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Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse

Posted December 13, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Let’s talk for a moment about Ghost Rider.

Back in the late aughts, Sony had the movie rights to Ghost Rider. They abused those rights through two different franchise attempts, both of which failed spectacularly, until Sony finally decided to swallow their pride and let Marvel take the character back rather than embarrass themselves by throwing more good money after bad. Trouble was, Johnny Blaze had been so thoroughly pummeled into the ground on Sony’s watch that Marvel’s reintroducing the character in any capacity was an uphill climb.

Marvel’s solution was two-fold. First, they downgraded Ghost Rider from a franchise star to a pivotal supporting player in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Second, and more importantly, they went with the Robbie Reyes version of Ghost Rider from the more recent comics. This was an inspired move. After all, when the conventional white iteration of the character has gone stale and diversity is all the rage, why not introduce some lesser-known fan-favorite non-white version to the mainstream?

This brings us to Spider-Man, another character strangled to death and finally surrendered by Sony after two ill-fated cinematic franchises. What better time to wipe the slate clean and finally bring Miles Morales to the screen, after all the times we’ve seen Uncle Ben get killed? But of course it couldn’t be that simple. After all, we’re not talking about some C-lister like Ghost Rider, this is freaking Spider-Man. There are going to be a lot of cooks in the kitchen with this one, as everyone wants their voices to be heard.

Avi Arad wanted his stupid Venom franchise and Amy Pascal wanted to preserve her legacy as the Sony Pictures CEO who shepherded the mega-profitable Spider-Man franchise, so of course Sony wanted to keep some degree of control over and profit from the Webhead. Meanwhile, Marvel wanted their intellectual property back — lock, stock, and barrel — so they could introduce the company’s flagship character into the MCU (to say nothing of the merchandising, theme park attractions, etc.).
And the fans? Well, the fans were very clear in their demand for a respectful and authentic portrayal of Spidey going on adventures in the MCU, something worthy of the character’s long and dense pop culture history. Though opinions were split on the contentious issue of whether the next Spider-Man should be Peter Parker, Miles Morales, or maybe some race-swapped reinterpretation of Peter Parker and how would that even work?

Ultimately, the Powers That Be ended up going with “all of the above”. And for once, the end result didn’t suck.

Through some convoluted rights-sharing arrangement that still hasn’t been made entirely public (and probably won’t for a good long time), Sony and Marvel now have joint cinematic custody of Spider-Man. Thus Marvel can have their awesome white male Peter Parker hanging out with Iron Man and Dr. Strange, as he does his high-school coming-of-age thing; while Sony can give us our Miles Morales, our adult Peter Parker, our Spider-Gwen, our Noir Spider-Man, our Japanese Spider-Man… do you want a cartoon Spider-Man? You can have a cartoon Spider-Man if you want it.

Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse takes place primarily in the Marvel Ultimate universe, thus offering a wide variety of familiar Spider-Man characters in new and exciting iterations, and that’s before the huge underground mad science whatchamacallit brings so many different Spider-Heroes to the same place. I promise, it makes sense in context. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s break it down into bullet points.

  • Our protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), and his origin story is the main thrust of the plot. It’s important to note that the Ultimate Universe has its own version of Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) who is fully recognizable as Spider-Man, but he’s killed in the movie’s opening minutes. Thus Morales has a solid precedent to follow when he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and has to learn how to be a superhero.
  • Peter Parker (this one voiced by Jake Johnson) is the Spider-Man from the mainstream comics Earth-616 continuity. More than twenty years into his crimefighting gig, he’s buried Aunt May and divorced Mary Jane, so this Spider-Man is especially weary and jaded, but no less smart-mouthed. Not a good combination. 
  • Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) comes from a continuity in which she got bitten by the spider while her best friend Peter Parker became the Lizard and eventually died.
  • Noir Spider-Man (also named Peter Parker, voiced by the erstwhile Johnny Blaze himself, Nicolas Cage) got bitten by a spider and he fights crime while solving mysteries, spouting hard-boiled one-liners, and brooding.
  • Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) is an anime rendition, so of course she’s a young schoolgirl bitten by a robotic spider. While Peni herself has no powers, she and the spider share a telepathic bond and they copilot a spider-like mech.
  • Rounding out our crew is Peter Porker (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic pig. The character was designed as a parody of the original hero, often fighting Ducktor Doom and the Kingpig, alongside Iron Mouse and Captain Ameri-Cat. None of that has any bearing on the movie, of course, I just want to paint a clear picture of what we’re dealing with here.

