By Aaron Tan (19A01B)
As those who know me might attest – I’m not the biggest fan of superhero fare. No, I’m not just being a hipster (okay, maybe a little), and no, please do not crucify me. Pitchforks down, please (though you are most welcome to drop us an angry email over at email@example.com – we’re lonely over here).
Take it from me, then, when I say that Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse is an incredible experience. What it may lack in narrative depth, it makes up for with technicolour spectacle, with a joyous phantasmagoria of stylish, frenetic energy that grabs hold of you right from the Columbia Pictures logo and never lets go. And it’s absolutely fantastic for it. It’s a labour of love to the comic book and animation industry that shines through every meticulously-crafted frame and revels, unapologetic, in its candy-coloured wonder that only an epileptic won’t find joy in. To say the least, it’s marvelous fun.
The story isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. Miles Morales, a sulky teenager frustrated (and demoralised… haha) by his stressful school life and an uptight father, wants nothing but to run around town with his uncle Aaron and do graffiti on walls. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider, develops spider-powers, and stumbles into a plot by the nefarious Kingpin to bridge several dimensions across the multiverse – a plot that threatens to (wait for it) destroy the world. It is also a plot that inadvertently introduces Miles to some interdimensional friends – Peter B. Parker, Spider-gwen, Spider-man Noir, Spider-ham and the almost-unfortunately-named Peni Parker.
From there, Miles and his motley crew must obtain a macguffin (“goober”, as Peter Parker calls it) in the form of a digital key to shut down Kingpin’s dimension-bridging machine before it annihilates everything. Along the way, Miles learns what it means to be a hero – and to grow up.
There are moments of pathos and drama as characters grapple with emotional arcs, and, without spoiling any plot points, Miles’ arc in particular feels compelling and well-realised – heartwarming even – even if it hinges on some plot conveniences every now and then. Notably, some of the more wacky minor characters – Noir, Peni, and Ham – felt woefully underutilised, though given the runtime, one can imagine why. In all, the story was serviceable, if not exceptional.
Story, however, is the least of one’s concerns when it comes to a movie like this. What makes Into the Spider-Verse’s approach particularly unique is its way of taking seemingly disparate influences and combining them into a cohesive whole that takes on a life of its own. From Miles Morales’ graffiti and an urban, hip-hop soundtrack, to Spider-man Noir’s hardboiled, detective noir roots, to Peni Parker – the hyperactive, bug-eyed, giant-robot-piloting anime stereotype – to, most notably, the pages of the comic books from which Spider-man sprang to life – all these coalesce beautifully into a whirlwind of a love letter to pop art of all sorts while ingeniously toying with tropes and cliches to amusing effect. Spider-Ham, a tribute to the Golden Age of animation of the 30s, 40s and 50s, summons anvils and wooden mallets to pummel his enemies (“it’ll fit in your pocket”). Characters’ inner monologue appear on screen in comic-book caption bubbles, the screen sometimes splits up as if emulating the panels on a comic book page, and strong blows are sometimes accompanied with the appropriate ‘KAPOW!’ Spider-man Noir, having lived all his life in a dimension of black and white, struggles to comprehend a Rubik’s Cube.
Overarching stylistic decisions aside, individual characters are also animated with astonishing expressiveness. One benefit of animation is its ability to exaggerate – see animation legend Chuck Jones’ revolutionary ‘Smear’ technique, for example. Animation allows filmmakers to create incredible fluidity in motion beyond the physical capabilities of reality. These cartoon physics help lend the extraordinary momentum and kinetic energy that Into the Spider-Verse’s action scenes possess in oodles. Just look at how the characters bounce around like pinballs in the fight in Aunt May’s house, or Doc Ock’s flailing robotic tendrils, or the catlike Prowler’s billowing cape. Unique quirks also lend personality and occasionally some levity to each character – Miles Morales’ graffiti motif effectively captures his frustrated, rebellious adolescent spirit. The hyperactive Peni Parker constantly munches on sweets. Spider-Ham oozes around like a Looney Tunes character, reflecting his golden age roots. For minor characters like Peni and Ham, it’s an incredibly effective way to make them memorable despite their limited screen time.
Of course, action is not the only sphere in which animation shines – exaggerated features and physical features are also a simple and effective way to emphasise character traits and create memorable personalities. The imposingly large, square, body shape of the main baddy Kingpin, for instance, instantly conveys his sheer brutality. Spider-gwen’s impossibly slender figure and sleek, angular frame emphasises her superhuman grace and athleticism (her haircut, of course, conveys her impeccable fashion sense. I wholeheartedly agree with Miles.)
What really brought the art together, however, far beyond these general techniques, was how Into the Spider-Verse’s directors – Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr. and Rodney Rothman – injected their own comic-book twist into the visual mix. As Persichetti mentioned in an interview with Collider: “If we were going to make [the film] animated, there is no better medium for honoring where the comics first came from – which is a printed comic book. And so we took a lot of the same processes that were 75 years old, and we tried to turn that into a cinematic language.” In the process, they created a new animation pipeline that Sony is now in the process of patenting. Looking at the results, it’s hard not to see why. Among the techniques used was the use of smeared lines to evoke motion (Prowler’s purple claw swipes come to mind) and the use of separately-animated line-work to highlight characters’ faces instead of pure geometry.
Even beyond that – throw in some occasional chromatic aberration around the edges, the comic-book halftone gradient, the colour palette that just pops – it’s perhaps impossible for me to describe here just how much invention and homage has been infused into the visual direction of this film. The result, as you might have inferred by now, is sheer delight.
Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just a movie, it’s also a sort of psychedelic fever dream – achieved in a way perhaps only animation could. Much like Miles’ graffiti, it drips with style and effortless cool. It is exceptional in the way it breaks some traditional cinematic boundaries while toeing the line with others, delivering an experience that is at once familiar yet forges a vision all its own. Unrelentingly self-aware and self-referential, it’s at the same time a traditional, heartwarming, adrenaline-pumping superhero origin flick, and an appropriately post-modern take on the genre that ditches the cynicism that comes with the package and chooses instead to celebrate its heritage.
And what a celebration it is. No doubt there will be a sequel in its vein – Sony didn’t spend all that money on patent attorneys for nothing – and I fear it might lose its unique lustre in the process. But until then, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will remain a shining gem in Sony Animation’s repertoire, a joyride of visual insanity, a cinematic delight. Maybe superhero fare isn’t too bad, after all.