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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!

Is it possible that I just saw the very best Spider-Man movie ever?  I think I did!  I have huge love for Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, and the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming was also terrific.  But, my friends, I think we may have a new champion!

The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tells the story of Miles Morales.  Miles is a young man from Brooklyn, son of an African American father and a Puerto Rican mother.  His life is turned upside down after witnessing the death of Spider-Man, revealed to the world as Peter Parker.  With Spider-Man out of the way, it seems there is no one who can stop the Kingpin’s evil schemes.  So Miles steps to the plate, assisted by an unlikely team of Spider-allies from across the multiverse…

I am blown away by how amazing Into the Spider-Verse is.  Don’t dismiss it because it’s animated!  This is an extraordinary piece of work.  It is hilarious and joyous, while also frequently attaining an emotional richness far beyond what is found in most blockbuster films.  The animation is gorgeous, approaching genius-level in creativity.  This film works in every possible way.  I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Miles Morales, the African American/Puerto Rican Spider-Man, was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli.  For a long while, this character appeared in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, an offshoot of the main Marvel universe that allowed creators to rethink many of Marvel’s most popular characters.  (However, following the events of 2015’s Secret Wars crossover, Miles was brought over to the main Marvel universe.)  I’ve been a huge fan of the Miles character ever since issue one.  (Which was, technically, Ultimate Fallout #4.  Don’t question my nerd credentials!)  I am beyond thrilled to finally see Miles brought to life on-screen!  I never quite thought I’d see this day.

Not only is Miles finally appearing in a movie, but his story has been adapted in such a faithful manner!  I am blown away!  The Miles in Into the Spider-Verse is 100% the comic-book version created by Mr. Bendis and Ms. Pichelli.  They got the character absolutely perfect here.  I can’t believe how many great Miles storylines from the comics, many of which unfolded over the course of years, were incorporated into the film!  For instance, I was delighted that Miles’ complicated relationships with his father and his uncle Aaron was such an important part of the film.  And they even found a way to use the story of Miles’ friendship with the Spider-Gwen character!  Wow!

I was so excited when this film was announced, but then, when I learned of the Spider-Verse title, I was worried that Miles would wind up getting short shrift in his own film, because the film would also be telling this “Spider-Verse” story featuring Spider-people from various alternate universes.  Thank goodness that wasn’t the case.  The film is extraordinarily efficient in its storytelling.  I am so impressed at the way the film was able to have a huge amount of fun with lots of alternate-universe Spider-characters, while never losing its focus on Miles and Miles’ story.

The animation in this film is gorgeous, just staggeringly beautiful.  And even more than that, it’s delightfully original and creative.  This film has a visual look that is entirely unique and memorable.  My jaw was on the floor throughout.  The film was hugely inventive in the many creative ways that, through the visual look, they managed to bring a comic book page to life.  As the film unfolds, they threw in multiple different techniques and approaches to doing this.  Sometimes the screen divides into multiple panels.  Sometimes a caption or thought balloon is visible on-screen.  Sometimes the sound-effects are visible as well as incorporated into the image, just as they are in a real comic book page.  (Of all the super-hero films in recent memory, only Ang Lee’s Hulk was as creative in its approach to bringing the look and feel of a comic book page to life on screen.  This film goes WAY beyond what Mr. Lee and his team did.)  There is a joyously inventive visual energy to the film throughout, that feeds into the films propulsive, happy tone.

I’ve used that word “joyous” a lot.  I think that’s appropriate!  It’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of this film.  I had a huge grin on my face the entire time.  This film is so much FUN.  It’s also so funny.  I mean, really, really funny.  The influence of filmmaking team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie), who produced the film (and Mr. Lord co-wrote the screenplay with Rodney Rothman), can clearly be felt.

But the film isn’t just a comedy.  There is a real depth of emotion here.  The film puts the audience into Miles’ shoes, and we feel his pain and anguish as he is thrust into this new world, and has to deal with the strain that puts on himself and his family.  Miles’ relationships with his father and his uncle are complex, and the film doesn’t dumb-down those stories.  This film will be loved by kids, but it’s not just for kids.  There’s some surprisingly tough stuff here, from the fate of Miles’ universe’s Peter Parker (which is not erased or undone by the end of the film) to some of the third act developments which I won’t spoil here.  I love that the film embraced these more sophisticated, adult aspects of Miles’ story from the comic books.

(Side note: for the past several years I’ve been complaining that most of DC’s recent direct-to-DVD/blu-ray animated films haven’t been up to snuff, and my biggest complaint has been that while they have tried to be adult — getting PG-13 and even sometimes R ratings — they haven’t actually been adult at all.  They’ve been a juvenile attempt at being adult, incorporating violence and curses and even occasionally a spot of nudity, without actually adding the type of sophisticated, complicated characters and story-telling that would appeal to adults.  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is exactly the type of truly adult animated story-telling I’ve been looking for.  AND they succeeded in incorporating that into a film that is also appealing to kids, just like the best Pixar films can do.  Bravo.)

