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Come for the anime, stay for the awesome.
Turns out you can see only so many superhero movies. You know how it goes. Hero X has to stop Terrible Threat Y from destroying everything they hold dear. Things progressively intensify, until nearly all hope is lost, then blamo! the hero calls upon their hidden, innermost strength, saving everything at the last second. The people rejoice, the hero is popular for a week, before it starts all over anew in Sequel Z or worse, Reboot A.
Sigh. Give us something new, something different.
With the Ceniplex seemingly ever awash in superhero movies, it’s understandable if you happened to skip this one. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse released at the height of the hectic 2018 holiday season, just a week ahead of the marketing juggernaut known as Aquaman (originally they shared the same opening date). I too would have missed it, if not for a certain ensemble character that generated a flurry of retweets within the anime community prior to opening. As it turned out, someone, somewhere at Sony Animation decided to slip a dose of Japan into the Western mix by the addition of Peni Parker (voiced by Kimiko Glenn), a high-spirited, genius-grade, mecha piloting teen happa from the future.
Well, if it has an anime character, it’s worth a shot, right?
Spider-Verse does far better. It delivers on different– with turbo boost.
From the first frame to last, you’re pulled into an animation style all of its own. Not Pixar, nor Dreamworks, but a comic book come to vivid life. It’s a dazzling display of ingenuity and imagination that is nearly captivating enough, before the smart dialogue and witty jokes leave your eyes watering and sides hurting. Spider-Verse is a high-energy ride where you don’t dare look down at your popcorn, otherwise you’ll miss something good.
Different extends even to the ensemble characters. Whereas much of the cast shares one style, Peni appears as if lifted from a Studio Ghibli meets Flash animation. Her mismatch from the others plays well to the story given how she’s from the far future (year 3145). Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) is a halftone masterpiece sadly short on screen time, while Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) brings a touch of cartoony fun without being overly slapstick.
Obvious throughout the nearly two-hour run is that the creative team poured their passion for comic books into the project. At times Spider-Verse lovingly pokes fun at itself, other times it’s serious fare. As the project immediately following Stan Lee’s death, it delivers a poignant remembrance (twice) of the man who made such an impact in so many comic book reading lives. Moreover, in an industry where there is so much ongoing upheaval and toxicity over Comicsgate, it offers a welcome breath of fresh air, making us remember what we enjoy so much about the medium.
It’s hard to find faults. While the plot isn’t very original at times (steal plans from villain to rebuild borked McGuffin which will disable doomsday device), the story is primarily character driven, which is where it shines. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) humorously ping pongs off a disillusioned and resigned Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) while coping with newly acquired superpowers and the adolescent struggle of family, individuality, and who you want to be. The writers even give the villain Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) a relatable and meaningful—albeit wrong—reason for doing what he does. Death and intense peril is well executed, providing both dignity and gravitas, keeping things PG while carrying all the impact of a higher rating. It’s kids fare that feels adult, respecting everyone.
Lately some projects have opted to bill inclusivity as their greatest asset, making a heavy-handed morality play at potential viewers in an attempt to generate forced attention, a move rubbing many fans the wrong way. Spider-Verse leads by example with the exact opposite, seamlessly weaving a diverse web lead by Miles, an Afro-Latino teenager, who comingles English and Spanish with family and friends before joining forces with Peter B. and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who does the ladies proud. Peni’s Overwatch-esque mecha, SP//dr, flashes kanji on its interface, while the henchman Scorpion (Joaquín Cosio) speaks only in Espanol. It all feels genuine and real, not forced and in your face.
Spider-Verse is one of those rare superhero movies that does things awesomely different, helping us remember and appreciate why we are nerds (and otaku) after all.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is available today on DVD/BD.
Rating: ***** (5/5 stars)