviegoers probably don’t care, so getting into all that is just a confusing distraction for most.
But if that’s the case they should have just left it intentionally vague instead of trying to plant us into each respective reality with a new history montage for each Spidey. I know, by using those recap montages to show the lives of the different Spider People, we get some great humor and light-hearted jabs at what has and hasn’t worked with the character over the years. But the way they did it left me with more questions than answers. And the whole business with different dimensions was literally in the title of the movie.
Again, I’m splitting hairs here. This didn’t ruin the film or distract me from the awesome elements, but you just don’t want that kind of ambiguity from a film that is otherwise clear and gripping.
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