Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman
Review by Zach Dennis
Superheroes have always been about identities.
Not the secret identity, which functions as a plot point, but the significance of that hero and what they mean to the people both inside the story and watching the screen. Whatever power that hero may have, the heightened ability operates as a validation — a reminder that they looks just like you and, in a way, represents you. You see yourself through the hero not because you expect to share the same supernatural attributes that they carry, but because they represents your own identity in a valorized concentration.
Unfortunately, most major superheroes have been installed under a single lens (save Wonder Woman or Black Panther for example), cloaking that valorization in whiteness, which dissociates the majority of the population from validation through culture.
Diversity, inclusion and representation seem more like synergy words built for a boardroom in 2018 than actual goals for a creative property. To this point, the push for more of all three have been described as an “arms race” and a “creative choice” that is “paying off” rather than an organic narrative storytelling decision.
Placing a non-white actor in the lead role might seem better for business rather than better for the character — but that may be the cynicism talking. At the end of the day, the dollar speaks much louder than the pen, and becomes the driving decision-maker for any franchise — superhero or otherwise.
It’s easy to label Infinity War as the ultimate culmination of the comic-book movie goal — bringing all of the characters together under one label and allowing them to riff, fight and mourn all on the same plane.
But it is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that shows not only the endless visual prospects of the comic-book genre, but also the natural inclusion of diversity and representation that felt less like a business plot and more of a reminder that the hero’s identity is fluid because anyone can be behind the mask.
Spider-Verse feels immediately singular from its opening sequence. It almost takes a number of minutes for your eyes to adjust as it employs a degree of computer-generated animation that doesn’t merely rival prior worksbut sets a new precedent. It would be easy to dismiss its ambition by lumping it into the field of other comic-book adaptations that have strived to emulate the panel structure of the actual, tangible comic books, but that would ignore the multi-layers of craft all being welded together to capture this hyper-kinetic sense of wonder that this movie carries.
In one respect, it is employing the panel technique most often associated with comics — even tossing in text boxes and the occasional “WHAM!” or “BAM!” to add effect — but the design of the movie also feels radical and surreal.
As our main character Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) moves around New York City — especially once in the company of a downtrodden and gruff older Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) — the screen comes alive with vibrant colors and textures that speak more to the Steve Ditko-infused psychedelia of Marvel’s golden age of comics but with a mixture of the more postmodern amplification of boundaries and colors that came with the infusion of art and technology.
One defining instance is the climactic battle between Miles and the movie’s villain, Kingpin (voiced by Live Schreiber). The audience enters a space that is building up and deconstructing within this amorphic universe that is so awe-inspiring, it is difficult to focus on the action of the actual battle because of the desire to admire the sheer texture of the space you’re inhabiting.
But are the visuals enough to break the monotony?
Miles Morales’ journey in the film is embedded in fitting into the predetermined mold of what it means to be Spider-Man. While something like Infinity War twists the timelines to bring all of their favorite heroes together, Spider-Verse uses the same ploy to show the shifting dynamics of a once ubiquitous property.
The film opens with the death of the Peter Parker we know (voiced by Chris Pine). This leaves a void for Miles because he has just recently come into contact with similar arachnid powers that Parker promised to coach him through before his untimely demise at the hands of Kingpin. But that doesn’t dispel his journey as multiple other Spider-related heroes are shipped into Miles’ timeline due to the riff created during the battle between this version of Peter Parker and this version of Kingpin.
Joining Miles’ timeline is an older Peter Parker from another dimension, who as I mentioned before, lacks the passion he may have once possessed in being Spider-Man. This Parker is important because he would traditionally viewed as the “real” Spider-Man (one comic blog even made that case) as the character has been presented in that fashion since the first issue of the comic in 1962.
But he isn’t the only one entering this timeline. Along with him is Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) — another popular character coming from the same period of comics as Miles — Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). At the very least, this establishes the abstractness that Spider-Man has taken on because the traditional version can’t be relied on in each timeline, universe, etc. It’s also a reminder that superheroes live in an abstract space anyway.
If the superhero is the modern myth, then we should take a note from the ancient minds and see the changes in form each of their gods took on. The same case can be made in a more theological sense as the difference in God and Allah ranges by how you identify with them. In either sense, we are attributing similar stories into different forms, and giving worth to our own identity.
Spider-Verse is this concept in its purest method. Comics have gone light years ahead of the movies, installing a female Thor, a black female Iron Man, a black Captain America, and the multiracial Miles Morales as the new version of Spider-Man. They aren’t different iterations working on a new timeline, they’re the real character. Even in comics, you don’t live forever.
There doesn’t seem to be an answer to where superhero movies can go from here. Infinity War may be their peak–and if so, they are in trouble narratively. But there has to be some hope after watching Spider-Verse that comic book movies have found their purest, and more enriching form, as the medium of animation not only allows the organic fluidity of identities and roles shifting, but it also offers the spectacle that the Russo Brothers could only dream of instilling in their live-action work of the same ilk.
The narrative journey of older Peter Parker in the movie is an interesting one, and that’s in part thanks to the acting choices by Jake Johnson. Parker can’t be seen as much of a hero here and has become as lethargic and uninspired as most other straight, white male heroes in live-action as much as animated cinema.
It would take a massive leap to believe his character arc is what motivated Miles to come to grips with how he could become Spider-Man because he didn’t offer much advice outside of a few joke-related moments. He’s tired, pathetic, and too past his prime to be seen as the central hero, much less the harbinger of the traditional concept of Spider-Man anyway.
There is no torch being passed and no real acknowledgement of the mentee surpassing the mentor. Instead, it’s more of a coming-to-terms with his limitations and the endless possibilities that the others like Miles and Gwen posses that he doesn’t now and may have never before.
These heroes have no chiseled identity and the lesson comic book movies should take from Spider-Verse is that embracing and unleashing that is how you can break the monotony.