WARNING: Light spoilers ahead
BRIAN RUSSELL: Hey there Sam! Certainly you know this, and most regular readers of the blog will also be aware, I am a comic book fan from way back, and waited my entire life for the modern age of digital effects to make the superhero’s of my childhood look so realistic in the movies. Much as I loved Superman the Movie in 1977, it did not make me believe a man could fly. Iron Man in 2008 finally did that! But, too much of a good thing may be, well, too much. Superhero fatigue has begun to plague me as the most recent wave of Marvel and DC extravaganzas have pounded their way into theaters. And in some cases this fatigue has been downright dismay … hot messes such as Suicide Squad, Justice League, Doctor Strange and X-Men: Apocalypse have brought me to my knees.
There have been some glimmers of hope though. Captain America: Civil War and Logan represent some of the best storytelling in recent cinema — bar-none — and it is movies like these that keep me shelling out my hard-earned cash to the cinemas.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (from here on, Spider-Verse) is another such entry. This bit of high-art represents some of the very best the medium has to offer. This film is why I go to the movies.
I think the first thing the movie does right is give us fully realized characters. Miles seems like a real kid, Peter B Parker (one of the alternate universe Spider people) has faced real-human problems, and isn’t a perfectly formed hero.
SAMUEL B RUSSELL: I totally agree. And not only does this movie have strong characters, but it has strong relationships. There are a lot of characters, verging on too many. The film’s, maybe only, major flaw is that these wonderful relationships could use a little breathing room. I couldn’t help but feel Uncle Aaron’s death would have been more resonant if we had an extra scene or two of development between him and Miles, and if his relationship with his brother, Miles’ father, had been more than just a few expository lines.
But even with the films absolutely manic pace, these relationships have significant weight and authenticity. And while the time constraints are a weakness, the plurality of relationships is a strength. Miles is a kid trying to figure out how he fits in, and all these other people are there helping him navigate the world, each supporting him in their own unique way. Miles and his dad, Miles and Peter Parker, Miles and Gwen- even Miles’ Uncle Aaron, who turns out to be a villain, is a positive influence.
What did you think about this? Did the film feel bloated to you?
BR: Well, while watching the movie it honestly didn’t feel bloated to me, but I totally hear where you are coming from. “Plurality of relationships” is a great way to put it. The film succeeds where most fail when there are so many characters. I still cared about them all, and they all had distinct motivations, and they all helped Miles in their own unique way. And all the emotional beats felt true. This may be the films biggest success. I never felt manipulated (well, at least as much as the emotion can feel real and earned in any fictional story, which I suppose are all manipulations of a sort.)
That said, I do feel MIles’ Dad and Uncle Aaron could have used a bit more time. I also think Spider-Gwen got a bit lost in the shuffle. I was very interested in this character when she was introduced in school, but by the time she shows up as an alternate spider person she is reduced to just another superhero. Though I fear more time would have undermined the overall pace and excitement. You are probably correct that a few less characters might have been the answer. But who would go? Spider-Ham? Gwen?
That brings me to another point. While the film succeeds in giving us a number of strong female characters, none of them are all that well developed. Gwen Stacy, Doc Ock, Penni Parker, Mary Jane and even Aunt May are all presented as strong women with agency. BUT, none of them get all that much of a chance to earn their place. We are more-or-less just shown their strength in a few montages. So it was still a boys show. I would have liked the racial representation to have been complemented with gender opportunity as well. This didn’t really diminish my enjoyment, but I did think about it. And when I have to think about this kind of thing it always takes me out of the story just a little bit. What did you think Sam?
SR: Yeah this is true. For the sheer quantity of characters that were given substantial arcs, with clear wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, most of them were men. I would argue Gwen did have her own full arc, about learning to open herself up to new friendships. But it is a little rushed, and a little buried between all the other narrative threads. (It’s worth noting that it was written and directed by a team of 5 men). They’ve announced a sequel that will apparently focus on a Miles/Gwen flirtation, as well as a spin-off featuring an all female team of spider people, so I look forward to those bringing it with the gender representation.