The voice cast in this film is phenomenal, absolutely note-perfect for every single role.  Shameik Moore is perfection as Miles.  He is exactly the way I always imagined this character sounding, and he is able to play every facet of the character: his youth his exuberance, his innocence, his humor, his toughness.  Jake Johnson (Safety Not Guaranteed, Drinking Buddies, Neighbors, Jurassic World) plays the older Peter Parker, and he is able to be consistently hilarious while also able to nail the character’s depth of heartbreak and brokenness.  Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender’s Game, The Edge of Seventeen, and currently starring in Bumblebee) plays Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (the character nicknamed “Spider-Gwen” in the comics), exactly as I’d always imagined this character to sound.  I am running out of different ways to say “perfect.”  Let’s keep going!  There’s Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage season one, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) as Miles’ uncle Aaron and Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) as Miles’ dad Jefferson Davis.  I love both of these vocal performances so much!!  They’re such different characters, and yet both have a strong emotional connection to Miles.  Mr. Ali and Mr. Henry give both men such depth and dimensionality. I’m not even close to being done listing this incredible cast!  There’s also Chris Pine (Star Trek, Hell or High Water, The Outlaw King) as the Peter Parker of Miles’ universe; Lily Tomlin as Aunt May (Ms. Tomlin beautifully brings to life the fiercely tough May from Mr. Bendis’ comic book stories); Zoë Kravitz (X-Men: First Class, Mad Max: Fury Road, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as Mary Jane Watson (I’d never have thought to cast Ms. Kravitz as MJ, but holy cow is she spot-on perfection); SNL’s John Mulaney as Peter Porker (Mr. Mulaney, sounding a lot like Jon Lovitz, kills every single line of dialogue; I mean KILLS); Nicolas Cage (Yes!  That Nicolas Cage!!) as Spider-Man Noir; Kathryn Hahn (Our Idiot Brother, Wanderlust, Bad Words) as Olivia “Liv” Octavius; and Liev Schreiber (Spotlight, Everything is Illuminated, RKO 281) as The Kingpin (outdoing Michael Clarke Duncan and Vincent D’Onofrio to deliver the best Kingpin performance I have ever seen).

Other thoughts:

* I was pleased that they gave The Kingpin an understandable motivation, and doubly pleased that they drew upon his love for Vanessa which was a big part of Frank Miller’s work on the character in the eighties.  I was also delighted that they drew upon Bill Sienkiewicz’s look for the character, in depicting him as a massively huge wall.  (Mr. Sienkiewicz and Mr. Miller collaborated on a story about The Kingpin in the 1986 graphic novel Daredevil: Love and War.  There are several fun nods to this story in the film!)

* I loved seeing Tombstone onscreen!!  He was a recurring bad guy in a long run of issues of The Spectacular Spider-Man from the eighties, that I loved as a kid.

* I loved how much the world of Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man was incorporated into the film.  In particular, I loved seeing the visual look and attitude of Aunt May as she was in Bendis’ stories.  This is an unusual take on Aunt May, and one that I really loved in the comics, and it was perfectly captured by the film.

* One important character of Bendis’ Spider-Man stories was missing, though: Ganke!!  This character was co-opted into Spider-Man: Homecoming (where he was inexplicably called Ned Beatty, one of Peter Parkers’ friends from the original Spider-Man comics, but the character on-screen was Ganke through and through).  I loved seeing Ganke in the film, but as I wrote in my review, I feared that meant that when/if a Miles story ever actually happened, that they wouldn’t be able to include Ganke.  A shame.

* I can’t believe that Peter Porker: The Spectacular Spider-Ham was actually in this movie!!!  And used so well!!  (Peter Porker was unbelievably, an actual comic book character who appeared in a series of young-kids comic books under Marvel Comics’ “Star Comics” imprint in the eighties.)

* Note to attentive viewers: Miles’ uncle Aaron was actually in Spider-Man Homecoming, where he was played by Donald Glover!

 

* One thing I was secretly hoping for, during all of this films’ dealing with the multiverse: a mention of the 616!  (The “main” Marvel Universe was established as Earth 616 in Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ Captain Britain comic books in the eighties, and was then used by long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont, at which point the usage caught on.  This is a super-nerdy piece of comic-book business, but I love it.)

* Will this be the last Stan Lee cameo, or were others filmed, before Mr. Lee’s passing, for more upcoming films?  I don’t know, but if this is the final Stan Lee cameo, it was perfect.

* Did I detect Cliff Robertson’s voice in the opening sequence, voicing Uncle Ben’s “with great power” line…?  I did!!  This is genius.  (Mr. Robertson played Uncle Ben in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man film.)

* I loved the post-credit sequence with Spider-Man 2099!!  And he was voiced by Oscar Isaac!!!  Bring on the sequel!!!  (I also adored the Earth 67 joke, which of course is a nod to the 1967 Spider-Man animated series, which was hugely impactful on my childhood and that of many others of my age… I am so bowled over by the attention to detail and love for Spider-Man history in this film!!)

I loved this film, can you tell?  Go see it!

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