Victoria Mullins is a current PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in Children’s Literature. Her research is focused on exploring the relationship between Disney animation and cinematic horror.
Spider-Man has become a part of our cultural mythology. His ability to shoot webs and scale buildings has captured the imaginations of both adults and children alike since he first shot onto the comics scene in 1962 (in the anthology comic book Amazing Fantasy #15, and, a year later, in the first publication of his original solo series The Amazing Spider-Man #1). From spider-suits to web blasters, Spider-Man has spawned a plethora of merchandise. (My favourite of which being the beautifully-misshapen Spider-Man Popsicle.) Yet, for all that the suit itself has been commodified, it is the person behind the mask that makes Spider-Man unique. Whilst the spider’s bite granted him superpowers, it is Spider-Man’s humanity that makes him amazing. And, it is his relatability that set him apart from the pantheon of flawless superhumans (such as Superman) and made him one of our culture’s most enduring superheroes.
Unlike the perfection of other superheroes – such as Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, etc. – Spider-Man has feet of clay. His has an Everyman appeal, which is enhanced by the complete anonymity granted to him by his head-to-to suit. (Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee believed that the suit helped readers to see themselves as Spider-Man, as anyone could lie behind the mask.) Spider-Man is just an “average guy” who was bitten by a radioactive spider one day and mistakenly made a superhero. He still has problems.
This was first exemplified by the figure of Peter Parker who, orphaned at a young age, lives with his Aunt May in Queens. As Peter fights crime by night and attends high school by day, Spider-Man became the first notable teenage superhero (where previously comics had only presented teenagers as sidekicks, such as Robin “the Boy Wonder”). Peter is a heroic teenager who, in spite of (and, in many cases, because of) his superpowers, voices ‘self-obsessions with rejection, inadequacy, and loneliness’ with which readers – especially younger readers – could relate (Wright, Comic Book Nation, 2001). Indeed, it is ultimately through making mistakes that Peter learns that “with great power there must also come great responsibility.”
Whilst this holds true of many of the different Spider-Man story arcs, the character of Spider-Man has been transformed many times over. If we consider the different filmic adaptations of Spider-Man since Sony acquired the filmic rights to the character in 1999, we can see that the presentation of Peter Parker is different within each one. The professional photographer (and not-so-professional dancer) Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) of Sam Raimi’s blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007) is unlike unconvincingly high-school-aged Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, 2014). Similarly, the Spider-Man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Tom Holland) is different still (he is, for instance, believable as a high-school student and IMHO the best live-action incarnation of Peter Parker). If you are interested in the differences between the different filmic incarnations of Spider-Man, cult-filmmaker and comics writer Kevin Smith has explained it excellently in a video interview with WIRED.
Whilst Peter Parker has previously been Hollywood’s only Spider-Man, Into the Spider-Verse casts Miles Morales in the leading role. First appearing in Ultimate Fallout #4 (created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli) (2011), Miles Morales represented a new direction for Spider-Man. As the son of a Puerto Rican mother (Rio Morales) and an African-American father (Jefferson Davis), Miles was the first black character to assume the role of Spider-Man, as well as the second Spider-Man of Latino descent (Miguel O’Hara, of half-Mexican descent, becoming the first in the 1990s series Spider-Man 2099, created by Peter David and Rick Leonardi). His creators and the then-editor in chief of Marvel, Axel Alonso, drew inspiration from his character from both Barack Obama and Donald Glover/Childish Gambino (who has a cameo in the film – a nod to both his work as the voice actor for Miles Morales in the Ultimate Spider-Man TV series (in 2015) and the fan-led online campaign #Donald4Spiderman that sought to land him the leading role in Webb’s Spider-Man reboot). Miles’s story is expanded across the Ultimate Comics Spider-Man series, in which he engages with Peter Parker’s legacy in order to form his own. As Miles proved to be an immensely popular character, he was later brought into mainstream continuity to work alongside Peter Parker. Miles is a featured character (voiced by Nadji Jeter) in Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018), the hugely popular new PlayStation 4 game.
