Review by Tim Robins
The Film: Bitten by a radioactive spider in the subway, Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales suddenly develops mysterious powers that transform him into the one and only Spider-Man. When he meets Peter Parker, he soon realizes that there are many others who share his special, high-flying talents. Miles must now use his newfound skills to battle the evil Kingpin, a hulking madman who can open portals to other universes and pull different versions of Spider-Man into our world.
The Review: The central character in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse is not any of the extra-dimensional Spider-Persons who spill out of a hole in Space and Time but the animation itself. When characters get excited, everything on screen becomes excited including buildings, parks and bedrooms. The entire frame snaps, pops and Kirby crackles along as if the animators had too many E numbers for Breakfast.
I never expected to go to see a Marvel animated movie in the cinema. Marvel has hardly been a by-word for quality animation even on television, where the bar has been much lower. Where DC’s Batman and Superman were granted wonderfully stylized worlds in the dark deco-ish Batman: The Animated Series and the 1950s-futuristic Superman: The Animated Series, the best could be said for Marvel’s TV cartoons is that they raised an audience awareness of its characters. By the time Bryan Singer’s live action X-Men came along, audiences knew the cast from because they had either watched them on TV with their Mums and Dads – or as Mums and Dads themselves.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse acknowledges the less than super legacy of Marvel based animation with a cheeky end-credit sequence animated in the style of the old Spider-Man cartoon. It’s a reference that is symptomatic of the film’s playful take on Spider-continuity is all its media forms. The film acts as if you know everything about Spider-Man but fills you in at the same time in a way that leaves you feeling flattered rather than bored. Comic book readers will also spot wry references to writer Brian Michael Bendis’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man.
The villainous yet tragic Kingpin exemplifies the inter-textual nature of the film. He is drawn like a Tex Avery character with a touch of Frank Miller and Bill (Daredevil: Love and War) Sienkiewicz thrown in for good measure.
What holds the film together is Miles Morales, an endearing youngster who became Spider-Man in the Marvel re-boot Ultimate Universe, but who has now crossed over to the mainstream comics much like the dimension warping thingamajig causes a variety of alternative versions of Spider-Man including Spider-Ham, Spider-Woman and Spider-Man Noir. Morales was actually designed by a former animator, Sara Pichelli, who won a 2011 Eagle Award for Favourite Newcomer Artist. The film is directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman from a screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman (who brought bits of plastic to comedic life in The Lego Movie).
I have been unable to find which animators did which characters but there is a whole lot of computing going on and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seems to have been as much an innovation in organising the production of animation as it is in the stylistic surfaces of the animated image.
[This project began over three years ago, when Alberto Mieglo, who is credited as Visual Consultant, was hired by Sony as Production Designer/ Art Director. He documents the early stages of the project here on Facebook, and although not involved in the final production as screened, is hugely effusive about all involved – Ed]
The dream of animation companies has been to find a computer programme that would make in-betweeners redundant (ie the people who draw the images needed to move smoothly a character from one key position to another. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has come up with a radical solution – get rid of in-betweening and turn strobing into an aesthetic choice. Sometimes it works, but what works best is eliminating the idea that animated characters should look as rounded and realistic as possible, with shading and shadows and all that stuff used to sell Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has been ‘sold’ to audiences as embracing a comic book aesthetic. “It’s like walking in to a comic book” enthused the production team, it’s like walking into a comic book” enthused members of the audience, so publicity and audience reaction are as one – something that needs to be treated with suspicion.
What the film actually represents is a break for the Alex Ross and Brian Hitch naturalism introduced in comics such as, respectively, Marvels and The Ultimates. The latter cast Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury some years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe did. This film shows that there is another way but not, as it is claimed, a way that is more like a comic book. This is an animated movie and learns from animation’s past while innovating animation’s future.
There was a point at which I began to tire of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s psychedelic visuals. That point was where the film focussed on the multi-coloured, inter-dimensional ink-blot effects used to illustrate the space between dimensions. The problem is that the literary device used to motivate the plot is a little tedious. I wish more could have been done with the characters, particularly the villains some of whom get as few lines as the supporting cast in X-Men: Apocalypse. Oh, and the Ultimate Universe’s re-visioning of Spider-Villains sucks – they are bulky and brutal in a way that doesn’t suite the High School-family-melodrama of Spider-Man, in any universe.
In a moment of questionable humour moment, Stan Lee makes an appearance of the Basil Fawlty-esque “I mentioned the war, but I think I got away with it!” variety. Lee is seen flogging Morales a Spider-Man costume and then pointing out that, once sold, the costume could not be returned.
Was this comment on the end of the sale-or-return comic market that has left Comic shops cruelly exposed to the failures of comic companies’ products? Was this cocking a snook at Steve Ditko, who actually designed and created the costume?
But now the film has drawn attention to the hucksterism at the heart of corporate culture, let’s stay with that for a while. Because what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does is to sell you uplifting messages about the human spirit while turning human values into marketable commodities.
A note to Disney and co: no child or adult needs to be sold self-belief, ambition or friendship. They are gifts humans give to themselves for free.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for The Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
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All images copyright Marvel/Sony Pictures