The greatest drawback of Marvel Studio’s cinematic universe – relative to the universe in the comic books – is that there’s only one. Marvel’s founder, the late Stan Lee, conceived the idea of creating a fictional world in which characters from different comic books exist in parallel – but he didn’t stop there: The comic books never stopped creating alternative universes that stretched the hero’s boundaries. Some succeeded, some failed, but the attempt was always fascinating – an endless playing field for creative artists with vision.
But in a cinematic universe worth tens of billions of dollars, gambles like that are out of the question. And that is why “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which creates a new cinematic universe, is better than all the Hollywood animation pictures this year.
Spider-Man is perhaps the most dominant superhero of popular culture in the 21st century, which has already been marked as the age of the superheroes. He was already there back in 2002 with Tobey Maguire, six years before the creation of Marvel’s film universe. Since then, another five movies bearing his name have been released, and two more actors, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, have stepped into his shoes. Holland joined the Marvel film universe two years ago with a modest appearance in “Captain America: Civil War.” Last year, he was given his own movie, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and next July he will return to the screen with another film in the series, the seventh in 16 years.
Spider-Man’s entry into one universe together with Iron Man and the Hulk was not self-evident. It happened following multiyear negotiations between Marvel Studios and Sony, which has held the rights to Spider-Man, Venom and hundreds more characters since the 1990s, long before Marvel founded a cinematic universe and became the most powerful force, in terms of profit and cultural influence, in Hollywood.
Now the other side of the deal between Marvel and Sony – in which the latter creates its own Spider-Man universe – is making its debut in movie theaters. It’s a bit difficult to think of the Sony Corporation as an underdog, but in the current world of superheroes, the idea they came up with is almost subversive. Sony has created an alternative universe that’s independent of Marvel’s universe and is wholly devoted to Spider-Man. That is, to more than one Spider-Man, and even more than that.
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Three directors are credited in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” but the driving spirit is that of producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who wrote and directed “The Lego Movie,” among others, and abandoned the production of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” because they weren’t given enough creative freedom. This time, it looks as though they demanded and got their freedom, and decided to stretch the Spider-Man boundaries in terms of both narrative and form.
Lord’s point of departure – he conceived the idea for the new movie and wrote the script with one of the three directors, Rodney Rothman (“22 Jump Street”) – is that the secret of Spider-Man’s charm and appeal lies in his being Everyman. There’s a host of Spider-Man heroes in the comic books, but the movies know only Peter Parker.
The hero in the new movie is Miles Morales, an outsider like Parker, but since he is a character born in comic books in 2011 and not in 1962, he’s a bit more suited to the 21st century. Miles is the son of nonwhite parents (black father, Latina mother), and he embodies a broader conception of geekiness. Where Peter likes to take pictures, Miles sprays graffiti in the New York subway.
The plot gets underway when Miles is bitten by a spider and suddenly becomes aware of his powers. At the same time, he also witnesses a titanic battle between Spider-Man and his archenemy Kingpin. While the villain opens a gate to other dimensions, Miles watches his hero’s bitter demise. Just before he dies, Parker passes the scepter – that is, a memory stick – to Miles so that he will use it to close the gate and save the universes. Miles is not a young man or even a high-schooler like Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man. He’s an ungainly junior-high student who doesn’t know how to control his powers.
Fortunately for him, the opening of the gate by Kingpin has led to a positive side effect in the form of different variations of Spider-Man from parallel universes. Thus, even as the boy steps into the superhero’s shoes, he gets help from a dimensions-crossing team that includes Peter Parker from another universe, divorced, middle-aged, embittered and potbellied; Spider-Man Noir, a rough-hewn black-and-white version of Spider-Man, more like a 1920s' private dick, his role voiced by Nicolas Cage; the beautiful girl Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Woman; Peni Parker, a young woman in the spirit of Japan’s anime universe, which includes a telepathic robot; and Spider-Ham, an animal version of Spider-Man who’s illustrated and behaves like a Looney Tunes character.