We’ve talked a lot about character and story, but this is a movie that’s style is as, or more, important than it’s substance. They could have made a plotless, emotionally void 2 hour music video that looked like this and I still would have loved it. It’s a psychedelic, technicolored smorgasbord of styles and visual ideas, that meshes so well with the concept of multiple dimensions. You mentioned in your introduction that it evokes high-art and I totally agree. It mixes aesthetics from different pop art mediums, including animation, comic book illustration, graffiti, and glitch art. It gives each inter-dimensional character their own unique texture and style, which is so cool to look at when they all share the frame. I was listening to an interview with the producers, and they mentioned that they animated in a variable frame rate. It’s all just so damn cool. It’s like if in an alternate dimension version of 2008, Iron Man failed, and instead Speed Racer became the smash hit that influenced the following decade of blockbusters. I hope Spider-Verse has lasting influence on the visual style of superhero movies and animation in general going forward.
BR: I am totally with you on the style. And while I do LOVE Speed Racer, and the incomprehensible story does make it a ton of fun to sit around trying to figure it all out, there is a good reason why it has become a niche memory for some of us, and a failure in the pantheon of style-over-substance filmmaking. In stark contrast, the mash-up of styles in Spider-Verse demands that we pay attention. This story embraces it’s comic book roots down to the panel design, narrative text boxes and visual sound effects, and brought me right back to being a kid. I loved the ‘67 cartoon, and I loved the Sam Raimi movies (well 1 and 2 at least,) and Spider-Verse fully embraces that nostalgia. It references them, pays comedic homage to them, and even gives us a fun Stan Lee cameo (R.I.P.)
To further the idea that style can add to story, this film does what should be obvious to other comic book filmmakers but clearly is not: instead of the bland zombie-hordes used in nearly every contemporary superhero film, this movie offers psychedelic storytelling that looks fantastic while furthering the narrative and informing the characters. Spider-Ham’s distinctly 2D style contrasts perfectly with Miles’ near photorealistic presence. The Kingpin has a real motive (though admittedly this too could use some extra screen time to help us feel what he is feeling.) And the backgrounds succeed in exactly the way Doctor Strange’s failed. Doctor Strange felt like a bad drug trip. But here, we feel transported and we feel like we are actually between realities instead of trapped in a video game. Never is there a moment when I want to look away, and never is there a moment when I lose focus. I cared about every single frame.
Because I was so invested, I literally wept when Spidey tells his dad he loves him, and when Peter B Parker begins to try and patch things up with his version of MJ. The stakes played as real as the imagery, and many times I forgot I was watching animation. The peril made my heart pound, and I worried about the fate of these people. I was pretty sure Miles would survive, but my feelings fretted anyway. I stood side-by-side with these characters in their multiverse.
SR: Yeah, Doctor Strange got a lot of praise for its visual effects, and I never understood why. It just kinda did Inception meets a kaleidoscopes in the blandest way possible. I also agree about the stakes- some scenes felt like a thriller and I was often on the edge of my seat- something I can’t say for most superhero movies. It helps that in the first act they establish the brutal possibility of death- even if your name is in the title.
It’s kinda strange that we don’t have more animated superhero films. Marvel experimented with Big Hero 6 and DC with The Lego Batman Movie, and then there’s the 2 excellent Incredibles movies from Pixar. But this is really the first straight ahead animated comic book adaptation since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. This film demonstrates the absolute best way to make the translation from page to animation. I loved this movie, and I look forward to sequels, spin-offs, and whatever other films it inspires.
BR: Well, both Marvel and DC have done a ton of animated direct to video movies, and while some have decent stories (Return of the Caped Crusaders is a real stand out,) they all assume only the geekiest of geeks will tune in. Spider-Verse assumes the opposite: make a great movie and take advantage of the medium’s full potential, and the audience will come. With an expected $35 million opening weekend, it’s looking like audiences might be up for the great responsibility given to them by the great power of their cold hard cash. I can’t wait for the next chapter!
SR: I give this film 9 beer-guts out of 10 Seth Rogen horse-racing comedies.
BR: I give Spider-Verse 9.5 tensile strength webs out of 10 mighty octopus arms!