It’s important to note I made absolutely none of that up. And neither did the filmmakers. These are all different iterations of Spider-Man that have appeared in the character’s 50-plus-year history, all created under the official Marvel aegis. What’s even better is that while the filmmakers are perfectly happy to have fun with the characters, they never make fun of the characters. The movie is open and honest about how goofy some of these iterations are, but that silliness is beautifully integrated into the humor and charm of the overall picture.

All six Spider-Heroes are presented as characters in their own right, with different skill sets and attitudes to contribute, each one a valuable member of the team. If I was a fan of these characters, I’d be thrilled to see them presented this way; and if I wasn’t a fan of them before, I am now. That’s probably the highest compliment I can pay this movie.

(Side note: Leopardon had damn well better be there for the sequel. Seriously, Sony, if you can’t get the rights or whatever, don’t even bother making a sequel at all.)

Of course, the animation helps a great deal as well. Peni Parker was designed and animated in clear reference to anime characters, but not in an overdone or obnoxious way. Plus, she and Spider-Ham are animated in a style that’s distinctly 2D, but somehow doesn’t clash with the 3D animation around them. Plus, Spider-Ham has his mallets and anvils that appear out of nowhere, and… and…

The animation. God, the animation. I so badly regret seeing this in 2D, because the visuals in this movie positively demand a 3D viewing.

It took a while, getting used to the slightly choppy animation, but the missing frames make it strangely easy to focus on individual static frames. Like the panels of a comic strip. Looking at the mise en scene of every single frame, it’s easy to tell that the filmmakers put so much effort into making every shot look like a comic book page come to life. This in addition to the halftone dots, the motion lines, the caption boxes, the onomatopoeias… basically, every device that comics writers have developed over the past several decades to tell stories in a visual medium without the aid of sound or motion, the filmmakers use it here to dazzling effect. That isn’t even getting started on the “dimensional glitching” effect that looks suitably painful and off-putting.

Many have tried to make a movie that looks and acts like a comic book (see: Ang Lee’s Hulk attempt in 2003), and some have attempted to recapture the anything-goes campiness of the Gold and Silver Age in comics (Batman and Robin, anyone?). But where all the other attempts have failed, this movie succeeds with flying colors. And that’s due in huge part to the fact that this is an animated feature, full-on committing to the comic book style and pushing the envelope in creative ways that could only be done with animation. The way this movie brings in actual comic books and comic book imagery from throughout Spider-Man history, it all integrates seamlessly in a way that could never be done with live-action.

For God’s sake, this movie opens with a Comics Code Authority seal of approval. That was a pretty damn clear statement of intent from the filmmakers, a secret handshake to show that they really do care about the comics of yesteryear. Moreover, show me a live-action movie willing and able to take that step, fourth wall be damned.

Then we have the voice acting, which is superlative across the board. While Shameik Moore stumbles a couple of times in the more distraught moments, he does a fantastic job holding down the lead role overall. Jake Johnson does perfectly well as a burned-out Spidey, beautifully portraying the character’s age and arrogance without losing sight of why we all love the character so much. Hailee Steinfeld voices a strong female lead, Nicolas Cage chews the scenery like only he can, Kimiko Glenn’s voice work is every bit as adorable as everything else about the character, and John Mulaney is a laugh riot.

Elsewhere, Brian Tyree Henry turns in solid work as Miles’ father, his uncle is voiced suitably well by Mahershala Ali, and Luna Lauren Velez has a brief yet memorable turn as Miles’ mother. Lily Tomlin steals the show with her portrayal of Aunt May, Chris Pine is remarkable in spite of how brief his performance is, and Zoe Kravitz — of all people! — blends perfectly into the role of Mary Jane.

Then we have the villains. Liev Schrieber is pitch-perfect as Kingpin, and I loved Kathryn Hahn as the new gender-swapped Doctor Octopus. We also get Tombstone and Scorpion in the mix, but both, alas, are stuck with henchman duty. At least they both look cool.

