Monday, December 17, 2018
Marvel Watch: Spider-Man - Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Format: Alamo Drafthouse South
These days I think of Spider-Man (the character) as a friend from another, earlier part of my life - someone who you knew in school, talked girls with, that sort of thing, but who you haven't had any direct contact with in decades. Me and Spidey never had exactly a falling out, but I've not really re-engaged with mainline Marvel Universe Spidey much since high school. He went his way (The Clone Saga) and I went mine (JLA and Vertigo). You see what that old pal is up to from time-to-time or hear about it from mutual acquaintances, and you wish them well, but it's no reason to get back in touch.
Every once in a while I pick up a Spidey title again, but the last significant run I picked up ended in Spidey and MJ agreeing Aunt May would live (after being shot) so the world would get a brain wipe regarding Peter Parker's secret identity and MJ and Peter would have never been married... or something. Anyway, it was some of the worst writing I'd seen in comics, and I read the "Gwen Stacy birthed Norman Osborne's twins" stuff (which was the previous time I'd dropped Spidey).
I did read a lot of Brian Michael Bendis's run on Ultimate Spider-Man in those slim collections they put out a few times per year til about 2010. I figure I read the first 80 issues of that run before I burned out. And then I heard about a *new* Ultimate Spider-Man, and I had mixed feelings. But I also loved that Marvel was daring something with their franchise big gun. And, unlike so many other "there's someone new behind the mask" events both before and after, this one was well considered, plotted and worked. Because it was never intended to be short-term and it wasn't a "stunt", exactly.
But... again, you see this stuff happen in the comics, and you can tell where Marvel is in comparison to DC Comics in age as they've spent the last five years or so tip-toeing around their own multiverses and Crisis on Infinite Earths. When I saw "it's a multi-verse of Spider-Mans!" in the solicits, I just flat out did not care, and - honestly - it just told me I was right to have abandoned ship on Spidey over and over. I guess the events came and went, but comics social media being what it is these days, man, I heard nary a peep about it.
That said, I loved the first two Sam Raimi Spidey films, I'm a fan of what they're doing in the Sony/ Disney partnership to bring Spidey to the Marvel U. (where he's not just welcome, he's a necessary component that felt like a shot of joy into the Marvel U with his arrival). Across three films, I've quite liked Tom Holland as Peter Parker.
But this movie isn't about Peter Parker. Our featured Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) serves as the non-comics world's introduction to Miles Morales, a kid who is less 1963 Queens and more 2010's Brooklyn, who doesn't always have one foot in the 1960's origin and can reflect the modern American teenager from a different POV. For those now fanning themselves (and, honestly, not without reasonable worry), he's a welcome new take on Spider-Man without overwriting Peter Parker.
Not to beat around the bush, Miles' mother is Hispanic and his father Black - and while that informs the character, this isn't quite the same as the clunky 1970's attempts at bringing in Black or Latinx leads. The sub-text of "Miles is not Peter" is first major bit of foundation of the text in the story the movie is looking to tell.
A lot of us grew up with comics, and I know I differ from some of you who shun the Infinite Earths concept because it *does* take homework (homework which is way the @#$% easier here in the internet era than it was when I was 12). But, used well, Infinite Earths and multiverses provide a rich tapestry to tap as characters confront fate, destiny, their own choices, ghosts of what-could-have-been, and wonders of what-might-have-been. And their fears made manifest, of course.
In Miles, the film finds a new way to give us a relatable but specific protagonist. He isn't coming from a personal pity party, at least not a "please don't kick my ass today, Flash" sort of way, and he isn't the brooding, dickish kid of the Andrew Garfield films (Jesus, I'll never understand that take). He's a kid out of hid depth already just by virtue of getting sent to a science-academy boarding school that's more than a bus-ride away in the city. Saddled with loving parents, he's just ready to push boundaries, and he sees in his bachelor, cool-dude uncle, something closer to what he aspires. At least here at the age of 15 or 16.
There IS a Spider-Man in his world, doing the things a spider can, including irritating his policeman dad.
Curiously, the film's big-bad is Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, who has paid a science team to build a transdimensional collider (under Brooklyn) which would normally seem a bit out of his wheelhouse as a well-to-do mobster. He has his very, very Wilson Fisk reasons for getting involved in super science (instead of just good old fashioned murder) - and he's producing typical "as long as I get my way" Wilson-Fisk type results.
The collider, however, has drawn in a Spider-Man from another dimension - the one I should dub "relatable Spider-Man" - a sort of down on his luck, pushing-40 Spidey who wasn't doing so well wherever he came from. For those of us older nerds, this is our avatar in the film if Miles is there for the kids.
That's all that I want to share on the plot, specifically.
Of course we have to talk about the animation and art style and design - and... I may actually lack the vocabulary to properly discuss everything going on in this film, which is one of the most brilliantly animated works I've ever seen. Even if you hate Spider-Man and superheroes, this movie is, moment by moment, shot-by-shot, a work of pop art that will deserve study and I am grinding my teeth wanting a re-watch of the movie to just see the dang thing again.
