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Miles Morales > Tom Holland > Andrew Garfield > Tobey Maguire

by Thom Yee

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

The theory of the multiverse suggests that there exists different universes parallel to our own. In at least one interpretation of the theory, the number of parallels continues to stretch out and grow into infinity. That means that there’s a universe where you, the reader of this purported review, and I, the writer of it, have not only met, but I may even have killed you in that universe (in fact, I probably would have killed you in most of them if we’re being honest; it’s just a personal flaw I have, a hair-trigger temper matched with a dedication to violence that I’m sure would transcend most universal barriers). But, with the concept of infinite parallel universes in mind, there are probably a lot of worlds in which I may have saved you from death as well (probably not the other way around, though; again, a lack of being saved is something I feel is probably close to a universal constant given my innate resistance to receiving help). And then, extrapolating with infinity in mind even further, all of that saving I could be doing in all of those other worlds could be with the aid of superpowers. I might have been bitten by a radioactive spider and not died from radiation poisoning [or my fear of spiders] but instead gained the proportionate strength(s) of a spider in one. Or I might share a telepathic link with a radioactive spider with whom I co-pilot a bio-mechanical spider suit in another. Or I might even be some sort of totemic spider spirit who imbues my chosen champions with the greatest virtues of the spider in another still. Or maybe you are instead. Or something. Or something else. Or something else still. Ad infinitum.

Then again, an infinite number of parallel universes in which anything is possible is the sort of thing that’s naturally captivating but also awfully fanciful and sometimes even dangerous once you go too far down that road [though does the choice of whether or not you go down that road create an alternate universe of its own?]. If there are infinite alternate universes, then there may be a chance that you or I have spider powers in some of them, but there are also several in which you or I were born in entirely different countries or on entirely different planets or ones where you and/or I never existed at all. In other words, there are infinite worlds of strange abstractions that we might not even recognize because they look nothing like our own. There might be a world where people aren’t solid, physical beings but instead some sort of loose collections of immateria only detectable on a metaphysical level. Or worlds where metaphysical energy itself fuels our engines and leaves behind no unfortunate contaminants in its wake, leading to a utopian society fed on a completely renewable, clean resource that can be found entirely in our heads. And, here’s what might be the single worst thing about infinite universes: If there are an infinite number of parallel universes, then the odds are that this one, the one we’re in right now, probably doesn’t matter that much at all. It’s just a question of numbers (specifically, the number infinity).

Now what does all of this have to do with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? Sort of nothing and sort of everything. Spider-Verse’s essential premise explores the most salient types of stories made possible by multiversal storytelling, focused primarily on exploring the roads more and less travelled in other universes to allow the heroes of this one to find a path to growth and salvation, but it still takes the time to briefly look at some pretty weird alternatives.

Like a world with a superhero called Spider-Ham who was originally a spider bitten by a radioactive pig.

Yeah, it’s pretty great.

What’s it about?

In a time usually around now and a galaxy mostly like this one but different, there exists not only a world with a superhero called Spider-Man but several different parallel worlds with several different spider people. In this story in particular, a young man named Miles Morales inherits the powers and mantle of Spider-Man after the death of his would-be mentor in a catastrophic event that causes different spider people from alternate universes to travel to his. These spider men and women must band together to defeat the Kingpin, the villain responsible for this transuniversal event, and return to their own worlds, but can they succeed with a raw recruit like Miles, who’s only just started learning how to use his powers? Can Miles become the hero we need to save us all?

Especially with superheroes, the existence of alternate universes is one of the most common and well-trodden sources of story ideas. After all, this is a genre where Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 12-issue maxiseries designed to clean up and make sense of the confusion caused by so many stories set in alternate worlds by combining them all into one, was a thing. In the ‘80s. It’s only gotten more complicated since then. Entire alternate worlds live, entire alternate worlds die, and nothing will ever be the same again all the time in comicbooks, and that’s something that can make the whole comicbook-reading affair a nightmare of [non-]canonical confusion. On the other hand, none of these things actually happened (y’know, unless our comicbook creators are actually getting their story ideas by channeling the history of other universes [which is the type of idea that’s, of course, already appeared many times in comicbook stories]), so maybe a better version of that nightmare scenario is to just not worry about it too much. Particular to this movie, the meeting of several different spider people from several different universes gathered together to defeat a common foe is a storyline that first appeared not that long ago in the Amazing Spider-Man comicbook storyline back in 2014. In it, the Peter Parker of the prime Marvel comicbook universe (i.e., the one we’ve been reading about all along, sometimes referred to as Earth-616) leads a squad of spider people to defeat Morlun, a sort of vampiric predator of spider-powered individuals who had declared that all spiders across the multiverse must die. It’s also pretty great.

