The past few years have seen a slew of superhero films find audiences all over the world. From Superman to Iron Man to The Avengers, film adaptations of DC and especially Marvel comics have garnered billions of dollars with no stop in sight. This year in particular, numerous superhero films have even entered awards conversations, with Best Picture momentum steadily increasing for the much-celebrated Black Panther. And while it is now common for these films the top end-of-year lists of highest grossing films and for them to generate awards buzz, this was not the case back in 2002, when Spider-Man — arguably the first major commercial hit of its nature — became an overnight sensation worldwide, earning seven times its budget, picking up a couple Academy Award nominations, and spawning two sequels and a couple reboots.
Despite the many attempts to portray the swinging hero on the big screen, part of the comic book hero’s personality seemed to get lost in the adaptation: while Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man truly embodied the sense of responsibility that is core to the character, he lacked the youthful spirit and innocent, can-do attitude that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was characterised by. Andrew Garfield’s turn in The Amazing Spider-Man, meanwhile, lingered somewhere between Holland and Maguire’s without ever being enough of one or the other.
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In an industry so driven by profit, however, and with such massive support for both superhero movies and for the Spider-Man franchise in particular, it was no surprise when news first broke out about a new Spider-Man film, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would prove to be a staggering entry — perhaps the very best — into a franchise that had started to lose its steam.
Into the Spider-Verse takes the focus away from Peter Parker and expands into the Spider-Verse, introducing multiple versions of the titular character for an markedly diverse cast: Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter B. Parker (Jack Johnson), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and the film’s main (mixed-race) protagonist Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Upon discovering his new superpowers and in the absence of Peter Parker (Chris Pine), Miles Morales must save the city from the evil of Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) and Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn).
What is immediately apparent to the viewer is the film’s groundbreaking style and form. Start to finish, Into The Spider-Verse looks and feels like a true comic book film. The action sequences, aided by the vibrant and contrasting colour palettes, are thrilling through and through and carry the film’s two-hour run brilliantly, never allowing a dull moment. In its entirety, the film presents itself as a visual experience to the viewer, almost as if the pages of a graphic novel itself have come to life on the big screen in a way that marries the best of screen and print experiences.
This focus on form — and with it, the incredible attention to detail in every shot — gives the film an urban feel reminiscent of the original trilogy, where the city of New York is more on the forefront than is the case with more recent installations in the franchise. This is made even more interesting when one considers how intertwined the city is with the film’s main character: not only must Miles protect the city as Spider-Man, but his father (a hilarious Brian Tyree Henry) is also a police officer who, like Miles albeit in different ways, must protect the city from crime. The city further comes alive through the focus on culture in the film, be that through the art elements inside the world of the film or in its making, and through the film’s fantastic soundtrack — which features Vince Staples, Thutmose, Post Malone, Jaden Smith, Nicki Minaj, Annuel AA, and more artists — an ode to the city that is historically the birthplace of the hip hop and rap genres. With so much focus on the setting of the film, the sense of responsibility towards it is subsequently more layered than in previous Spider-Man films and the connection between the characters and the city is amplified.
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Often times, the weight of superhero films comes from their visual effects and the story and characterisation at the heart of the film suffer. And while Into The Spider-Verse provides no shortage of stunning visuals, it delivers a story that packs as strong a punch. This is largely due to the stellar writing in the film courtesy of Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman (who is one of three directors of the film in addition to Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey). The screenplay, above everything, offers enough range for the film to breathe. From its witty dialogue to its humour that never loses steam to the powerful moment between father and son, the screenplay checks all the right boxes, elevating the film to a level unparallelled thus far in the franchise.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is a film by Spider-Man fans for Spider-Man fans (even the post-credits scene is genius) — and I say this as someone who does not consider himself a big fan of superhero films. It is a terrific piece of art that warrants every accolade (and if it were up to me, a Best Picture nomination) that will come its way and serves a reminder of the might that superhero movies could carry. Perhaps other superhero films started the upward movement of superhero films in critics’ circles over the past few years and this year in particular, but I, for one, will end 2018 remembering our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.