Hannah Pollard reviews Marvel’s new Spider-Man film, reflecting on the success of animation as a medium for adapting the comic-book series.
Waiting for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to start, I didn’t know what to expect; I wasn’t sure if I was the target audience for an animated Spider-Man film. Despite my apprehension, I found myself completely immersed in an emotionally and visually stirring world, leaving the cinema freshly grateful for animation as an increasingly valued medium. The film won a Golden Globe for Best Animation and is tipped to take an Oscar win too – and for good reason.
The plot centres around Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) – that’s right, not Peter Parker (Jake Johnson). As a black teenager, he’s not the protagonist we have been conditioned to expect leading the Spider-Man franchise. The film feels both fresh and comfortingly familiar, which can be attributed to both the similarities and differences in Miles’ and Peter’s stories. Miles’ story shares similarities with Peter Parker’s in previous Spider-Man films – neither fit in at school, both get bitten by a radioactive spider, gaining supernatural abilities, and importantly, both undergo a personal trauma. Yet ultimately Miles’ story is original enough to be a wholly singular creation. His problems feel contemporary, whether that be his complex home life or adjusting to the elite private school he has just begun attending. The film captures the experience of being a teenager with heartfelt authenticity. For example, the soundtrack was chosen to represent what a modern-day teen like Miles would really be listening to. The soundtrack is filled with rap and hip-hop, featuring artists like Nicki Minaj and Post Malone, accurately snapshotting the sort of playlist a New York teenager would have.
The filmmakers create an engaging dynamic between Miles and Spider-Man as a known figure. Miles is not a replacement Spider-Man, but an additional one in a reality where the two coexist. The existence and convergence of alternate realities is central to the film’s plot, something the filmmakers explore with complete creative liberation. It’s up to Miles and Peter to defeat Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is attempting to manipulate alternate realities. In a film that does nothing by halves, Kingpin is indulgently villainous, brooding and overwhelming; he dominates frames, often taking up the entire screen. If this all sounds crazy for a Marvel film, it feels it too. I can only imagine the leap of faith the studio took to allow this hyper-meta film to wear the Marvel stamp. Marvel has a dedicated fanbase with massive expectations, and when these are measured against the film, it can only appear as off-brand. Yet, as an animated film Into the Spider-Verse feels like one of the most organic comic book transformations; the medium lends a freedom that live-action Marvel films often lack in realist imaginings.
Into the Spider-Verse makes reference to the multitude of alternate protagonists within the existing Spider-Man comic universe. In the film’s numerous realities, other spider-bitten characters exist with similar superhuman skills – Spider-Gwen, Peni Parker, Peter Porker (who is indeed a pig, armed with a mallet and a string of cheesy one-liners), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage in a self-reflective role, playing homage to his many excessively dramatic past characters). Gwen Stacy is a familiar name, but her role in this film surpasses that of past adaptations. No longer is she a part of the ‘I let Gwen Stacy Die’ trope, in which a female close to a film’s protagonist is killed to provide motivation for the hero to save the day. In contrast, Spider-Gwen is self-sufficient and multifaceted, injecting contemporary female heroism into a typically male-dominated world.
It is the intersection of these characters’ stories that makes the film so wonderfully human. They are all born out of some kind of tragedy, and as Robert Persichetti (joint director with Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman) put it, “for the first time there’s someone out there who knows what they’re going thorough”. The superhero genre has long garnered fans for its ability to confront reality in a nurturing and familiar way, and this lends to the relatability of its characters.
The unique animation style is integral to the film’s innovation. During production Persichetti gave the directive, “if it looks and feels like something from an animated film, it’s not our movie”. It visually appears more like a comic-book than any other superhero movie, complete with thought bubbles, onscreen action words, and delightfully visible spidey-senses. The film’s visuals have a slightly trippy quality, and this is a result of the film’s bold stylistic choices. Motion blur, (the smoothing over of individual frames in a movement sequence) was scrapped in this film, lending the action real time intensity, each image being displayed with incredible clarity, and the common technique of ‘animating on ones’ (where movement is changed every frame) is also abandoned. Directors instead opted for ‘animating on twos’, where movement is slowed down by occurring every second frame. As a result, the film’s action appears more clearly dissected and spectacular.
The superhero genre has become increasingly over-saturated from studios churning out formulaic and uninspiring content multiple times a year. The superhero films of my childhood contained tepid humour and overpowering thematic darkness, but in recent years the genre has undergone a hopeful shift in tone – epitomised by Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse. Superhero films are about the fantastic, so it always seems a bit ridiculous to me when one tries to overly assert itself in a gritty reality. Into the Spider-Verse explores the soaring wildness that comes with no longer resisting the impossibility of the genre. Some might find the kinetic energy of this film overwhelming, but I found it captivating, with the film’s success ultimately deriving from its skillful fusion of nostalgia and invention.
Film and TV Editor: Christina Riley