One thing that hasn’t been so great with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, however, is its box office performance. Having earned over $300 million at this point against a budget of $90, it’s made very decent money and is a successful enough movie overall, but of the trifecta of nerd movies that opened in this past 2018 Christmas season (the others being Aquaman and Bumblebee), it’s the one that’s made the least despite having opened a week ahead of the others. Part of that is probably down to Spider-Verse being an animated movie and, therefore, just not operating on the same playing field as live action movies in a lot of people’s minds, and part of that might be down to its non-official ties to the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, but considering a movie like Aquaman (which we’ll review in the coming weeks) has made more than a billion dollars, it’s kind of a shame to see Spider-Verse not exactly making all the money. Where Spider-Verse has done considerably better, though, is in critical response. The movie still holds a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s won Best Animated Feature at just about every awards ceremony it could (an honour usually reserved for Disney/Pixar movies), and one awards body even named it the 2018 Best Picture. Not best animated, not best superhero or action movie, but best picture, full stop. Plus, of course, it came dangerously close to being the 2018 GOO Reviews movie of the year as well, which, let’s face it, is obviously the prize they were really hoping for.

Is it any Good?

I’m going to use a word here in describing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that I don’t think I’ve ever used before, certainly not here at least. A word that’s very unusual for a person like me and one that I consider the use of to be quite controversial. A word that may one day live in infamy for how much it runs against the edgy, too-cool-for-school vibe we’re so obviously going for here on GOO reviews. And that word isn’t Amazing. It’s not Spectacular or Sensational or Astonishing either (and it’s certainly not Uncanny). No… that word is… ‘wonderful’. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a wonderful movie. And for me to choose such a complimentary and effusive yet oddly innocent and strangely naïve word to describe the movie is my way of trying to express just how good I think Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is and just how many people I think it’s a good movie for. It breaks through so many barriers that I’m willing to look like a complete lamewad and call something wonderful.

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In fact, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is so wonderful that it’s kind of a hard movie to talk about critically. It’s fun and dynamic and smart and fast and weird and meta and self-aware and loving and honest and heartfelt and profound and so many other good things that will delight all sorts of moviegoers that it nears perfection for the type of movie it’s trying to be. And it’s by far the best Spider-Man movie. It might be the best Spider-Man anything.

And y’see that? All that up there in that last paragraph? That’s what this review of the movie is mostly going to be like: Just a bunch of exclamations on how much I love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Just a bunch of “I loved this…”’s or I loved that…”’s about it and maybe not enough critical evaluation. Not much in the way of substance. Not enough breaking it down to the mechanics and examinations of technique. No essential reasoning to tell you why, objectively, it’s so great. Maybe no real value at all in you even reading this. So let’s get started!

Y’know what I love about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? Nothing about it rings false, everything about it feels timeless but contemporary, and it doesn’t in any way exclude any one point of view (unless, maybe, you genuinely believe in evil). You can be into superheroes, adventure or action movies, and/or animated features and like it for some very obvious and straightforward reasons, but there’s a lot to like in it just as a story. It’s a very genuine. It’s first and foremost a superhero movie, with all of the requisite action, and an animated movie, with some extraordinary, ultra-modern animation that’s incredibly distinctive and specific and yet very evocative of traditional comicbook storytelling, but it also does so many things right and so many things well in general that you can just like it as a movie the same way you don’t need to be into time travel to appreciate Back to the Future or into violence and vulgarity and tight, compelling plot structures to see that Die Hard is one of the greatest movies of all time (even though you should only watch it at Christmas; it is a Christmas movie).

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Specific to me as a comicbook nerd, Spider-Verse is also a movie that’s full of easter eggs, the kind that only someone like me might catch, but also the kind that will translate to general audiences. There’s a Stan Lee cameo, as there usually are in Marvel-related productions, but in Spider-Verse it was a moment that felt more real, like it was actually something Stan wanted to say rather than just being an offhand joke that didn’t matter to the story and is soon forgotten, and especially considering the man’s recent death, there was an extra poignance in Stan’s words that, as a true believer in what the comicbook heroes represent, nearly brought me to tears. At the same time I had a huge grin that very often gave way to a full-on smile through most of the movie, and that’s saying a lot considering how much my face tends towards seriousness and a pronounced scowl. That big, real, sometimes ear-to-ear smile came not just from the movie’s appeals to me as a comicbook reader but because it was also really funny. And not in that scattered, thousand-jokes-a-minute, funny-but-meaningless, unrelated-to-the-story Deadpool way but in the real, central-to-the-story, carefully crafted way. That “Dad I love you” joke that you see in most of the trailers (including the one above) is kind of funny as a concept, but it works mostly because it was paced properly and feeds into the inherent truths and themes of the movie, and it’s a good illustration of how well the humour in Spider-Verse works.