Lord and Miller elegantly leap over the pit of the character’s origin stories, which we’ve already see in too many Spider-Man movies. They don’t back down, but present five versions for every character who came from another dimension, each introduction becoming weirder and shorter, in accordance with the universe, as demonstrated in the way the initial connection is made between Peni Parker and the robot.
Abstraction and psychedelia
With two active Spider-Man figures – Peter Parker at Marvel and Miles Morales at Sony – it appears that it’s actually the animated version that presents the more human character of the two. Miles gained fame as the Spider-Man of color, but more interesting is the fact that he’s a boy Spider-Man. The actor Shameik Moore, in a sometimes cracked voice, breathes life into the boy who wants only to behave like an adult. He’s also exceptional in terms of his background.
In contrast to many superheroes, including Peter Parker, Miles is not an abandoned orphan who’s stuck on the emotional axis between bereavement and revenge. His problem is not an absence of parents, but rather their over-involvement in his life. His father is a police officer, his mother is a nurse, and both are excessively protective of him, and shower him with love, warmth and encouragement to succeed, when all he wants to do is be free of them and feel independent. Miles is a true hero for a new generation, above whom helicopter parents hover.
The other Spider-Man figures appearing alongside him, at least in part, round off the group in appealing to an older audience, particularly the divorced and neglected Peter Parker (in contrast to the young man who died at the beginning of the movie), who acts as a mentor for Miles and symbolically passes the torch of Spider-Man in the name of a debilitated generation whose strength has shifted from its loins to its potbelly.
However, the most striking impression the film leaves you with is visual. Lord and Miller, who are known for their ability to pay respect to the heritage without sliding into empty nostalgia, have here outdone themselves. The various incarnations of Spider-Man in the comics since he first appeared 56 years ago, are referenced in multiple allusions. But the true homage lies in the bold animation, which honors decades of illustrators. This is not only a tribute to the comic books, but the most sincere and most successful attempt to make an animated movie look like a comic book that has come to life. Various genres are intermixed, but all of them bear the silhouettes and the framing that characterizes the typical comic-book format.
Because the homage is being paid to diverse artists, the result is eclectic and disturbed, at times bordering on abstraction and psychedelia. The daring of the directors and the screenwriters stands out not only in the fusion of styles, nor even in the departure from the world of images of the superheroes, but in the adoption of chaos as an expression of form. There is a recurring movement toward abstract images, or battles that look logical in comic books but whose like has not been seen before in the movies – or, alternatively, a departure from comics into the works of graffiti, such as Spider-Man’s old-new symbol.
But it only looks like chaos, because in practice every frame is precisely designed in an attempt to convey the feeling of an autonomous painting. It’s not by chance that in one of the scenes of a collision between dimensions, a passerby wonders whether a peculiar jagged tree is a work by Banksy.
Contemporary Hollywood is characterized by the studios’ unrelenting effort to replicate the success of Marvel’s cinematic universe. But every imitation to date has imploded already in the first effort, under the weight of the attempt to cram too many unconnected plotlines into the picture. We have seen this in “The Mummy” with Tom Cruise, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” with Charlie Hunnam and many other failed attempts. Yet in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which actually deals with multiple universes and infinite possibilities, that doesn’t happen. The reason is simple: Lord and Miller are occupied primarily with one character, without digressing into long-term thinking about additional movies.
There’s no doubt at all that the new film is fertile ground for an array of sequels, but the filmmakers prepare the ground organically and ensure that the movie we’re watching now will be enjoyable and satisfying in its own right.
The new adaptation approaches Spider-Man not as a character but as a myth that has taken hold in the culture. Lord and Miller deconstruct the core of the myth – the Sixties outsider – and reconstruct it for a different era. And as befits that era, there is no longer one figure but a spectrum of figures. After all, anyone can wear the mask.
“Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse” is an animation film that draws on the past without wallowing in nostalgia, and that challenges viewers without toadying to them. It’s a daring move for Hollywood. The result is one of the most successful animation movies to emerge from Hollywood, and one of the best superhero pictures seen on the silver screen.
I’m not a great fan of 3D screenings, but this is one of the few cases where it’s preferable, except in the case of people with weak stomachs.