Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Screenplay: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman
Based on the comics by: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli
Producers: Avid Arad, Amy Pascal, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Christina Steinberg
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 117 mins
Back in April 2018, Marvel Studios released Avengers: Infinity War. The culmination of an extraordinarily successful series of superhero films released over the course of a decade, Infinity War was always planned as a cinematic phenomenon that would both reward long-term fans and prove to a sceptical critical faction just what could be achieved in this oft-derided subgenre. Perhaps it could even achieve that rarest of honours for a superhero movie and break through to be nominated in Oscar categories outside of Visual Effects and Sound Editing. Now, no amount of fudging of the historical narrative could credibly suggest that Infinity War didn’t achieve its aims to some extent. It became the highest grossing superhero film and the fourth highest grossing film of all time in any genre. There was a ton of buzz, fans raved about it and critics acknowledged its gargantuan spectacle. The problem was that a few months earlier Marvel has also released a trailblazing film called Black Panther. Though this film did not do quite the same box office as Infinity War (it had to settle for being the ninth highest grossing film of all time), it fared a hell of a lot better both critically and commercially than anyone could have predicted and once the excitement about Infinity War had died down, the Black Panther buzz kept going. Come the 2019 Oscars, it was nominated for seven awards including an unprecedented Best Picture nod. Infinity War was nominated for Best Visual Effects.
Though Black Panther did not ultimately win the Best Picture gong (it walked away with three awards for Original Score, Costume Design and Production Design), there was another Oscar upset that year in the category for Best Animated Feature, usually dominated by Disney and Pixar. In the event, Disney Ralph Breaks the Internet and Pixar’s Incredibles 2 were swept aside by Columbia Pictures’ and Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film that had been steadily building acclaim, accruing awards and generating enormous excitement since its December 2018 release. In the wake of this Oscar win and the film’s imminent release for home viewing, the buzz around Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is showing no signs of dying down, even as Marvel steps up its promotional campaign for Avengers: Endgame, an even bigger crescendo in their cinematic universe. It’s impossible to tell at this point but right now it feels as if once the dust settles, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might still be the more talked about film of the two.
From a personal standpoint, I would say I am a casual fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite having almost zero interest in superhero films back in 2008 when Iron Man was released, I’ve since been sucked into the phenomenon and steadily seen every one of the Marvel films to the point where I look forward to the next one greatly. I didn’t, however, enjoy Infinity War and am eyeing the proposition of spending three hours watching Avengers: Endgame with a sense of mild to moderate trepidation. One thing that Infinity War did for me was confirm the previously dim suspicion that I had no emotional attachment to any of the superhero characters I had so enjoyed watching over the years. The level of investment that the film requires to achieve its impact, and which so many fans have cultivated across a decade of viewing, just wasn’t there for me. It was a revelation that made me feel oddly melancholy about future visits to the MCU.
And then there’s my personal history with Spider-Man. One of the most frequently rebooted characters of the 21st century, I’ve watched Spider-Man move through three different incarnations, none of which have entirely worked for me. Sam Raimi’s 00s trilogy starring Tobey Maguire as the red-suited arachno-man had its moments (particularly in its excellent second part) but bottomed-out with an awkwardly shapeless and occasionally risible third outing, while Marvel’s original reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man starring Andrew Garfield, spawned a functional but largely uninvolving pair of faceless blockbusters. When Tom Holland donned the suit to introduce Spider-Man as part of the MCU, the result was Spider-Man: Homecoming, a much more successful adaptation that incorporated elements of John Hughes movies into its make-up for a fun, primarily comedic approach. The downside was how awkwardly the character clashes with the rest of the Universe. The plot wrinkle of making him Iron Man’s protege quickly became an unwelcome distraction and amongst the massive cast of Infinity War Spider-Man stuck out like a conspicuous red stain.
I should also preface my opinions on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse by saying that I have no history with comic books. I grew up reading comics like the Beano and Dandy and though I still have a certain affection for them, this never transferred into any interest in more adult comic book material or graphic novels. So producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s stated intentions to make Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seem like a comic book brought to life did not excite me in the way it did so many comics devotees. What did pique my interest however was those names, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. As an obsessive fan of animation, Lord and Miller were names I’d come across before as writer/directors of the films Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie, as well as the largely forgotten TV series Clone High. Further excitement was generated by the trio of directors working on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, two of whom had worked on interesting animation projects in key roles; Bob Persichetti as writer of Netflix animated feature The Little Prince and head of story on the surprisingly great Shrek spin-off Puss In Boots, and Peter Ramsey as director of the flawed but underrated feature Rise of the Guardians. Perhaps unusually then, it was the animation credentials that attracted me to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse more than its comic book links. The question I asked myself going in was whether there would be enough here to wow an animation fan with a mild interest in superheroes as thoroughly as the film had impressed the legions of comic book devotees that are clearly its chief target audience.
It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to remove any doubt that I was going to fall for it as hard as any habitual-thumber of Marvel’s printed pages. The film does indeed look like a comic book come to life but it achieves so much more than that intention seems to promise. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse looks like no other animated film I’ve ever seen. This was achieved by combining CGI animation and 2D animation, with line work, painting and comic-book-style dots being overlaid on computer rendered frames. The result is instantly striking and draws the viewer into the impeccably realised cityscapes to an unprecedented extent. This effect is achieved so quickly and indelibly that when the film begins introducing overt comic book techniques such as on-screen written sound effects, thought balloons and text boxes it does not have a distancing effect. In essence, by this point the viewers themselves have become a character in the comic book.
