I saw Into the Spider-Verse a full 2 months ago and I’m still thinking about it. I’ve squeed about it to friends, and have gone into long intellectual tangents about it. I’ve downloaded the soundtrack off of Spotify (and am listening to it while finishing off this post). I’ve been rooting for it hard ever since I found out it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Film.
And it won last night. And I’m over the moon about it! Having seen 2 of the other nominees for the category, the difference is stark — neither of the 2 Disney movies approached Spider-Verse in terms of plot, emotional/narrative depth, or visual inventiveness.
It’s that last element — visual inventiveness — that’s been taking up most of my thoughts about what makes Spider-Verse so good, and so unique. And it’s this: Into the Spider-Verse may, like most movies based on comic books, be about supeheroes. But it’s not a superhero movie. It’s a comic book movie, first and foremost. And while that may seem like it’s splitting hairs, I think that’s a really important distinction.
While superhero movies generally use comic books and graphic novels as their source material, their primary goal is to reproduce or adapt the narrative of that source material: origin stories, major conflicts, redemption arcs, etc. These movies often take visual/narrative cues from the source material, like costumes, scenery, and even panel compositions. But their primary goal is to use the original comic books as a springboard for telling a particular story, and their plots may diverge wildly from the official comic book canon. For example, in the original comics, Thanos wants to kill half of all life in the universe not because he swallowed Malthusian theory hook, line, and sinker, but because he has the hots for Hel and figures that killing half of all living beings will finally make her reciprocate his feelings.
In contrast, I think comic book movies do something different: they attempt to replicate the aesthetic experience and potential of comic books themselves. If they can get the narrative right, that’s gravy — but the real goal is to make you feel like you’re watching a living, breathing comic book.
Some movies like this already exist; the ones that pop immediately to mind for me are Dick Tracy, Watchmen, and Sin City. But even so, Spider-Verse manages to crack open the potential of comic books on a screen in a way that few movies have dared.
I mean, look at this scene. LOOK AT IT.
Spider-Verse plays with camera angles and framing in a way that would be hard to accomplish in a live-action movie. It tells multiple origin stories in a way that’s as fresh and entertaining the last time as it is the first. It even uses word bubbles as more than just one-off visual gags — though it has plenty of those too, like the little onomatopoeic “thwips” that show up when Peter and Miles use their web shooters. The Lego Batman movie made a big joke about using onomatopoeia during fight scenes, but Spider-Verse just takes their existence as a matter of course by using them throughout the film, like a chef judiciously seasoning a dish.
Most importantly, it manages to play with several different drawing styles in the same frame in a way that looks cohesive and coherent. You have the realistic-looking characters of Peter Parker, Miles Morales, and Gwen Stacy sharing the frame with Spiderman Noir (who looks like his drawing was inspired by classic noir films, and he has the gangster-film-era accent and slang to match), Peni Parker (an anime girl who pilots a wee little mech with the help of her pet psychic spider), and Peter Porker (aka: Spider-Ham, who is basically what would happen if you crossed Spiderman with a Looney Toons character).
The amazing thing is that the screen looks like a cohesive, harmonious whole when all six characters are on-screen together, even as these disparate drawing styles are given equal weight and importance. This cohesiveness is especially noticeable when contrasted with the character design for the Kingpin, who doesn’t look like a man so much as a hulking, circular tower of flesh with black, diamond-hard eyes. Despite Peter Porker literally being a Looney Toons pig, his character design is imbued with more flexibility and humanity than the villain.
Then there’s the climax, where Miles fights the Kingpin in an attempt to close the hole in reality that the Kingpin has opened. It’s part action sequence, part acid-trip fever dream, with swirling, psychedelic colours and jagged angles and lines. Probably the closest film analogue I can think of is the stargate sequence at the end of 2001 — it’s that trippy.
In the lead-up to its release in December, I was aware of the film, but only because Mr. BooksandTea wanted to see it, and because io9 was hyping it up.
Then I saw it, and I was amazed — where on earth did this thing come from, and how come I was only hearing about it through various people raving on Twitter? Where was the massive media push that this movie deserved?
I’m still kind of shocked that it was such a sleeper hit. But maybe fewer people will be sleeping on it now because of its award win.