In 2018, the foundation of telling a good Spider-Man story has become much more rooted in how you say it versus what you say. By now, the tale of the nerdy-outcast-turned-friendly neighborhood-hero Peter Parker has been spun more times than Dock Ock has arms, and within the last decade or so, there have been no fewer than three live-action incarnations of the character, each with their own idiosyncrasies and nuances to boast. While this proliferation certainly speaks to the character’s likeability, it puts pressure on every iteration to provide something unique; the potency of the wall crawler’s story seems to have been mitigated by sheer recital. The recent green-lighting of spin-offs focusing on Parker’s rogues gallery, from this year’s Venom to the forthcoming Morbius, seems to indicate that more entertaining stories are to be told outside of Peter’s web of influence.
Yet Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse thrills not only in the story it chooses to tell but also in the way it chooses to tell it, and proves that the tried and true template of the web-slinger’s origin story has never been riper for exploration. Shifting the focus away from Queens and into Brooklyn, Into the Spider-Verse centers around Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who becomes the latest teenager responsible to bear the power of Spider-Man’s abilities. At the genesis of his transformation, five more Spider-people (Peter B. Parker, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham, and SP//dr) from other dimensions enter into his universe.
Miles all of a sudden goes from being unique within his universe to just one of many heroes who bear the mantle. His self-discovery for what sets him apart from the rest of the group — a group of already exceptional individuals — is decidedly fresh as well as emotionally resonant. By the time he has found his voice and accepted the title of hero, he does not feel the need to mimic his interdimensional counterparts; he is free to be Spider-Man on his own terms while honoring what has come before. These themes, coupled with a vibrant and dazzling animation style that is intimately connected with the story it brings to life, make for a superhero film that quite fittingly, is out of this world.
Part of Spider-Man’s likeability is the fact that anyone could have been under the mask; Peter Parker was an ordinary student whose concerns for stopping the Sinister Six were just as important as passing his English class. Thankfully, though, rather than make Miles simply an ethnic permutation of Peter, writers Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman flesh out Miles as his own character, one bursting with energy and wit. Rather than flaunt his abilities, Peter kept his heroic life separate from his personal life, remaining wise-cracking and confident in the spandex while staying geeky and shy outside of it. Miles, on the other hand, is courageous to a fault, from treating every slab of pavement as a canvas for his decorative street art (even to the chagrin of his own cop father) to nonchalantly shrugging off rejection and awkwardness.
Being half Puerto-Rican and African-American, these cultural elements are thankfully given their own faithful time in the spotlight as well. Yet by living in a world where Spider-Man already exists, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman have the opportunity to present a unique set of challenges for Miles that Peter never had to face. For Miles, he is no trailblazer; he is stepping into a legacy he had no part in shaping up until now. To stay true to himself while honoring tradition is no easy task and it only makes his eventual embrace and mastery of that tension (marked by a decidedly fashionable debut of his black and red hoodie costume) all the more triumphant.
This unexamined look at superheroism already elevates Into the Spider-Verse above its predecessors, but what cements its paramount status is its animation. Indeed, if the live-action films were, while functional, limited in their capacity to accurately translate the page to the screen, the freedom and fluidity of the animation that characterizes Into the Spider-Verse is like a much-needed Stark Industries suit upgrade. To say “you walked right into a comic book” would be a Kingpin-sized understatement; color pulses throughout every shot of the film and the way the story progresses honors the best part of the comic book medium while removing its clunkier elements. Just as comics have that one (or several) stand out sequences that take up multiple panels and sometimes multiple pages, Into the Spider-Verse appropriately captures the vibrancy and beauty of grandiose moments and set-pieces, whether it’s Miles narrowly escaping the Prowler during busy New York traffic or the Spider-people from other dimensions reacting in awe to Peter Parker’s Spider-lair. One of the standout scenes comes after Miles is bitten by a Spider and he feels the effects that it has on his body; his thoughts are gleefully subtitled in the form of thought bubbles, but as he continues to become unhinged, the thought bubbles increase in size and begin to physically inhibit his actions. It is a literal (and yet humorous) reminder that our inward thoughts have a way of affecting our physical actions.
While Miles is being “trained” by the other Spider-people as they prepare to face Kingpin, Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) states that the most important thing to remember about being Spider-Man is that “it does not matter how many times you fall, what matters is if you get back up.” In many ways, this phrase is an evolution of Uncle Ben’s old famous “with great power comes great responsibility” adage; sometimes the responsibilities of life are greater than powers one has to deal with them. Often it is easier to stay down and remain caught in life’s messy web of hardships rather than resist. But as Into the Spider-Verse shows, no matter how crafty the villains are or how sinister the plots may be, getting back up and fighting is not futile. In an age of superhero films where contrived mandates of courage seem to come left and right, Into the Spider-Verse revels in the uplifting and finds a spirited, colorful and captivating way to give this message, creating a new Spider-Man that fans young and old can get behind. Superheroism has never felt or looked this perfect.
Zachary Lee is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]