Images clockwise from top left: Miles Morales first appearance in Ultimate Fallout #4 (Bendis et al. 2011) [Image credit: https://readcomiconline.to/Comic/Ultimate-Fallout/Issue-4?id=58149%5D; Miles as he appears in Into the Spider-verse [Image credit: https://www.vox.com/2018/11/28/18113552/spider-man-into-the-spider-verse-review-miles-morales%5D; Miles Morales as voiced by Donald Glover in Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series [Image credit: https://www.slashfilm.com/donald-glover-spider-man-miles-morales/]; Miles Morales in Marvel’s Spider-Man for PS4 (2018) [Image credit: https://www.playstationlifestyle.net/2018/09/13/spider-man-ps4-miles-morales-original/#/slide/1%5D
Although Peter Parker provides a large presence within the film, Into the Spider-Verse is undoubtedly Miles Morales’ story. Whilst Peter is an orphan, Miles lives in Brooklyn with his mother, who works as a nurse, and his father, who works as a police officer. And, unlike Peter, Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore) is a smart and cool high-school student with a rebellious streak (showcased by the creative release he finds in graffiti art and his consistently untied shoelaces). However, for all the contrast that Miles offers to Peter, he shares with him the sense of self-doubt that differentiates Spider-Man from other superheroes. At the film’s outset, Miles is selected to go to a new school. The school represents a big opportunity for Miles, but he struggles to attain the popularity he had at his previous school and longs to be in Brooklyn with his family and friends (something that is expressed through the film’s soundtrack). This can be observed through the assignment of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations as one of Miles’s class texts: a reference which is played out throughout the film as Miles attempts to grapple with the great burden he feels (as both a teenager and a superhero).
Into the Spider-Verse is, at its heart, a Bildungsroman: the shoes (or, suit) Miles must fill are large, and the film documents his journey of self-discovery as he becomes his own version of Spider-Man. And, as it explores how Miles balances a teenager with being a superhero, the screenplay is excellent and laugh-out-loud funny – though, this is perhaps unsurprising given that it was written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind 21 Jump Street (2012) and The Lego Movie (2014). As a side-note, Sony have made the script freely available for anybody who is interested (http://origin-flash.sonypictures.com/ist/awards_screenplays/SV_screenplay.pdf). Whilst the filmmakers at Sony Animation demonstrate an acute awareness of the Spider-Man mythology, you absolutely do not need to have a familiarity with Spider-Man in order to enjoy this film. However, any Spider-stans will find that the film a highly rewarding viewing experience, as they will be able to spot a huge web of references that highlight Spider-Man’s enduring place in the pop-culture pantheon. These involve references to the television shows, films, merchandise, and, perhaps most importantly, the different Spider-Man story arcs within Marvel comics.
Although Marvel’s cinematic universe seems to have only shone the spotlight on Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, Into the Spider-Verse presents us with an array of weird and wonderful Spider-People from all different universes. Each is distinguished by a different animation style: Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney) showcases a 2D hand-drawn style; Peni Parker (Kamiko Glenn) is an anime-inspired CG/2D hybrid; Spider-Noir (voiced by Nicholas Cage) exists solely in black-and-white; Spider-Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) is depicted with the grace of a ballerina. The animation styles chosen for each character reflect their individuality and background. A point that also holds true of the film’s villains. For a hero is only as good as his nemesis, and Spider-Man has one of the most amazing Rogues Gallery in comics history. As Kevin Smith enthused in an Instagram post celebrating the film, Into the Spider-Verse places equal importance on highlighting the history of such well-known villains as Kingpin (for whom the animators appear to have drawn influence from Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s graphic novel Daredevil: Love and War). Whilst all these different animation styles could appear jarring, they work beautifully to highlight how diverse and far-reaching the Spider-Verse has become.
