Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman | 1hr 56min
Just when we thought Pixar had knocked off its serious mainstream competition, a superhero movie from Sony astounded us all with an animation style unlike anything we had seen before. The comic book influence shines through in its split screens, panels, and onomatopoeia, and the urban street art styling raucously announces itself in its bold, at times even abstract, imagery. It is a perfectly curated aesthetic to accompany Miles Morales’ Brooklyn-based hero journey, which fittingly begins in an abandoned subway station scrawled with colourful graffiti. It is here that he is bitten by a radioactive spider, and it is also where that radioactivity starts to colour Miles’ world with vivid fluorescence.
There is no need to explain the existence of this radioactive spider in Spider-Verse, not just because it seems like such a natural phenomenon to emerge from this luminescent vision of Brooklyn, but also because the origin of Spider-Man is so baked into our culture, it has essentially taken on mythological significance. Of course, the path to becoming Spider-Man is just one template of the traditional hero’s arc, but Spider-Verse demonstrates how broadly its conventions can be applied to a huge range of culture and identities, tying them together under a common set of values.
Several times we see alternate versions of Spider-Man introduce themselves and their backgrounds in the same format, beginning with some variation of the line “Let’s do this one last time”, as if to assume their own story is the definitive one. Though each of their lives varied greatly before they took on the mantle, we recognise from the patterns in their introductions that they all share a set of characteristics which led them to becoming Spider-Man: a bite from a radioactive spider, the death of a loved one, and growth from that grief to become a fighter for justice. Establishing each of their identities in these theme-and-variation montages is an exceptionally imaginative way to bring form to this ensemble of characters, effectively defining their individual and shared traits without getting caught up in over-exposition.
With an outline of the journey to becoming Spider-Man effectively sketched out, a path is set for Miles. Likewise, a similar shadow path is set for Wilson Fisk, AKA Kingpin. He too is imbued with his own complete emotional arc motivated by the death of his loved ones, and in his struggle with grief he proves to be an effective foil to Miles. Here is a man who has suffered immensely, just like every iteration of Spider-Man out there, but rather than growing from it to defend others, he has let it fester into bitterness. He would tear apart New York City if it means getting his family back, and that indeed becomes his plan, but in the process of enacting it he unwittingly becomes the sort of violent, resentful monster that they would have despised.
Miles, on the other hand, comes to a similar crossroads when faced with his Uncle Aaron’s cold-blooded murder. Aaron is also a fully-developed character, complete with his own set of affable quirks and tragic flaws, but our discovery that he has a dark side only makes his death all the more impactful. “The hardest thing about this job is you can’t always save everybody,” Miles is told in his mourning. Learning this lesson is a rite of passage for the path Miles is on, and it is only when he falls into the pits of despair and builds himself back up from it that he is able to reach the final stage of his transformation into Spider-Man, becoming a mature, confident, and empathetic hero.
The following scene where Miles dives upside down into the shining lights of New York City is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but there is also a good reason for why this specific image feels like such a significant part of his journey. From the moment Miles first gets his powers and meets Peter Parker, the cinematography starts to get more experimental with its off-kilter angles and lack of orientation, at times losing all sense of up and down as Miles and Peter walks across walls and hang from ceilings. Without any gravity to hold Peter or the other Spider-Men down, they perceive an entirely new world, and it is in this moment when Miles finally embraces the title and responsibility of Spider-Man that he fully grasps it too, gliding weightlessly through the city, untethered from the Earth below.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a rare breed of non-auteur driven film that displays a genuine affection for the art form, and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can be given much of the credit for that. Their dedication to constructing its style from a blend of traditional and computer animation pays off immensely in the final product, lifting from conventional comic book styles while reinvigorating them with the sort of dynamic movement and effects that could only ever be rendered digitally. With one foot in the past and one in the future, Spider-Verse reflects its own deconstruction of the hero in its visual artistry, examining the patterns and core values which transcend cultures and generations to bind together those who engage in a common fight for justice.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is currently available to stream on Netflix Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.