Spider-Man may have been bitten by a radioactive arachnid but from Sony Pictures point of view he has turned into a bit of a white elephant. As the expression suggests, so valuable are the rights to Marvel Comics most famous superhero that they’ve not been able to get rid of him yet now housing him has started to come at some significant cost, at least critically. In their haste to make more films, as is necessary to stop the rights reverting back to Marvel Studios, they have started to make some very poor movies. The franchise that was once their Golden Goose has become an albatross around their necks.
Just look at Tobey Maquire’s third Spider-Man film. It was undisciplined and such a disappointment after 1 and 2. Then there were the Andrew Garfield ones that featured great chemistry between him and Emma Stone but certainly weren’t great films. Sony evidentially didn’t know how to extend the stories and everything became dull and predictable. Following this, of course, they made a deal to allow Spider-Man to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while keeping some ownership over plot and characters details themselves. This was good for the kid in the blue and red suit and it was good for the MCU but it only seemed to cause more problems for Sony. This year they released the Venom movie; a film about a Spider-Man villain that couldn’t reference Spider-Man in any way shape or form and while it was entertaining enough it inevitably felt like something important was missing. Also, compared to the fresh things Marvel are doing with Mr Peter Parker and the superhero genre in general, Venom seemed horribly old hat.
Then this happened.
Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an animated feature film that recasts Spidey as an older man, ten years into his crime fighting exploits. That in itself is a slightly different angle but it also recasts him as a thirteen year old black kid and a high school girl, and a black and white gumshoe and a Manga tweenager and an anthropomorphised pig.
Under the guidance of Phil Lord and Chris Miller and picking up on a story ideas from the Edge of Spider-Verse comic book series, this new Spider-Man film uses what is familiar and much loved about the character; all those things we know and all those things that Sony have been mishandling for the last eleven years, and mixes them with stuff we have never seen before. The result is fantastic. Hold your horses because Sony have proven that they are not one trick ponies after all, they’ve weaselled out of their creative funk and reinstated their cash cow. The film is the cat’s meow and this spider that appeared to be on its last legs has found its bite.
The plot revolves around a number of alternative universes, each with its own web-slinger, converging in one place. This immediately brings a number of different takes on the Spider-Man idea but the fact that all of these other heroes are interacting with the guy we already know works brilliantly. This is definitely the guy we know too; effort is made to align this film with the Maquire/Sam Raimi movies and the way in which it references these shows an awareness of what has worked with Sony’s Spidey and what has not. The new heroes are all strong, particularly Hailee Steinfeld’s Spider-Woman and Nicholas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir, but the protagonist is Miles Morales, the cop’s son who randomly discovers he has Spider powers in a world where there is already a Spider-Man. Miles is a compelling lead and while we get a few of those testing his powers crawling up walls scenes, they are done in new ways and with more humour.
The film does bring laugh out loud moments but don’t write it off as a silly cartoon. There is a comedy talking pig but there is also genuine pathos and incredible action. The animation is superb too, combining traditional comic art with the latest CGI in thrilling ways. The central story, that of a young kid coming to terms with his amazing new abilities, is not surprising or sophisticated but it is surrounded by so many thrilling new components that it does not matter and actually this part of the plot serves nicely as the strong core that holds everything together. Watching this you might be reminded of things like Kick-Ass, Big Hero Six, Black Panther, Batman and Wonder Woman but still this feels totally original and moves the genre forward in way that we’ve not seen from Sony before, or from anyone else.
Lord and Miller have taken this tired narrative and refreshed it in exhilarating ways (they both produced and Phil Lord wrote the screenplay). It is as visually full on as their work on The Lego Movie but it has greater narrative restraint and doesn’t annoy in the same way. Having seen this now I am even more sad that these guys were dropped from the Han Solo directing gig because that too could have been shaken up rather than playing it frustratingly safe. Sony’s faith in the pair has been magnificently rewarded and I wish Lucasfilm has shown similar vision.
What we have here is a whole new Spider-Man series that stands to run longer than any of the previous ones and will do so without stepping on the toes of what Marvel are doing with the character (especially since they killed him off). It also promises to bring action animation to the forefront of mainstream cinema in a way that hasn’t happened before. So that’s exciting too.
Well done Sony, you have the great power and now you have met your great responsibilities.
Is this one for the kids?
This film is totally one for the kids, it is rated PG but deals with some grown up themes among the excitement and gravity defying action. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is everything anyone; any child, any superhero fan, any animation devotee, any parent, any feminist, any movie nerd could want it to be.
The Ripley Factor:
Much has been made of how films like Wonder Woman, Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time and Crazy Rich Asians took people from underrepresented groups and placed them at the heart of big Hollywood productions. There has been a very welcome sea change here and each of these movies deserves to be celebrated. By this rationale Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse deserves equal fanfare though, if not more. Here we have a black superhero, a Japanese one, a middle aged one and a female one (and a farmyard animal one but that’s less of an issue). Gwen Stacey, or Spider-Gwen as she is known, is a brilliant female role model, showing strength and intelligence in totally feminine ways. The less than progressive hot-panted Harley Quinn has been the lady cosplay of choice of late but expect that to change on the back of this.
Beyond this Aunt May has also had a complete reinvention being presented here as an integral part of the crime fighting activities, kind of like Batman’s Alfred.
Speaking of Batman, is there a signal of some sort that can shone into the sky to alert Lord and Miller to the fact that that series has become laboured and fallen from its former glories too? Come on Warner Brothers, press the button.