— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
“All right, people, let’s do this one last time.”
2000’s X-Men may have started the engines, but it was with 2002’s Spider-Man that the rocket that is the comic book/superhero movie genre officially cleared the tower. Spider-Man remained the template for further genre entries until Iron Man and The Dark Knight cleared the playing field six years later.
Since then…a beloved 2004 sequel and Visual Effects Oscar winner, a tone-deaf (symbiote boogieing…*shudders*) and villain-saturated 2007 trilogy finale, a failed reboot attempt between 2012 and 2014, and then Sony’s bold deal with Disney-Marvel to allow their precious webslinger (now played by Tom Holland) to appear in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Civil War also served as a prelude to Holland’s solo feature, which remains my favorite superhero film of 2017 (see here).
Meanwhile, an animated project was brewing at Sony Animation, a sign of renewed confidence in their “friendly neighborhood” webslinger. An ominous December 2017 teaser dropped, blowing audiences away. The then-unreleased “Home” by Vince Staples, a younger and moodier Spider-Man (Miles Morales, as it turns out), that animation style and visual flourish, and closing with the eye-opening question, “Wait, so how many of us are there?”—that teaser was all I needed.
Now, if the more detailed trailers had not emerged these past six months, maybe I would not have had this increasing dread that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (henceforth shortened to Spider-Verse) was making one too many promises for its own good. Consider yourself in good company, White Boy Rick.
Brooklyn native Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) struggles to adjust to his new elite boarding school and to please his parents, Rio (Luna Lauren Valez) and Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), one of many police officers annoyed by the city’s famous webslinger. After getting bitten by a radioactive spider, Miles becomes entangled in a nefarious scheme by heavyset gangster Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk (Liev Schreiber, enthused yet thankless) to disrupt the space-time continuum. This pulls five counterpart webslingers from alternate universes into Miles’ universe, where they will soon perish unless they foil Kingpin’s plan and return to their respective worlds.
Spider-Man: Homecoming has spoiled me.
Seriously, I continue to hold the segment from Tom Holland knocking on his prom date’s front door to him stunned and staggering into his school auditorium as one of the ten best scenes of cinema in 2017 (see #8 here) and easily one of the most memorable moments in big screen comic book/superhero history. Save for perhaps Spider-Man 2 and assuming all other things being equal, any movie focusing on Spider-Man that does not either match or top that sequence no longer has any prayer in earning equal praise from me.
At first glance, Spider-Verse’s plot carries through from start to finish. The stunning and unorthodox animation emulates the comic book style in spectacular fashion, save for a few background characters here and there looking and moving like video game models. Film editor Robert Fisher, Jr. weaves through split-screen tools to further mirror, draw in, and overwhelm viewers with the comic book aesthetic.
Yet all these can only cover in vain the hasty and disorderly screenplay from producer Phil Lord and co-writer Rodney Rothman. The first half has its moments: Miles swats the fateful radioactive spider without having felt the bite (easily the film’s single best moment), discovers his powers in panicked hilarity, his untied shoelaces forward the story in a clever way, and he is forced to “catch a train” stuck to an unconscious Peter B./Spider-Man (Jake Johnson). At worst, the first half wades into plot convenience: Miles stumbles onto Kingpin’s underground super-collider the same night Peter “A.”/Spider-Man (Chris Pine) is there, while Gwen Stacey/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) infiltrates in advance both Miles’ school and the Alchemax research facility with unbelievable ease.
Spider-Verse all but loses its narrative grip thereafter. To start, meshing the tragic yet vague backstory involving Kingpin’s brokenhearted and now dead wife and son with his cartoonish and heavyset crime lord demeanor simply feels lazy, especially for audiences only familiar with the theatrical Spider-Man tales wherein he has never appeared. (One indirect exception is Michael Clarke Duncan in 2003’s not-so-well-remembered Daredevil—Kingpin rival Daredevil to appear in a Spider-Verse sequel someday?) A tragic backstory for the sake of new viewers requires more than pen click-induced glimpses.
The so-so antagonist, however, pales in bafflement next to the collective response of the more-seasoned webslingers to Miles. Peter B. and Gwen, along with ‘40s-style Noir (Nicolas Cage, gonzo as always), the anime-inspired Peni (Kimiko Glenn) with her biomech suit “SP//dr”, and the Tex Avery-esque Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), rapidly trigger in Miles a serious case of experience insecurity. As one who takes very seriously the endings to second acts (i.e., where heroes soon find themselves at their most lost and defeated), this part of Spider-Verse frustrates me to no end.
Does it not occur to the webslingers that they could work around Miles’ inexperience by safeguarding him—the kid with potential and a promise who actually belongs to this dimension and will not soon succumb to molecular decay—until he inserts the “goober” into the super-collider and destroys it after the others return to their own dimensions? Why not have the webslingers offer Miles less merciless crash courses on useful skills, which would entail spending time with Noir, Peni, and Ham as characters instead of as extended cameos?
Or, if the sacrifice alone can suffice, why not show more of Peter B. trying to win back the Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) of Miles’ universe? No need for Peter B. to win back his real ex-wife when he can just charm her ideal alternate self to care for him during his presumed remaining days—an enticing option, given the “fresh bread” exchange in the pointless banquet scene. (Sound familiar, DC’s Wonder Woman?) These missed opportunities irritate me so much that I almost forget about the vicious yet all-too-brief presence of Miles’ Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), whose fate leads to an unwisely-placed ceiling joke, feeble end-of-act-two pep talks, and the perfect training run that miraculously brings Miles up to speed with the others in a single early evening.
How can I genuinely regard Spider-Verse as “fresh” when one of its key running jokes concerns how repetitive the origin stories of the webslingers get? An eye-opening animation style can only carry narrative emotion so far, likewise with meta-heavy comedy. Elements so few and far between like Miles nonchalantly swatting the spider and paying off his untied shoelaces will always hold greater story value.
“You got a problem with cartoons?” asks Spider-Ham. When they cut corners in key areas and retreat behind admittedly cool visuals as well as the clichéd alibi “It’s just a cartoon,” then yes, yes I do, and that saddens me greatly.
(Parental Note: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has been rated PG by the MPAA “for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language”. It has also been rated PG by the BBFC for “moderate fantasy violence, mild threat, injury detail,” and “innuendo”, and rated A-II (Adults and adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for “some harsh but bloodless violence, including gunplay, references to puberty, and a single vaguely crass word.”)
(P.S. Keep an eye out for one of the last obligatory Stan Lee cameos (Requiescat in pace, good sir.) as well as a post-credits scene.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.