See now, I remember back in 2013 I saw the trailer for The Lego Movie. I had seen Jump Street at that point, but not Cloudy and Lord and Miller weren’t really a directorial team that I was following. I didn’t know if the film was going to be any good, but I knew I had to see it on the big screen. There just wasn’t anything else ever made that looked like it. There was nothing that moved in the same way.
It’s absolutely the same with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. There is nothing out right now that looks like this. Like, full stop. It’s conception and execution are fucking immaculate. You ever just cry watching a movie because you realise that there’s a group of people who made something really good and you’re just so happy for them? I do, and I did, then sat back in my seat and waited for whatever next explosion of inventiveness would leave me aghast. I never had to wait long.
The plot itself is, aside from a few wrinkles, a largely generic beast. The film self-awarely throws out at the start that we’ve no need to hear a Spider-man origin story again, then goes on to basically lay one out right ahead of us. We see a young man acquire superpowers, try to figure out how to use them, then try to figure out how they should be used, then use them to defeat an plot that threatens the wellbeing of others. We see how the changes affect his family, his social life, how they induct him into a world that was previously beyond understanding and how he comes to find a place in it.
This is the third spidey adjacent film Sony has put out in the past year and a half, and they’ve all so far been origin stories. Don’t know why we’d be expecting anything different. Our hero here is Miles Morales: young, black, Brooklynite kid. Shameik Moore voices him with affection, laying on this bravura streak that sits atop the fragility and insecurity of a teenage boy trying to find his place in the world. He’s worried that he doesn’t deserve his scholarship and chafes against the expectations of his parents.
He’s also a really good graffiti artist. The film paints in broad strokes is what I’m trying to say, hopefully we’ll get more flesh in the sequels — because of course there’ll be sequels. It’s enough to know right now that Tom Holland’s Spider-man is a dork, this one is at least trying hard not to be. Which is barely enough for a start, but it’ll have to do because this film introduces us to not just one new Spider-man but seven. Voiced variously by Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Chris Pine, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, John Mulaney and Oscar Isaac.
Early on Miles witnesses some sorta accident with a secretive underground dimensional tunnelling device whose test runs have been causing earthquakes and power outages throughout New York. All these various figures have found themselves flung into the wrong universe, looking for a way back home. The screenplay, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman uses this as an excuse to combine the best parts of odd-couple buddy-comedy movies, big team up movies, weirdo fish outta water movies.
Sure, it spends most of its energy paying attention to the ones that kinda just make sense with little explanation, Johnson’s older, washed-up Spidey and Steinfeld’s Spider-woman but it wrings a surprising amount of juice outta those that exist on the sidelines. Cage’s black and white 1930s detective, Glenn’s anime influenced mech pilot, Mulaney’s Saturday morning cartoon talking animal. Set that aside from the simple ostentatiousness of a story that serves to throw them all together, employing a visual language that’ll have the whole bunch occupy a frame.
It’s strange that while the one endpoint of comic book nerdery that came to realisation in Avengers: Infinity War led to a bad movie, this one — which seems even more conceptually audacious from a layperson’s point of view — works so fantastically. It’s the ultimate simplification, it reduces the required understanding of the metatext down to zero. It’s not particularly precious of the source material. While it’s cool to see a young Japanese-American featured prominently as a super hero, it’s undeniable that her inclusion is meant to be taken with any sort of seriousness. Her anime stylings are not even a reflection of the comic in which she debuted, it’s a slightly icky signifier.
And while the flippant approach serves to strengthen this feature, it is doing so at the expense of the art that influenced it. We can look at the obvious decline of the Lego Movie franchise over the previous two instalments. Their creators desperately trying to excavate meaning in a universe that found an audience by obliterating it. Sure Infinity War is leaden and tiresome in its own self-seriousness, but at least its bad decisions are couched in the extreme earnestness with which it they are presented.
Take, for example, the villainous plot we see here. It is a sketch, a rough draft of something that suggests some psychological depth but fails to properly deliver on its promises. Kingpin is the mastermind of it, his design super inspired by Sylvain Chomet’s Les triplettes de Belleville, but then Doctor Octopus is there as well, and the Green Goblin turns up and why? The film just wants them all to be there. It needs those faces, it doesn’t matter what they mean so long as they’re present. In fact, having them mean anything could be a distraction from the dynamism that it so relies on.
Maybe there’s an honesty to Spider-verse then, a cynical movie for a cynical time. After all, all the choices Marvel makes have to be focus-grouped to hell and back, that’s the friction that exists in all of their products. Sony’s approach to committing to the obvious, desperate leveraging of every property that they have in order to make a buck has its own uncomfortable charm. And unlike the Marvel approach this at least seems to be creating films with recognisable character, between this and Venom you can’t say that they’re particularly lacking for it.
This is a wonderful movie, no doubt. I love how it looks, I love these characters, I was entertained the whole way through. I just can’t quite click with the impulses that drive it I guess. I hope we find ways to create art without it being an act of destruction.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is currently screening in UK cinemas.