*This post contains spoilers for the entire movie. It is recommended that one watches Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse first because it assumes the reader has knowledge of the film’s plot.
While conducting some research for this post, it came to my attention that against my preconception, Spider-Man was not the most popular superhero in America. Rather Superman currently has the honor of holding that position, with the web-crawler settling for second place (Source).
Superman is the embodiment of hope and justice with his godlike abilities, whereas Spider-Man is often depicted as that friendly neighbor doing his best to protect New York City. Yet the character archetype of Spider-Man allows him to remain one of the most persistent and beloved heroes in the superhero space.
And 2018 was the greatest representation of that. Two of the most critically acclaimed Spider-Man works were released within a four-month timeframe. The first was a PlayStation 4 title that explored the life of an older Peter Parker struggling to balance the demands of his web-slinging duties with his interpersonal ones. The second was an animated feature film featuring Miles Morales as he comes to grips with what it means to be Spider-Man.
The latter’s name is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and it unquestionably brought Spider-Man and cinema to even greater heights.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is and will continue to be the showpiece of Western animation for years to come, if not the shining beacon of the limitless potential that exists within the superhero canon. Instead of attempting to work within the shackles of previous Spider-Man iterations and the conventional wisdom of filmmaking, the team at Sony Pictures Animation soared to the skies to devise an aesthetically unique and refreshing film, while earnestly tapping into the reservoir that is the famed web-slinger’s decades of history.
Going The Extra Miles
To best appreciate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as a work of art, it is essential to underpin it with context. Because as with any other medium, animation has gone through its highs and lows with consistent turbulence over the past decade.
Amongst the highlights include a greater prevalence of independent and experimental animated projects and higher acceptance of animation amongst current generations. Not to mention the international megahits of Frozen and Your Name inspired greater interests in the field, and better distribution methods allowed original projects to shine where they might have been shafted.
Unfortunately, animation is becoming more expensive to produce, prompting an influx of sequels. Most Western animation studios fully transitioned away from traditional animation to computer-generated animation. Live-action films are becoming the alternative for animated features, shown with Disney’s commitment to recreating its beloved animated worlds in a new light. And the stigma of animation as a medium exclusively for children (in a negative light) persists in certain spheres. This is not meant to disregard phenomenal movies that follow some of these trends, but nevertheless these patterns are indicative of larger concerns.
Fortunately Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse managed to release at just the right time. 2018 could be considered a lull year for animation if assessing the quality of major releases, which allowed the brilliance of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to shine in a manner that defied ongoing trends. It managed to gross over $375 million on a $90 million budget during its theatrical run, and won the Golden Globes and Oscars for best animated feature of the year (Source).
And none of this even calls attention to the novelty of the film as a Spider-Man story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first animated feature film, but more importantly it is the first Spider-Man film where Miles Morales is the main protagonist. An Afro-Latino teenager helming from the city of Brooklyn, Miles was originally created as the successor to Peter Parker in the comic book reboot of the Ultimate Marvel series. As the familiar origin story describes, he was bitten by a radioactive spider and inherited the powers and responsibilities of Spider-Man.
Characters like Miles Morales remain difficult to encounter on the big screen even though there is a desperate need for new perspectives in the arts or fresh interpretations of beloved characters. Therefore it is a fantastic milestone for both cinema and animation that Miles landed a role in a prominent Spider-Man feature that delivers an unrivaled narrative and artistic experience.
Prior to the release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Peter Parker had been iterated three separate times with three different actors (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland). Even the Spider-Man game on the PlayStation 4 has Peter Parker in the leading role (although Spider-Man: Miles Morales is coming to PlayStation 5 this holiday!). While each interpretation of Peter Parker is distinct from one another, there is an underlying disappointment knowing that dozens of versions could have been adapted for the big screen. Yet it is also satisfying that the most creative film adaptation of the Spider-Man universe is the first to showcase new Spider-People.
In other words, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is so much more special because of what came before it. It was the perfect time for a new iteration of Spider-Man in film, and it did so in the best way possible.
Anyone Can Wear The Mask
Despite the intrigue of the Spider-Man lore that is intrinsic to the movie’s appeal, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is best viewed as a coming-of-age tale where Miles is transitioning into the role of Spider-Man. Much of the film tackles the process by which Miles comes to terms with his newfound powers and discovers what it means to be Spider-Man, and it takes the existence of a few other Spider-People to pave the way towards that understanding.
The introduction of the movie establishes the perfect baseline for Miles to jump off from that showcases his personality and psyche. Fortunately Sony Pictures Entertainment was kind enough to post the first nine minutes of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on YouTube for viewing pleasure.
One of the important details to jump onto immediately is the number 42. It shows up on the radioactive spider that bites Miles, but it also appears on a lottery ball. Peter Ramsey, the film’s director, has alluded to it as reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Jackie Robinson’s MLB number (Source). However, it also extenuates that several pinnacle events that happen to Miles occured by chance. Miles happened to win the lottery to get into Visions Academy, and Miles happened to get bit by a radioactive spider while hanging out with his uncle.