Although Spider-Man has long been adapted for animation (indeed, since the 1967 series which has now become the basis for a popular meme), Into the Spider-Verse is entirely original in how it utilises the full potential of the animated medium to pay homage to the comic book pages in which Spider-Man first appeared, then endured. This is made evident from the opening credits, which brought the biggest smile to my face as they concluded with the Comics Code Authority (CCA) official stamp of approval: a reference to the self-regulatory censorship practice that was in effect at the time of Spider-Man’s inception. (The Comics Code Act of 1954 was introduced after the Senate Subcommittee of Juvenile Delinquency and remained in effect, at Marvel Comics at least, until 2001). Whilst an apparently small detail, the inclusion of the CCA seal of approval not only demonstrates the creators’ familiarity with Spider-Man’s history, it also signals a recreation of an older comics illustration style revolutionised through the animated medium.
Into the Spider-Verse is basically an animated comic. As Justin Thompson, the film’s production designer, explains: ‘As somebody obsessed with comics my whole life, I had seen films translated from comics and I always thought something got lost in translation. […] So I thought it would be amazing to make a movie from Miles Morales’ point of view, living inside a comic book and staring out at me: those Ben-Day dots, those screen tones, those offsets, the line work” (IndieWire, 2018). To achieve this, the Sony VFX team had to create new software, blending a range of animation styles. Apparently, their motto soon became “If it ain’t broke, break it.” And, the effect is truly wonderful to see. Into the Spider-Verse offers us not only a fresh view of Spider-Man, but also of the animated medium at large. (Indeed, Sony have even applied for a series of patent applications to protect these techniques through copyright.)
In reimagining the comics medium through animation, the film presents a keen awareness that comics are the result of a collaboration between artist and writer, offering a fitting tribute to both Spider-Man’s co-creator’s, Steve Ditko (November 1927 – June 2018) and Stan Lee (December 1922 – November 2018) in equal measure. The film’s stunning visuals and official dedication act as a testament to Ditko’s artistry. (Keep an eye out for the phone contacts shown during the film – many exist as references to influential comic book artists!) And Stan Lee, in true Stan Lee fashion, has a cameo that, although completed during his lifetime, now stands as a beautifully-fitting, and ultimately poetic, farewell.
Through its inherent blend of nostalgia and innovation, Into the Spider-Verse returns us to the core of Spider-Man. By presenting Miles Morales’ story, Into the Spider-Verse both acknowledges Spider-Man’s genesis and signals his future. Into the Spider-Verse thus stands as a true testament to Lee and Ditko’s co-creation, what it has achieved, and what future possibilities remain in-store for it. The film asks, and subsequently answers, what it means to be Spider-Man. It presents us with a world of different universes, Spider-Men, and possibilities. And, in so doing, it invites us to think about what makes us amazing as individuals.
Into the Spider-Verse therefore stands – at least IMHO – as one the best superhero films ever made. So, I implore you, whether you like superhero films or not, WATCH THIS ONE! It is worth it based on the visuals alone, which make it a definite contender for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. (This is attested to by the success of Ramin Zahed’s book, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The Art of the Movie, which is currently – to my great annoyance – sold-out on both Amazon and Forbidden Planet.) And, since it scooped up with award for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Golden Globes on Sunday, some have suggested that it could be in the running to receive a Best Picture nomination. So, when you watch the film, STAY FOR THE POST-CREDIT SCENE. It is probably my favourite post-credit scene ever, and absolutely worth the wait!
(Oh, and as one last additional note for those of you who (like me) enjoy this sort of thing: you might want to check out the Venom (2018) post-credits scene before watching Into the Spider-Verse. It is absolutely not necessary to enjoy the film at all, but it is (technically) Miles Morales’s first big-screen appearance (and basically a trailer for Into the Spider-Verse).)
Did you enjoy this review? Be sure to check out our other contributions to Movie Review Month here on the CRCLC Blog, including Madeleine Hunter’s review of Disney’s take on E.T.A. Hoffman’s enigmatic children’s story, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms; Anna Purkiss’s review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald, through the lens of disability studies; and Prof. Maria Nikolajeva’s return to the work of P.L. Travers and the legacy of Mary Poppins: “Mary Poppins Returns to All of Us”