It’s deeply impressive how the movie can get away with covering so much ground, and that’s in large part because the filmmakers are smart enough to keep everything focused on Miles Morales and his origin story. Precisely because we meet the different Spider-Heroes as Miles does, we only learn just enough about them for Miles (and those in the audience who’ve never heard of these characters) to get by. And because the different Spider-Heroes are strangers in this new alternate universe, there’s never any risk that their supporting characters or subplots will overtake the rest of the film.

Gwen Stacy is a minor exception, establishing herself early on as an ill-fated love interest for Miles. Easily the biggest exception is the Earth-616 Peter Parker, who has to deal with his own emotional baggage after so many years as Spider-Man, losing MJ, grudgingly training a teenaged rookie Spider-Man, etc. But even that development arc is directly tied with Miles’ growth, as the two of them push each other to (re-)discover what it means to take the power and responsibility of being Spider-Man.

And what of Miles Morales himself? Well… in many ways, his plot is boilerplate. There’s no getting around it — this is a superhero origin story, and all the routine superhero origin plot points are hit like clockwork. It doesn’t help that Miles has the additional powers of invisibility and electric shocks (Yes, he has those in the comics as well.) that come and go as the plot demands. Seriously, the climax gets drawn out by a good five minutes because Miles didn’t fire an electric shock when he could have and should have.

Speaking of which, the action was a sore point for me. While I appreciate a flashy and fast-paced action scene as much as the next guy, this was too much. After all, we’ve got six different variations of Spider-Man zooming around the same arena, and that would be hard enough to keep track of. Add in the heavily stylized animation, in addition to the sheer speed of the action, and it was all too much for me to follow.

That said, when the action is more tightly focused on one or two characters, it’s amazing to watch. And when Miles gets his big empowering scene, putting on his own costume and accepting his role as this universe’s Spider-Man, that whole wild ride through New York City was pure magic. I can also forgive the rote plot because… well, it’s everything we know and love about Spider-Man, with a twist.

Ever since his inception, Peter Parker has been the Job of the Marvel universe. His character is defined by his personal losses, his struggles, and all the things he can never have. His web-slinging powers and alter-ego have brought him endless suffering, but he keeps at it simply because it has to be done. Moreover, precisely because Peter Parker is himself the little guy, he will always be the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man looking out for the little guy. He’s a superpowered being who isn’t a demigod, isn’t super-rich, and isn’t even all that popular. Given a magic spider-bite, any one of us could be Spider-Man. And given the right push, with a little bit of courage, any one of us could step up to be a hero and change the world like Spidey does, one good deed at a time.

This is the essence of Spider-Man. This is his morality, it’s what makes him sympathetic, and it’s why over 50 years’ worth of fans have loved the character. And all of it is well-represented by Miles Morales. His origin story, his attitude, and his tumultuous development arc incorporate all of this in new and authentic ways, as he learns the right lessons from all the other Spider-Heroes who came before him.

There is, however, one vital exception. Another cornerstone of Spider-Man’s identity is that he has to keep it a secret to protect his loved ones, but that means a deep and crushing loneliness. He doesn’t have much in the way of reliable allies, and there’s nobody he can ever really vent to. That’s not a problem here, as Miles is surrounded by a family of Spider-Heroes who know exactly¬†what he’s going through. It’s actually kind of a neat subversion, in that all of the Spider-Heroes have experienced that kind of loneliness, and so they paradoxically help each other get through it. Moreover, it sends the sweet message that even though we are all unique, we are never alone.

For a couple of miscellaneous side notes, I was pleased to see that the late, great Stan Lee gets another cameo, and a genuinely tearjerking dedication in the end credits. Speaking of which, I made the mistake of leaving before the end credits stinger. Based on what I’ve read about it, you will absolutely not want to make the same mistake.

Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse is probably the greatest cinematic love letter to comics I’ve ever seen. I deeply admire how the filmmakers put so much heart and effort into portraying of different styles and time periods throughout comics history in general and Spider-Man’s history in particular. The animation is so inventive and the comedy is so fearless, I sincerely hope that this movie inspires more filmmakers to go bigger and bolder. Of course, it also helps that the voice cast is phenomenal from top to bottom and the story — while formulaic — is brimming over with heart.

You should absolutely see this movie and see it in 3D. Strongly recommended.