This contributes to a more nuanced understanding of how Miles views himself. Due to the “chance-based” nature of these events, Miles believes he is undeserving of either opportunity and voluntarily chooses to make choices that reinforce his self-perception. At Visions Academy, he purposely gets a zero on a quiz in the hopes to getting kicked out of the school. When he inherits the role of Spider-Man upon Peter Parker’s death, he fears those expectations and desires to live a normal life. Not to mention, Miles chooses to keeps the shoelaces on his left foot untied for most of the film. While this might be seen as a stylistic choice, he trips over himself multiple times.
Miles is desperate to be a regular teenager and wants to retreat to the safe zone that is his community. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does an excellent job at juxtaposing Miles’s boarding school life from his original one. We witness Miles interact gracefully with his friends in a single shot while walking to Visions Academy, yet he fails to trigger the same chemistry with his peers at the boarding school. Outside of his comfort zone, his greatest temptation is to sneak away from Visions Academy to visit his uncle Aaron. Aaron enables him to let his creative juices flow and acts as Miles’s “surrogate father” of sorts when his own father is not quite there for him on an emotional level.
Miles is already struggling with a wealth of insecurities, and inheriting the place of Spider-Man had to be one of the greatest pressures that could be put upon his shoulders. Before Peter B. Parker was transported into his dimension, Miles coped with the stress by attempting to emulate the Spider-Man that came before him.
So he buys a Spider-Man costume from Stan Lee at a shop that anyone could purchase (with no returns of course!)
While a genuinely heartwarming cameo, the scene serves two purposes. First, it reinforces how narrow-minded Miles’s view of what Spider-Man can (or cannot) be is at that moment in time. Second, the availability of the costume demonstrates how anyone is capable of “wearing the mask” or becoming a hero. As the late Stan Lee once said:
“What I like about the costume is that anybody reading Spider-Man in any part of the world can imagine that they themselves are under the costume. And that’s a good thing”-Stan Lee
And sure enough, Miles comes into contact with multiple Spider-People. The one that serves as his mentor is a washed-up Peter B. Parker from another dimension whose life spiraled out of control due to the fear of commitment. While he is still the Spider-Man of his universe, underneath the mask is a broken individual who minimized himself from the beacon that he once was. And it is a perfect contrast to the younger Miles who still has many formative years ahead of him.
The other Spider-People are also wonderful inclusions. While their stories are not fully explored, the film manages to paint an adequate picture of their characters. None of them are remotely alike; included among them is a ballerina-like superheroine, a mysterious crime fighter from the 20th century, a girl with a knack for robotics, and a spider-turned pig. None of them fit the typical description of the Spider-Man that most people are used to, and their exceptional abilities further heighten Miles’s insecurities when he meets them (partially due to the heavy burden they shower upon him during that first meeting).
On a quick tangent, the genius use of comic book sequences to introduce all of the Spider-People cannot be understated. It is a tool for exposition that is both enjoyable and efficient. They summarize key elements of their backstories and provide enough insight into their lives without detracting from the film’s pacing. It also cements that these characters do exist in the comic books and were not original creations for the film.
In case that was not clear, anyone from any background can wear the mask of Spider-Man. But just as it is for Spider-Man, the same concept can be said for those going down a darker path. One of the major plot twists involves the Prowler, an enforcer for the Kingpin that turns out to be uncle Aaron. This revelation shocks Miles not only because it is a family member, but because someone as influential in his life was capable of hiding beneath a mask in the service of evil. When Aaron comes close to killing Miles during the brawl at Aunt May’s house, it is only when Miles lifts up his mask that Aaron becomes eerily conscious and pained at what he has become (and unfortunately he is shot by the Kingpin once he backs away from Miles).
It could also be argued that Wilson Fisk (i.e. Kingpin) and Dr. Octavius wear their own mask despite lacking physical ones. The driving motivation for the Kingpin’s actions is to access the multiverse as a means of bringing his family back. In the current timeline, the Kingpin’s family abandoned him after they found out of his criminal activities and aggressive nature. In the case of Dr. Octavius, she is the head scientist at Alchemax who is secretly working with the Kingpin to create the multidimensional collider. Outside of that, most people seem to view her as the equivalent of a Bill Nye in their universe given that she appears in an educational video that Miles’s class is watching when Miles comes in late. It is also a clever subversion because her name is obscured prior to that revelation, and there has never been a female counterpart to Otto Octavius prior to this film’s release.
While these antagonists serve as a cautionary tale, the film’s inclusive message about the universal spirit of Spider-Man is overwhelmingly positive. This theme is woven into the narrative in such a fashion that hinges upon the diverse nature of its cast to truly succeed. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse rests upon its laurels with great confidence and ensures that its impact persists well into the future.
You’ve Got A Problem With Cartoons?
While most of this post has dedicated itself to understanding the context around Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the narrative that drives the film along, there is no doubt that the animation is the factor that generated the greatest interest in the lead-up to its theatrical release.
And the final result can only be described as breathtaking 🙂
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse integrates multiple styles and techniques that contribute to its distinct visual appearance, and breaks several conventions of animation to accomplish it.
