In an era saturated with superheroes and villains, “Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse” is a welcome novelty for the Marvel franchise, though its stunning visuals are not enough to counteract a narrative that is same-old, same-old.
The film, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey (“Rise of the Guardians”) and Rodney Rothman (“22 Jump Street”), and written by Rothman and Phil Lord (“21 Jump Street”, “The Lego Movie”), follows Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino eighth-grader from Brooklyn who is suddenly thrust into the role of Spider-man after the death of the beloved Peter Parker. With the help of fellow Spider-people from alternate Spiderverses, including a Spider-man Noir, Looney Tunes Spider-Ham and anime schoolgirl Peni Parker, Miles prepares to take down the unnerving mad scientist Kingpin — and save the universe, of course.
The film is a venerable work of art, with expressionist animation that wraps into one the best visual bits of both comic books and live-action superhero flicks. The characters’ personalities are rendered through their appearance and movement: Miles is lanky and lean, the human version of Bambi, while Kingpin is a boulder, so massive that he fills the whole screen. When the screen is sliced into comic-esque panels and speech bubbles burst above Miles’ head to emphasize his inner monologue, it feels fresh and innovative, stylistic with a purpose. The movie’s action sequences retain the dynamism of their live-action counterparts, with characters sliding across tile-floors and cars whipping around sharp bends. When the film culminates in a vibrant kaleidoscopic splash that shifts and shudders so ferociously that it becomes immersive in a big-screen setting, it’s a joy to watch.
But despite its refreshing change of pace for the senses, “Into the Spider-Verse” maintains a tight grasp on the classic Marvel three-act structure, an aspect of superhero franchise fare that is more than stale but still proves to sell. The more damning part is that the film is self-aware, with characters going so far as to comment on the exhaustive routine of these tropes (of course the entire universe is at stake! Of course the mad scientist has only 24 hours to get the universe-destroying machine up and running!), yet it still falls into these very conventions. Apparently the three-act structure has a gravitational pull stronger than that of all the Spider-Verses put together. Mocking narrative convention is only funny when you actually make an effort to reinvent it.
“Into the Spider-Verse” also drives hard and fast the import that just about anyone — yes, even a pig — has the potential to be a superhero. Diversity is the modern-day catchword, but putting its ethos into practice has proved to be easier said than done for the Marvel franchise, whose multi-million dollar, multi-year projects have historically tended to retreat into the monetary safety of whiteness and maleness. “Into the Spider-Verse” is the perfect vehicle for Marvel’s second round of entering the diversity ring (after "Black Panther," of course). It is the prime example of Hollywood hedge-betting: The somewhat risky decision to democratize Spiderman by making him a gangly half-African American, half-Puerto Rican kid is best relegated to an animated feature — though an excellent one, at that — costing half as much as “Spider-man: Homecoming.”
The film’s idiosyncratic, comic book-inspired style also happens to fit quite nicely into this perfunctory democratization mission. Since Marvel Comics has moved more rapidly in the arena of diversity than any of its film franchises ever could, given the relative costs of producing a comic book versus an international, multi-million dollar movie franchise, diversity will necessarily be coaxed from the comic book pages, which serve as a trial run for a character’s commercial success.
But the film's experiment in diversity feels somewhat ingenuine, if not haphazard. Introducing a whole litany of ill-conceived — albeit visually enchanting — characters merely to prove the point that “anyone can be Spider-Man” ultimately distracts from Miles’ narrative. The additional fact that one member of this ragtag group of Spider-individuals is a pig (while another is a satirical attempt at a high-pitched anime schoolgirl from the year 14512) further cheapens a continuous and important conversation about the significance of diversity on screen. It seems to suggest diversity for diversity’s sake rather than the assertion that children’s self-worth and their acceptance of others are shaped by the humanity of characters they read, watch and listen to.
In fact, Miles’ humanity feels at times more circumscribed than celebrated, often for the sake of retaining the well-worn superhero narrative. We get next to no glimpses into the inner folds of Miles’ life, into his biracial identity, his family life and his relationships with friends back home. One of the more glorious, tender moments of the film is one-off and short-lived, when he spray paints graffiti art with his uncle and we see him at once vibrant, creative and young.
Too afraid to venture from homebase, Marvel made Miles in nearly the spitting image of the classic Peter Parker. It’s somewhat unclear what differentiates them beyond skin tone. Rather than proving that any person’s identity — whether it be personal, cultural, racial, or religious — is worthy of the superhero designation, the film seems to suggest that the multifaceted nature that makes a person a person can be easily poked, prodded and hemmed into the superhero mold. Is the movie’s narrative really democratizing, or is it a prime example of the relentless nature of the Marvel cookie-cutter character machine? “Into the Spider-Verse” may nudge the superhero genre, but it shirks from reworking it.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Miles Morales was from the Bronx. The Chronicle regrets the error.
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