dirs: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Arguing about which of the Spider-Man movies are the ‘best’ is pointless, fruitless, demeaning, creepy and needlessly nerdy. After all, everyone knows Spider-Man 2 was the okayest, if not the best.
So it’s a settled argument. Phew. Now we can go back to arguing whether Nazis are really Nazis anymore or whether people need that much oxygen to breathe and whether Australia Day should be celebrated on April Fool’s Day or not.
And after that’s settled, maybe we get back to the new, real argument, which is: Which is the second-best Spider-Man flick?
Well, that argument has now also been settled with the release of this hilarious and utterly transcendent animated Spider-Man movie that artfully combines so many elements from the long and storied Spider-Man backstory, while also looking forward in gleeful and energetic ways.
Yes, okay, everything is superheroes these days and I’ve pretty much given up arguing against it, so now we’re just looking at the nuances and the ebbs and flows within the broader genre to see where the latest entries stack up. That’s all you can do. Twenty years ago the movies were mostly drama, a lot of action, some comedies and the occasional animated movie. Now it’s 90% superheroes, 5% shit blowing up, 4% people screaming at each other in place of drama and 1% whatever the hell is streaming on Netflix, mostly weak stand-up comedy. And most of that is older comics blaming the world for why we don't think they’re that funny anymore.
There’s something undeniably exuberant about this flick, something which this hero and his extended family is best known for, despite the dark turns the story might take. Visually it’s sublime and nuts, and it’s all in service of the story, insane as the story might be. But whoever Spider-Man is, the hero is always more like an actual person outside of the suit, brilliant but working class, highly functioning but ground down by life.
Miles Morales is a young teenager who really isn’t struggling with that much other than feelings of insecurity and imposter syndrome at the elitist school his hardworking parents have squirreled him into. There he is, existing quietly in his own universe, minding his own business, when he gets bitten by a genetically-engineered radioactive magic spider, don't you know.
Sound vaguely familiar? Miles has his parents – no widowed Aunt May, or crotchety Uncle Ben shaming him into realising that with great power comes greater power bills or whatever the famous phrase is that I’m pretending not to know. Miles, with an African-American cop dad and a Puerto Rican nurse mum isn’t coming from the same place as Peter Parker, even if, in fact, they do come from the same place, being Brooklyn. Miles does a lot of street tagging, and has a dodgy Uncle Aaron he hangs out with (the incredible actor and voice that is Mahershala Ali), but is fairly well adjusted compared to the average angst-fest masquerading as a coherent and credible character that passes for most superhero characters
So, despite the fact that Peter Parker is already in this story, it’s really an origin story for Miles’s Spider-Man, which is ever so different from Peter’s story. Then again, there are origin stories for not just Spider-Man, but for a whole range of Spider-people from across the multiverse, because, naturally, it was bound to happen eventually and it’s far more efficient this way(?)
A being so massive that he generates has his own moon-like gravity, being Wilson Fisk, or Kingpin as he’s better known (Liev Schriber), is determined to mess with the very fabric of the universe in order to try to get his wife and son back who he inadvertently killed when they saw him trying to kill a Spider-Man some time ago. He commissions the construction of some magical device that allows access to all the universes simultaneously through, I dunno, a singularity or something. If there are an infinite amount of other universes, it means two things, only one of which is relevant to Kingpin: in one of those other universes, there will be a version of his wife and son that didn’t die in a fatal car crash. From our perspective the more relevant factor is that each of these universes, or at least many of them, will have another Spider-Person of some description for our entertainment and to fight the forces of selfishness.
So when the young teenager Peter Parker surprisingly DIES… someone has to take his place, and it’s not going to be Miles. Someone has to stop the particle accelerator super collider whatever the hell it is from doing its thing again lest the entirety of not just the universe but all the universes collapse in on themselves and leave all of Creation a beautiful, pristine nullity. Would that it were an option.
Miles is smart, and anxious, so he’s not a million miles away from a young Peter Parker, but what he needs is an experienced Spider-Man to show him the ropes. So who better to teach him than an older, washed up Peter Parker with differently coloured haired and more of a “Why me?” attitude when it comes to life, liberty and the pursuit of Mary Jane?
Well, actually, he has something to contribute, but he probably needs some help too, so it’s a good thing that a bunch of other super-powered Spider-People also appeared through the breach in the walls between universes.