If the much-discussed visual style was all Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had going for it, the film would not be able to sustain its near-two-hour runtime. Fortunately, Lord and Rothman have clearly put as much work into the screenplay as any other element of the film. The story is complex but accessible, fantastical but involving, hysterically funny but emotionally engaging. That last point is crucial, given that I have already cited how my emotional-disengagement with other Marvel adaptations has negatively affected my relationship with them. Though Lord and Rothman keep the laughs coming throughout, they know when and how to fold in the emotional impact. A key factor in achieving this resonance is the excellent voice cast. Actor and rapper Shameik Moore gives a terrifically judged central performance as Miles Morales, a rebellious teen who is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes one of the film’s many Spider-Man variations. Jake Johnson as an alternative dimension’s Peter Parker forges a flawed mentor-mentee relationship with Miles with a natural wit and narrative flow that further highlights the failures of the Peter Parker/Tony Stark dynamic in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Hailee Steinfeld is understated as a superhero version of Gwen, her refusal to pander to the unsubtly badass tropes forced upon so many strong female characters in male-led films making her immeasurably more effective. Excellent comic relief comes courtesy of John Mulaney as Peter Porker/Spider-Ham, an overtly cartoony creation who could have derailed the film were it not for how elegantly his antics are incorporated, and Nicolas Cage who is an absolute blast as a 1930s noir version of Spider-Man whose black and white origins make a Rubik’s Cube an item of infinite fascination for him.
The stand-outs in the voice acting stakes are Mahershala Ali and Bryan Tyree Henry as Miles’s Uncle and Father respectively. Both influences on Miles but at different ends of the scale in attitude, these two male role models and their complex relationship provide the film with much of its immense heart. Tyree Henry, so brilliant in Steve McQueen’s Widows and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, is especially memorable. The early scene in which he forces Miles into saying he loves him in front of his whole school by using the siren on his police car has already achieved classic status but even better is a later scene in which he communicates with Miles through his dorm room door, unaware that Miles is unable to respond. It’s a moment of true emotional heft that comes at a crucial time in the plot where the stakes are especially high, cleverly foregrounding the emotional implications of what is to come without slowing down the plot for a crowbarred in moment of sentiment. In fact, for a film made up of so many seemingly disparate elements, the crowbar is a tool conspicuous only by its absence.
As a non-comic-book-fan, I’m sure there is much I am missing in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It is a film tailor-made for hardcore fans, filled with Easter eggs and in-jokes that will reward multiple viewings. But it is not a film that leaves anyone out in the cold and the fact that there are potentially more delights for the comics enthusiast does not decrease the enjoyment of those who just want a good story, great animation or fast-paced action. The only viewers who might be baffled are those with no knowledge whatsoever of Spider-Man but, as the film’s numerous origin-story-interludes acknowledge, the source tale is so thoroughly embedded in our culture (and has been since at least the late 70s) that these people will be few and far between. This high level of accessibility should allow Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to maintain its instant reputation as a classic even as its visual innovations inspire imitators and spin-offs. For all we’ve said about box office surprises and awards upsets, comic book fandom and superhero successes, thwarted expectations and diminished longevity, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse transcends these concerns by emerging as above all just a bloody good night at the movies.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on April 22. Befitting such a densely-packed feature, the special features are generous and fascinating:
• We Are Spider-Man: Exploring and celebrating one of the key themes of the film, We Are Spider-Man takes a deep dive into the diversity of the characters and aspirational core that any person from any gender or cultural background can wear the mask.
• Spider-Verse: A New Dimension: With a stunning visual style and state of the art animation designed to take the viewer into the pages of a comic, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is not only a love letter to comic books but a groundbreaking take on the super hero genre. Hear from the artists and filmmakers who pushed the boundaries of the artform as they discuss their journey.
• The Ultimate Comics Cast: Enjoy this show case of all of the fan favourite characters featured in the Spider-Verse and the spectacular cast who were chosen to bring them to life.
• A Tribute to Stan Lee & Steve Ditko: Celebrate the amazing legacy and powerful spirit of the creators of Spider-Man.
• The Spider-Verse Super-Fan Easter Egg Challenge: The Spider-Verse is loaded with Easter Eggs, from cameos to comics references. Fans are challenged to find them all!
• Designing Cinematic Comics Characters: A breakdown of all aspects of the character design including costume, movement in animation, and distinct powers for each character.
◦ Heroes & Hams: Meet the amazing Spider-people of the Spider-Verse.
◦ Scorpions and Scoundrels: Explore the classic villains who wreak havoc on the Spider-Verse.
• Alternate Universe Mode: In this all-new viewing experience, discover alternate scenes, plotlines, characters, and more with the filmmakers as your guide.
• 2 Lyric Videos
◦ “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee
◦ “Familia” by Nicki Minaj & Anuel AA (feat. Bantu)
• All-New Original Short “Spider-Ham: Caught In a Ham” It’s another normal day for Peter Porker, a.k.a. the Spectacular Spider-Ham, fighting bad guys and loving hot dogs, until a mysterious portal starts messing with the very fabric of his cartoon reality.
4K Ultra HD Disc Includes:
• Feature film presented with High Dynamic Range and Dolby Atmos sound
• Also includes the film and special features on the included high-def Blu-ray