Tuesday, 15 January 2019

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

After a very busy Christmas and New Year where I lacked any time to visit the cinema, I've finally managed to see Into the Spider-Verse, on the last weekend it was showing in my area. I'm very pleased that I managed to catch it - it's bloody brilliant.

I've seen seven Spider-Man movies - nine if you count Civil War and Infinity War - and Into the Spider-Verse is inarguably the best of them. Into the Spider-Verse is a new avenue for Spider-Man on film; while there have been numerous animated series (which I took a look at a while back), this is the first time an animated feature has been made starring Spidey. It seems bizarre that it's taken so long for a studio to make this, given how perfectly suited Spider-Man is to the animated format. And it's funny that it took Sony's heel-turn on the Spidey front, suddenly dropping all their plans and building bridges with Marvel, to make this happen. If Marvel hadn't rebooted the Spider-Man franchise for the second time in fifteen years, it's doubtful that the proposed animated series would have received the heartfelt backing that it did. Sony have poured a lot of money into this, while allowing its creators a lot of leeway to build a new Spider-Man franchise in their own vision.

The first thing to notice is that this is a visually spectacular film. With a combination of 3D computer-animated techniques and hand-drawn artwork, the film has a unique visual style. It's the closest thing to actually watching a comicbook onscreen, with the sheer relentless action of superhero comics faithfully reproduced. This is no stilted motion comic; the action scenes are frenetic but always completely clear and easy to follow, while the design of Spider-Man's New York is stylistically striking and alive.

It's also doubtful that, without Marvel recasting Peter Parker and incorporating him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony would have elected to bring a film starring Miles Morales to the big screen. Not that Parker's absent - very much the opposite, there are several of him - but this is very much Miles's film, and rightly so. A young mixed race character heading a superhero movie is still a big deal, even nearly twenty years after Miles was introduced in the Ultimate Spider-Man line. The film takes after the comic series origin story heavily, with the original Spider-Man of Miles's world, a blonde-haired Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine in a starry cameo) killed in action and Miles taking on his mantle after he, too, is bitten by the traditional radioactive spider.

Beyond this, though, it's the relatively recent Spider-Verse crossover event that informs the storyline. Spider-Verse, and its Edge of Spider-Verse support titles, created an epic multiversal adventure that actually worked, bringing together disparate versions of Spider-Man from different quantum realities to fight alongside each other. For all the sweet nods to the past and outrageously geeky moments, though, the Spider-Verse event was a fairly grim affair. Into the Spider-Verse is anything but. Although it has its share of heartbreaking and devastating moments, played with real sincerity, it's ultimately a hopeful and good-natured film, and a tremendously funny one at that.

Which is exactly right, since Miles is an optimistic and hopeful character. He's perfectly portrayed here, voiced by Shameik Moore with a youthful cockiness and charm that hides the totally believable insecurity of a young teen. (Somehow, Moore is twenty-three yet completely sells as a character nearly ten years younger.) Brilliantly, Miles is counterpointed with a version of Spider-Man who has lost that confident, optimistic personality. For years I've thought that the perfect screen treatment for Miles would be to have Parker acting as a mentor, an elder Spider-Man introducing his young protege not only to heroism but also to audiences who may not be aware there has ever been another Spider-Man. Peter B. Parker - the alternative reality version, voiced the very likeable Jake Johnson - is both the recognisable Spider-Man of previous film treatments and also a washout. This isn't like the comics continuity in which Parker's marriage and success were retconned in a dubious storyline, but a very believable story of someone whose marriage failed and who couldn't quite get his life back on track afterwards. It's a Peter Parker who's given up, and who needs Miles to reawaken his optimism, and god, don't we all need a Miles sometimes.

As the spine of the story, it works brilliantly, with real affection between Peter B. and Miles. However, Miles's other relationships are equally important, with his father Jefferson Davis (Bryan T. Henry) and uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) being the two most significant figures in his life, pulling him in opposite directions. On the one side, he has his father's lawful but overbearing influence as a member of the PDNY (this universe's New York police force); on the other, his uncle's more accepting nature but criminal tendencies. Somewhere in the middle is how to be a superhero, and how to be himself. A lot of superhero films combine the coming-of-age story with the superhero origin, but few pull it off so well.

Of course, the fun really starts when more alternative Spiders turn up. The Spider-Verse comics had hundreds of them, but the film settles for a team of six (plus the odd sneaky cameo). The Earth-65 version of Gwen Stacey, aka Spider-Woman aka Spider-Gwen, was created for the Spider-Verse event but immediately proved so popular she was granted her own title. Hailee Steinfeld, who appears to be very much an up-and-coming star, is hugely charismatic in the role. Introduced at the same time was Peni Parker, a Japanese girl from a manga-esque universe who is bonded to a giant robotic battlemachine named SP//dr, which is somehow ludicrous, frightening and adorable at the same time. Peni is voiced by Kimiko Glenn, while none other than Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir, perfectly cast as the 1930s gumshoe version of Peter Parker. Rounding it off is John Mulaney as Peter Porker, aka The Spectacular Spider-Ham, a talking pig from a universe of cartoon animals who has become one of the most enduringly beloved and most ridiculous characters in the franchise.

Miles, Peter B, Gwen, Peni, Noir and Ham must prevent the Kingpin - horrifically gigantic and brilliantly played by Leiv Schreiber - from destroying the multiverse in a misguided attempt to get his family back. The Kingpin is aided by several villains, including a nightmarish version of the Scorpion, a genuinely unsettling version of the Prowler and a weirdly sexy female Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn). It's during the hero-on-villain battles that the action impresses most, but the greatest moments visually are when the universes overlap, creating psychedelic vistas of multiple New Yorks (filled with plenty of wonderful, blink-and-you'll-miss-them jokes). The different Spiders have their own visual styles too, with the best being Spider-Man Noir's monochrome look, complete with Letratone dots for shading.

For all the zaniness and spectacle, though, where Into the Spider-Verse really impresses is in its wit and its heart. I'm pleased to read that already a sequel and a spin-off are already being planned (the latter finally giving Sony a way to work in its all-female hero team concept), because the Spider-Verse is an idea that can launch in so many directions while never invalidating the main, live-action Spider-Man's world. An absolute triumph.


Several of the voice actors have played other Marvel heroes or villains in previous productions. Nic Cage was the big screen Ghost Rider; Liev Schreiber was Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Zoe Kravitz (Mary Jane) was Angel Salvadore in X-Men: First Class and Mahershala Ali was Cottonmouth in the first Luke Cage series. Oscar Isaac, Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse, also plays a major character in a post-credits cameo, as does the late Stan Lee. Lee also appears as a version of himself in a genuinely moving cameo in the main film.

Further Spiders I'd love to see in future films include Peter Parquagh, the Spider from Marvel 1602; Jessica Drew as the classic Spider-Woman; Anya "Arana" Corazon; Pavitr Prabhakar, the Indian Spider-Man; Spider-Punk and Spider-UK. And definitely the Toei tokusatsu Spider-Man and his giant robot-spaceship Leopardon.

There's also a serious need for an animated Spider-Ham to appear in a live-action Spider-Man movie. Seriously, how do we make this happen?

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