Spider-Gwen (being a version of Gwen Stacy that doesn’t die, like in the original comics, from a universe where Peter dies early), Spider-Noir (Nic Cage, at his Nic Cageist), a refugee from a black and white movie universe where it never leaves the 1940s, Japanese Manga Peni Parker with a Spider-Robot that does her bidding, and, most hardcore of them all, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), from a Warner Brothers universe where a spider got bit by a radioactive pig imbuing him with superpowers. You read that right – I somehow didn’t stuff it up.
This is all… way too much, anyone could be forgiven for thinking. How could I possibly keep all their identities and back stories separate, and why, if there are infinite other realities, do we only get these jerks? None of that really matters, because, in a way, perhaps a lazy, geeky way, all they are meant to represent is that in any given universe, there’s going to be someone who gets bit by something radioactive, and then the choice is up to them whether they protect New York or whether they don’t. Who they are, as in, their personal background or ethnicity or gender identity or whether they’re a cartoon within a cartoon doesn’t matter – it’s whether they get up again after being beaten down countless times by all the lunatics and monsters that plague the modern metropolis with their schemes and childish antics.
There will always be constants, though, in all the universes. Apparently there are always going to be Aunt Mays (the always great Lili Tomlin) as well, no matter where you go, or how many Peters die. Somehow, somewhy all the Spider people eventually congregate at Aunt May’s house, determined to find a way back to their own universes, and to shut down the machinations of the magnificently monstrous mound that is the Kingpin.
Miles, as befits the first appearance of any Spider-Man, is riddled with self-doubt and insecurity despite not having the guilt-inducing spectre of his Uncle Ben to constantly make him feel like shit. Instead he has a bunch of other reasons (not really) to feel bad, because, hey, it wouldn’t be nerdy entertainment if it didn’t at least initially appeal to the meek and downtrodden. How else would people relate to such phantasmagorical adventures and situations?
The animation here, for both stylistic and practical reasons, isn’t trying to approximate the “more real than real” visuals that Pixar disturbingly creates at its peak, nor is it cutting that many corners. The obvious argument to make is that they’re using the medium of animation to bring life to the static/dynamic artistry of the comics page. There are uses of composition that speak the language of comics far more so than usual in such animated fare. Sure, with computer animation, anything that couldn’t be done before can easily be done with the help of a thousand programmers, but they have to know what to do, what to conjure up, and the visual and story beats very much are working together here.
The most important thing, and the reason why it’s done so well, I reckon, is that it's funny, and it captures so brilliantly the fluidity of movement that these heroes enjoy, and works so well at doing endlessly inventive variations on that theme. There is still something so exhilarating about getting that movement, of whichever Spider-Person is doing it, of leaping forth into the unknown, slinging the line, and then desperately hoping that it all swings together and gravity is on their side. There’s a sequence of Miles finally getting his shit together and believing in himself like all heroes have to, that will be studied, imitated, replicated a thousand times over the next few years. It is worth the price of admission alone.
The psychedelic and just plain lunatic visuals at the end cap off what was insane but easily followable up until then, but really gives a sense that they’re going for something fairly unique, before they pull it back, calm everything down, and make it about people, and their connections to each other, and doing the right thing no matter how difficult / insane / mildly perturbing. You know, all that crap.
I kinda think Spider-Gwen, Spider-Noir and Spider-Ham ran away with the film, but Miles is pretty great. I don’t want to have to sit through scenes where his father awkwardly tells him how much he loves him ever again (whilst strapped to a chair, like, I know, right? Every time you’re strapped to a chair some parent has to come along and make things worse) but he’s a welcome addition to my life. My daughter, who insisted we see this over Ralph Breaks the Internet or the third How To Train Your Dragon, which presumably they’ve mastered by now (definitely had time to do your 10,000 hours by now, eh Hiccup?), thought it was great too, and she’s getting harder and harder to entertain as the years traipse by, let me tell you something for free.
Welcome to the Spider-Verse, arachnophobes. Hope you brought lots of bug spray with you.
9 times Spider-Ham isn’t the hero we want, but he’s the hero we deserve out of 10
“With great ability comes great accountability” - great, the accountants are going to start thinking we should give a shit about them now – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse