2018 Film Essays

A Whiplash of Multidimensional Creativity and Inspiration: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’

Who is Spider-Man? As the basic origin story in the original comic goes, he is a superhero of New York City in red and blue, his mask hiding the identity of an ordinary student, Peter Parker. A radioactive spider bite imbued him the powers of a spider so he can crawl on walls, sling webs and save the day. But heroism is not limited to just Peter Parker or one Spider-Man. This time, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the Spider-Man is a Brooklyn afro-latino teen by the name of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore).

Who is Miles? He’s an ordinary teen navigating the expectations of his police officer of a father (Brian Tyree Henry). The boy finds more companionship in his delinquent but warm uncle (Mahershala Ali) who encourages his graffiti art passion. Also, a Spider-Man exists in Miles’ city (this one voiced by Chris Pine). Then Miles’ life is turned upside-down when a radioactive spider bite injects him with superpowers. As Miles discovers the hard way, he is destined to succeed the Spider-Man in his city. Not only that, he uncovers a plot by a crime boss to complete a contraption capable of wrapping dimensions. Said rips in dimensions sucks in another Spider-Man from an alternative universe (Jake Johnson voices a more sour and uncertain Spider-Man). It’s a long story, but the bounty of information is shrewdly well compressed onscreen.

The latest stylized CGI picture by Sony Animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse celebrates the multiple forms and personalities heroism can take, specifically inspired by the personhood of Spider-Man. Created by the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the comic hero has seen many theatrical iterations, from Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s trilogy to Andrew Garfield of The Amazing Spider-Man, and a current Marvel counterpart in Tom Holland, along with many alternate universe spin-off forms in the comic pages. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s cell-shaded CGI effect pops to the eye, adds a flat comic-like texture and allows the world to explode with technicolor flare.

Because the creators seized so much opportunity to incorporate other canons, other alternative universe Spider-heroes swing into Miles’ life. He meets Spider-Woman, or Spider-Gwen, (Hailee Steinfeld); Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage) who, as the name suggests, is an angsty 1930s private eye from a monochrome world; an animesque Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) whose spider-powers derives from a mecha-suit; and a Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a cartoony anthropomorphic pig in a Spider-Man suit. The visual gags around their animated format add zany flavor to the world. 

Even when the scene-stealing supporting players are thrown into the mix, never does the film lose its focal point with Miles’ coming-of-age character arc as he forges his own identity as a new Spider-Man through a storm of insecurities. Moore’s Spider-Man channels a boyish vulnerability, overwhelmed by responsibility and the peril, but always hungry to learn. As the story walks familiar grounds of an origin story, it feels freshened by the vigor of Miles’ drama, much of it involving his interplay with his tough but loving father. When Miles finds his own identity through an aerial sequence of leaps and his own suit, the result is adrenaline-inducing and wordlessly inspiring.

The animation blazes with velocity, colors waltz in the backdrop, a power outage sweeps New York City, day swirls into night in a flicker. When Miles and the first Spider-Man have their mutual rush of “Spidery Senses,” their backdrop flashes into color and swirls. For comedic and meta effect, scenes toy with split screens and comic text pop-ups. When Miles launches his fingers off a skyscraper, glass shards fly in slow-motion like raindrops. While the film earned a frontrunner talk for the Best Animation Academy Award, somewhere I hope there would be at least a talk for a Best Picture nod. The improbable is made possible by the expanse of animation, and the Spider-heroes’ web-slinging flight feels more liberated than it ever has in live-action.

Frenetic and synergized with a wealth of elements, the final product is maniacally inventive and hypnotic with a whiplash of color, a whiplash of gags, a whiplash of quips, a whiplash of meta-humor. On a first viewing, I caught Spider-Man tossing a bagel at a mook with a “Bagel” sound effect. A lot goes on in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in the foreground and background, but in a way that commands attention and bonuses for multiple viewings. Anytime Miles plummets or soars, it reminds me of the thrills of How to Train Your Dragon where you’re whipped into the aerial action. With all its supporting superheroes and hints of story threads, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is bankable for sequels and spin-offs. As long as there’s creative juice for this world, any follow-up would feel inspired. It’s a tough act to follow; it’s difficult to outshine one of the most multidimensional animation films of the decade.

Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of New York. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or her MFA memoir project, she is cooking her own Chinese food instead of buying take-out and dreaming of winning Hamilton lotto tickets. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies Death, The Mary Sue, Bitch, Film School Rejects and Indiewire. She also runs a New York living blog and writing services.