I'll always appreciate that Ang Lee tried to bring the multi-panel experience to his Hulk movie, but I am sure Scott McCloud would have slapped his hand away in the edit bay - comics are not film, film is not comics. The eye can't and doesn't focus on multiple things at a time (see George Miller's latest Mad Max movie for shoving everything center of frame to keep the audience with you as you got nuts on them). Instead, the art team took liberally from the comics panel instead of the page.
Close-ups include the artifacted dotting of the printing process on flat planes of color. Focus and layout of camera angles rotates with attention to action rather than where gravity would normally place a camera or using traditional photographic techniques. This is Spider-Man, after all, and when a guy can stand out 90 degrees from a wall on two feet, the camera can stay with him. The whimsy of the artist in coming up with a visual gag - all the exteriors of Miles's new school and that scrolling down the block - that's good stuff.
Between masterful editing, embracing modern art and cartooning styles for backgrounds as well as characters, and a sheer kineticsism to the flow, the movie breaks ground over and over, right through the surreal climax.
In a movie with no less than six Spider-People, the film also grasps for comics' need to assume this issue may be someone's first issue and bulleted origin retell, and - oh my heart, this was done beautifully, right down to the sound of comic slapping on top of comic as you make your way through the pile as each origin gets its own first issue flip-through.
Action sequences do not care how you'd normally shoot a fight scene. If Avengers made for sweeping drama with brilliantly realized single-shot motions through a Manhattan block, here we keep up with Spider-Men swinging between trees in heart stopping action as villainous arms reach for them, splintering wood around them. As Miles comes into his own, keeping pace with him and his POV is just... beautiful. Like I said, I'd run out of words.
More than many-an-animated film, character design is narrative. It's not just that characters are properly ugly if they're villainous (for the most part), it's that they reflect the very story we're telling here. It's likely best to start with Wilson Fisk, here portrayed as a mountainous, heap of a man, powerful and taking up space just by existing. The design is lifted from a 1990 Bill Sienkiewicz work (the art of Bill Sienkiewicz is something I've loved since I saw my first image of Elektra back in the day) - a nod to the "we are pulling in everything for this one - and we're pulling in the best" approach the film was taking, but also one of the more despicable and broken takes on Fisk (and there have been many).
And that's just Fisk. Of course we also have Spider-Ham, who is no way dialed back for "realism", cartoony even in a movie that tilts far more "cartoon" than "illustration" in it's character design. We've got an anime-style Spider-Girl, and Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nic Cage) is a black and white cinematic detective-type, Charles McGraw as Spidey.
Miles and Gwen are the characters most like their comic book counter-parts, but there are details in their design, including pen marks, etc... that are tells to the comics roots without being a distraction. And the supporting cast, including Miles's dad and uncle use the flexibility of the cartoony design to convey a dudley-do-right character and a laid-back, mover and shaker of an uncle. Our trans-universe Peter Parker is graying and paunchy but on the same continuum of design that informs our more standard-issue Spider-folk. What it does have going for it is that the 3D animation feels shockingly like well-modeled 2D characters in motion, sharing space without all the challenges other attempts have had making either detailed comics work in 2D (more or less all of Marvel's 90's and 00's output) or bringing 2d to 3D, which often can't wrangle the designs which were never meant to be seen in more than static still images. (How they got Kingpin to work here, I'll never know)
I know I missed plenty of Easter Eggs tucked into the movie, but there's a thousand winking bits in the movie, including a "Clone High Movie" ad (the movie was co-written by one of the creators of the Clone High cartoon, Phil Lord). But there were plenty of knowing nods to elements of the comics and outright commentary on conventions of comics dialog and plotting, which all seemed plenty Spidey-like.
The trick of the film, and I hope I'm not giving anything away, is in taking apart the impenetrable wall of myth tied to Peter Parker. The "relatable everyman" of Spider-Man isn't necessarily that - he's a white dude living in Queens and then Brooklyn. He's got decades of mass culture build up and stories. But the secret is (and alwasy has been) that, behind the mask, Spidey could be (and is) every one of us. We're all hard-luck cases with some skeletons in our closets and grief we're wrangling. We're all unsure we're doing this thing right. The Spider-Verse cracks that wide open - whether you're a 40-something schlub (editor's note: hi, how you doin'?), a bi-racial kid with a dad that is too vocal about how much he loves you, a rocker-girl with an asymmetrical haircut, a Japanese school girl, a cartoon pig, Nic Cage... we can all thwip our way into being better than we expect ourselves to be. We can all overcome impossible odds.
It's gonna be goofy and awkward and most of it won't work out right, but if you fight the good fight, you're a Spider-Man, too. Even if you're in sweat pants or a store-bought Halloween costume.
My hat is off to a team that was able to do so much narratively, character wise, design wise, and with a heart as big as anything I've seen in a superhero film since Spider-Man 2 (maybe even surpassing Captain America: The First Avenger). That these movies can still work as allegory, even if the point is stated directly for the people in the back (and it is here), if they can offer the audience with inspiration and imagination, then I welcome the next twenty years of superhero films.
If I cracked a bit in the film, it was Stan Lee's cameo. I'll leave you at that. It was classic Stan, saying what Stan always said best, and the lesson he taught generations of us kids. I'm going to miss the hell out of that guy.