Originally, I was going to write a piece talking about how different my experiences were when I saw Aquaman and Into the Spider-Verse within days of one another over the holidays. Then, on a whim, I went on my own to see Spider-Verse a third time in the theater, and changed my mind completely. Spider-Verse shouldn’t share a blog post with a superhero film that rates approximately at “the first Thor, but with Jason Momoa and way better CGI” (and that’s exactly as much as you need to know about it). It deserves its own post, because boy howdy did it leave an impression.
“Alright, let’s do this one last time. My name is Peter Parker. I was bitten by a radioactive spider and for ten years I’ve been the one and only Spider-Man. I’m pretty sure you know the rest.”
I’ll be avoiding spoilers and plot details in general about this film, probably telling you less than you know from the trailer.
Content Advisory: bloodless violence and a couple of deaths; color-intensive and dynamic visuals that could be distracting or problematic for some individuals
What is “Spider-Verse”?
Into the Spider-Verse is an animated film produced by Sony Animation which combines the origin story of Miles Morales (the second Spider-Man in Marvel Comics’ spinoff Ultimate universe) with a 2014 comics storyline simply titled Spider-Verse, where alternate versions of Spider-Man from different Marvel universes teamed up to fight a mystical entity who hunts down Spider-powered people to steal their power or something. Look, from everything I heard, it wasn’t a really great storyline.
I did, however, read the somewhat standalone volume Edge of Spider-Verse, which was nothing but back-to-back alternate origin stories for the various versions of Spider-Man, and that was nothing short of delightful. From a cyberpunk/tokusatsu-inspired Spider-Man to a sociopathic Peter Parker who cocoons and eats people to a reality where Gwen Stacey got bit by a radioactive spider and Peter Parker became the Lizard, they were wonderfully creative remixes of the core Spider-Man myth, and I had a lot of fun with them. This is what really piqued my interest in Spider-Verse.
The Magic of Spider-Verse
I wasn’t ready when I settled in for my first showing of Into the Spider-Verse. Sure, I expected something that would be cool, something that would be fun, something that would look neat. And hey, I saw Spider-Gwen in those trailers. I’m down for Spider-Gwen. But I wasn’t ready for a movie that started sizzling from the very first frame. Let’s take a step back for a moment. I’m a visual design nerd. I’ve done a bit of study into visual art, and the different styles that comic books are drawn in. I’m a huge believer in visual storytelling, and I love thinking about the role that comics play in our literary sphere. Into the Spider-Verse was a tsunami.
I could scarcely believe my eyes and ears. I saw the things they were animating, how they would use exaggerated pop art-style halftone and sometimes dip into low-framerate animation to accentuate character poses, how they animated literal onomatopoeia into the movie, how every frame was packed with a dazzling array of visual delights that I could bask in, all of it underscored by a soundtrack that I wouldn’t notice until future viewings, just because that initial experience of the movie was so profoundly much. The film krackled with life, and for the first time in my life, I realized that I was well and truly watching a comic book come to life.
The Spider-Heart of Spider-Verse
So, I’m going to take a sidestep for a moment and talk a little bit about that time that I went to Queens for the very first time, last year. Just two days in, I realized that I was retroactively massively disappointed in every single depiction of New York City I’d seen in the media, period. There was a city here, bustling with life and filled with colors and energy from a multitude that traversed it, a grimy, worn-down, lively city that was lived in. And you know what? Into the Spider-Verse was the first film I’ve seen that finally gives me the New York City I saw then.
Because this movie gets Spider-Man, and even as it gives us an origin story for Miles, it spins everything into the greater mantle of what it means to be Spider-Man, that elusive mixture of awkwardness and tragedy and peril and nervous, anxious comedy. Despite the differences between all of the different versions of Spider-Man we see, there’s a powerful core that ties them all together, bringing them into action alongside one another as a united front. They relate to one another because, on one level, they already understand one another better than other people do. The movie works pretty well if you’re not into Spider-Man, or even superheroes, but it works even better if you’re watching with a knowing eye, understanding little beats and pieces that come together in subtle, emotionally-resonant ways.
Even as this movie awed my senses, it also tugged at my heartstrings by showing me genuinely powerful moments. It might technically be a PG kids’ movie, but there’s moments in there that hit home for all the rest of us. It’s playful but mature, like a Spidey-film should be.
Also, although the villains in the film are generally a sideshow to the true core of the story, they’re definitely a big step up from “random evil Spider-hunter invented in 2001”. Without giving anything away, the movie knows exactly where to pull from Spidey’s traditional rogues’ gallery, and it also has the most downright intimidating villain design I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Webbing It All Up
I think the biggest reason that Into the Spider-Verse left enough of an impression on me that I saw it three times (and wouldn’t be opposed to a fourth) is that it exudes a pure love for its subject matter. I started that third viewing with a bit of skepticism; surely, this time would be the one where it went from “amazing” to “merely good”. Just a few minutes later, I realized that no, there was so very much more for me to love about the film. It’s not embarrassed by its comics roots, it doesn’t try to downplay the absurdities of comic books. It understands that superhero stories are about heroes, that they’re magical, larger-than-life tales.
This is a movie ruled by childlike gleeful wonder, and I’m reminded in several ways of The LEGO Movie, which coincidentally was directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the two main producers of Spider-Verse. The film takes you into the majesty of the comics medium, leveraging animation to show you things that can’t ever be possible in live-action, and in doing so, makes an unbelievable tribute to the legacy of Spider-Man and its bright future.
If you’re reading this at around the time I posted it, you probably still have time to catch it in theaters, and I wholeheartedly recommend the experience if you do. If not, hopefully you’re not in the gap between theater release and DVD, because you really should see this film as soon as you’re able. It’s something special.