‘Spider-Verse’ a brilliant, beautiful collision of aesthetics, stories

Stills aren’t going to do this movie justice, but we’ve got a lot of them. Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

8/10 Given Sony’s recent history of desperate moneygrubbing, both in general and with Spider-man in particular, I was more than happy to skip Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The film’s premise makes it feel like a gimmick to kick-start the Spider-verse they’ve been talking about for four years now – it’s literally in the title – and right up until its release and amazing critical reception, I thought it was going to simply fizzle out of existence like the other solo-Sony attempt to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But after the late-cycle publicity blitz, the technical details became interesting enough to get me in the door for what turned out to be a wonderful movie.

In an alternate timeline, Brooklyn middle-schooler Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a second Spider-man. Around that same time, this universe’s Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is killed trying to dismantle a dimensional collider, which was commissioned by Wilson Fisk (Liev Schrieber) to pull versions of his dead wife and child from another dimension.

Parker charges Morales with stopping Fisk, but he has no idea how to handle himself. Fortunately, a much older Peter Parker (this one voiced by Jake Johnson) is pulled into Morales’ dimension, along with Earth-65’s Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld), a version of Peter Parker from an entirely black-and-white noir world (Nicolas Cage), anime character Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and the Spider-Ham himself Peter Porker (John Mulaney) to mentor him.

Notice the way the noir character is seemingly lit from a completely different source as the rest of the frame and the lack of depth for Peni Parker and Spider-Ham, which are meant to come from two-dimensional cartoons.

The ongoing boom of comic book movies largely dates back to the X-Men and Spider-Man movies at the turn of the century, which proved a great deal. Mostly they proved that comic book characters a tier below Batman and Superman were still reliable box office draws and that audiences would stick with them as things got more zany – specifically, blue women and everything that is Sam Raimi won’t scare gigantic audiences off. The dozens of comic book movies that followed in their wake have largely been expanding on those proofs – lower and lower tier characters are driving wild box office success, all the way to the point that movies about a talking raccoon are some of the best-loved entries in the genre, and getting more and more out there with the actual filmmaking.

Several of these movies strive to bring a comic book to the big screen in as literal a way as possible, be that by attempting the massive crossover events, which are as easy to print in comic format as any other magazine but are incredibly difficult to organize into a movie production, or by approaching the aesthetics of a literal comic book as closely as possible – 2005’s Sin City stands out here.

Here’s a good example of the film’s signature layering techniques, with foreground and background elements appearing as two different styles of animation.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes the “make a literal comic book” task and runs to the Moon and back with it. Co-directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman apparently spent an entire year coming up with 10 seconds of footage that they liked, and then commissioned the rest of the film based on that footage. At peak, 140 animators were working on bringing it to life on deadline, making it the largest production in Sony Pictures Animation’s history, and they still only managed to get the final product complete in October, which may have contributed to a marketing campaign that felt limited.

That final product is bizarre and absolutely wonderful. Into the Spider-Verse is a movie completely and very consciously divorced from the limiting factors of a live-action camera. The creative team decided not to simulate motion blur and had scenes drawn that were lit in ways that would be impossible to recreate practically. The whole thing was rendered at 12 frames per second, which gives it a janky look – the human eye sees at about 24 frames per second, which is the speed at which most movies roll through their individual images.

Most frames of Into the Spider-Verse involve multiple disciplines of animation layered on top of each other, something that required a top-down examination of every detail in order to make work. Sony is so proud of the unique final product – or so jealous and moneygrubbing as a company – that they’ve actually applied for a patent on the techniques used to make the movie.

Here’s another good shot of the layering.

As bananas as the techniques are, more important is what they are being put toward, and that’s where Into the Spider-Verse really becomes a winner. Not content to simply create a movie that is clearly visually distinct from its live-action cousins, Persichetti, Ramsey and Rothman have created a movie that couldn’t possibly be made without the techniques they are employing. All the various Spider-Men, women and animals are animated with and surrounded by their own visual style – art director Patrick O’Keefe described the process as akin to making five different movies, because that’s what made the most sense to do.

The level of detail and imagination extends to the villains as well – Prowler’s musical cues and visual design are highlights, but it’s particularly special to see with Fisk and the Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone), who are both imagined in ways that simply couldn’t be done with live-action, growing closer to their comic counterparts almost to the point of satire. The Fisk of the comics appears incredibly obese with all of that weight instead being muscle, and his two excellent movie and television adaptations have essentially defaulted to stocky bald men, but in Spider-Verse, he’s inflated to the point of being a giant cube with a bald head sticking out of it. The goblin, who’s portrayal in film has always been a major hurdle, is imagined as a hulking and very literal goblin.

The film rarely misses an opportunity to add little touches to make sure everything about its format stands out, from details like Spider-Man Noir being colorblind to intermittent onomatopoeias that hearken back to the ‘60s Batman television series. It was obviously made with an intense love of genre and of every version of the character involved.

While my initial dismissal of Into the Spider-Verse as a cashgrab has become an outright fear, it looks like the franchise they want to spawn from this movie will be just as grounded in what’s correct for the characters as this movie is. The current talks are around a sequel continuing Morales’ story, a Spider-Woman movie about Stacey and other characters called Spider-Woman, and a series of television shorts for Spider-Ham.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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