The main intention behind the look of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was to emulate the feel of comic books. As mentioned before, the Spider-People are introduced with snappy comic book sequences given their origins in the medium. Additionally, the beginning of the film shows a label that reads “Approved by the Comics Code Authority”, a defunct regulation that aimed to tailor the content of comics to be more suitable for all audiences. It might also be a fun pointer to the fact that the film is rated PG.
While Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a still a computer-animated feature at its core, it appears rendered in a 2D-style with great vibrancy and detail that remains unparalleled. How the film achieves this can be boiled down to a few major principles outlined by the team at Sony Pictures Animation (Source):
- Utilizing comic book staples (i.e. thought bubbles) and pop art quirks
- Blending traditional animation techniques with digital animation to replicate the style of comic books
- Animating on “twos” instead of “ones” (most of the film is rendered in 12 frames per second instead of 24 frames per second) to give the animation more punch.
- On this note, Miles is animated with fewer frame per second as Spider-Man initially to visually represent his inexperience
- Deconstructing the animation pipeline to create new algorithms that accomodate the visual style the creators were looking for.
In other words, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse could not achieve the look that it did without building the tools and techniques from the ground up for the sole purpose of this film. After all, Sony immediately attempted to patent the technologies that were developed for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Source).
One area that deserves high acclaim is the impeccable character design and animation on display, especially since it is clear that Sony Pictures Animation went to painstaking lengths to integrate characters with 2D appearances. Most impressive are the small stories told through their designs that queue the audience on specific character traits that the film might not have time to accentuate in its runtime. Spider-Noir is rendered entirely in black-and-white with his own unique shading to accent his mysterious nature. Peni Parker is reminiscent of anime with exaggerated facial features and fights alongside an emotive spider-bot that serves as her best friend. And Peter Porker seriously looks like he comes straight out of a cartoon with his slapstick wackiness.
However, even I must admit that I hold preferential love for the character designs of Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy.
Miles himself looks fantastic, and his spider-suit is a cool reflection of himself. His suit is coated in jet black with red accents, spray-painted by Miles himself to make the suit his own (and it doesn’t show up until 80 minutes into the film!). He occasionally wears his suit under a midnight-green jacket, grey shorts, and a nice pair of Air Jordans that adds another flair to his design when not engaged in combat.
And to put it simply, Gwen Stacy’s suit features all of my favorite colors in one delightful package. She adorns a pair of turquoise-colored ballerina footwear reinforcing the effortless agility and elegance of her fighting style, and the hoodie indicates her withdrawal from social interaction after the death of Peter Parker in her universe. It’s no doubt my favorite Spider-Man design (and perhaps a favorite in general).
But the award for the most comically amusing and threatening character design of all time goes to our main villain! Creating such an iconic iteration of the Kingpin that exaggerated his size would end in failure were it not animated, which makes it execution here even more astounding. And the new iterations of the Green Goblin and Prowler are equally impressive.
Leap Of Faith
Deconstructing the brilliant animation of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would require thousands upon thousands of words to represent in its entirety. However, it was impossible not to put a spotlight on the iconic sequence that defines Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: the leap of faith.
It’s all the details that come together to create a triumphant sequence of newfound courage for Miles as he transitions into the role of Spider-Man that he now embraces wholeheartedly. All in the span of two minutes.
It is easy to tell you that the cinematography and attention to detail here is exceptional, so to point out some examples with pictures:
Other standout sequences can be identified much earlier on. The third act places greater emphasis on the action, and it certainly packs a punch with exhilarating pace and fluidity, and weaves the foundations of its previous minutes to deliver a satisfying climax and conclusion that wraps up the narrative in a petite bow,
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse somehow manages to consistently introduce and exceed its potential amidst a universe with limitless possibilities for storytelling. No stone is left unturned as Sony Pictures Animation exhausted all of their resources to produce the perfect conditions for the film to triumph as a pinnacle for innovation in cinema.
Never have I ever become so invested in the future of the Spider-Man universe, if not any movie franchise in general. And I am so glad that Sony managed to retain the rights to Spider-Man for such a project to even be conceived; there was no prerequisite for Spider-Man to fit within the confinements or creative freedoms of another studio because of how liberal the creative process was for producing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
As for others, there is no doubt that the film reinvigorated an interest in comic books and graphic novels. Even with little knowledge of the space, the prevalence of comic book touches make this the perfect movie for an enthusiast to sink their teeth into, uncovering all the references hidden within.
But most importantly, I am left speechless at the phenomenal narrative and innovative animation put on display no matter how many times I view it. Fortunately 2022 will be the year that the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse releases, which will bring even more greatness to the theatre. Even better, plans for a spin-off featuring female characters in the Spider-Man universe have been established, which could bring Spider-Gwen and Peni Parker back into the fray alongside new personalities.
The team at Sony Pictures Animation had the greatest power ever bestowed upon a Spider-Man property, lending itself to the greatest responsibility. The essence of Spider-Man has never rung truer, and its future has never been brighter.