The concept of Spider-Man is very well engrained in our world’s pop culture at this point, obviously with the comics, but well into movies, TV shows (like this one here!), t-shirts, toys, lunch boxes, Pez dispensers, and even our underpants. Spider-Verse, though, doesn’t put Peter Parker at centre stage, instead focusing on a new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, a newer character who’s already a fan-favourite in the comics and will hopefully soon be a favourite to many more people now. Miles, an Afro-Latino teenager, first became Spider-Man under Marvel’s Ultimate banner, itself an alternate universe series of books, but he proved to be so popular that Marvel eventually folded him into the main universe when the Ultimate universe was destroyed (things like that happen all the time; it’s comics!). Under the pen of famed comicbook writer Brian Michael Bendis, he’s the kind of character everybody likes and the perfect successor to Spider-Man, and as much as I, as a Chinaman, have usually resisted the idea of minority representation being a necessity for minorities to find meaningful stories, they do such a good job with making Miles endearing and hopeful through what proves to be a pretty brutal origin arc in Spider-Verse that I can actually imagine and get behind being an inspiration to young Afro-Latino people. They do such a good job in Spider-Verse that I may have actually changed my mind on a real world issue! And while Miles receives the lion’s share of the movie’s focus, there’s enough room in the story for all of the other spider people and even Kingpin, our antagonist, to have meaningful arcs of their own. There are ideas in this movie about heroism and family and individual value and honest self-expression that are incredibly affecting.

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But what I like most about the movie is just how strongly its themes resonate. That being brought near to the point of tears I mentioned two paragraphs ago? That happened all the time as I watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Now I’m a full-grown man, and a bitter and resentful one at that, but the one thing that makes superhero movies, at least the good ones, something I will always make time for and always actively seek out is their one core concept: Helping those who can’t help themselves. Especially with a hero like Spider-Man, it’s not about the glory of being a hero, the opportunity, the recognition, or the accolades, but doing what’s right because we know it’s important and we know it in our heart. Just the thought of that, at least when it’s done well, is something that makes me almost immediately emotional, and Spider-Verse is just so earnestly full of that true spirit of heroism that I was fully engaged, constantly feeling everything the movie was going for.

So should I see it?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a movie that had me questioning myself a lot as I watched it. Mostly questions like “Can this movie possibly be as good as I’m thinking it is?” and “Am I really enjoying this movie as much as it feels like I am?”, and even “Do I like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse more than Avengers: Infinity War?”. Eventually cooler heads prevailed and I ultimately concluded that it didn’t quite make that cut (mostly because I wasn’t thinking about Spider-Verse quite as much as I thought about Infinity War in the days after I saw each of them), but make no mistake, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a damn fine movie. A damn fine movie. A damn, damn fine movie. Ad infinitum.

In Spider-Verse you’ll find wonderfully (there’s that word again!) delightful movie, full of the requisite action and adventure and slickly stylistic animation, and on those levels alone it’s one of the better movies of the year, but what sold it to me and what makes it transcend the usual accolades like good, great, or worth your time and allows it to soar into near-perfect territory is that it’s funny and compelling and heartfelt at such a high level that it’s almost infectious. It’s the Wonderful and Infectious Spider-Man we need at times like this. It has great messages about personal worth and finding yourself, about power and responsibility, and leaves you ultimately hopeful about the future.

“What makes you different is what makes you Spider-Man.” That’s the kind of messaging that, though simplistic and all-too-often missing in social reality, can make a real difference when done well. I really feel like Spider-Verse is the sort of movie that people can learn from, that people can experience personal growth and a greater harmony wwith the universe from, that, especially if it hits you at just the right time in your life, might help you to be a better person. That’s the real, sometimes hidden and not always obvious value of stories like these, no matter what genre or medium they’re told in. That’s why stories are important and that’s what makes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse such an Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Astonishing, Important, and Wonderful movie.

Thom’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse final score

5

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On the Edge

  • How perfect is it that Jake Johnson voices the schlubby, washed-up, slight failure of a Spider-Man and Chris Pine voices the ultimate, completely heroic Spider-Man?
  • Hey! That “You can’t think about saving the world. You have to think about saving one person.” thing? Where have I heard that before? A movie that everyone hated but we loved?
  • And that idea that anyone can be Spider-Man? Where have I seen that before? A movie that people don’t give enough credit but we loved?

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