Monday, December 17, 2018

"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse": review

The 2018 animated superhero action-adventure movie "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse" is directed by a team of three: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. It stars the voice talents of Shameik Moore (Miles Morales/Spider-Man), Jake Johnson (Peter B. Parker), Hailee Steinfeld (Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen), Mahershala Ali (Uncle Aaron/Prowler), Brian Tyree Henry (Jefferson Davis), Lily Tomlin (Aunt May), Luna Lauren Velez (Rio Morales), John Mulaney (Peter Porker/Spider-Ham), Nicolas Cage (Spider-Noir), Liev Schreiber (Kingpin), Kimiko Glenn (Peni Parker), and Kathryn Hahn (Olivia Octavius/Doctor Octopus).

A fast-paced, many-worlds adventure involving Spider-Beings from alternate universes, "Spider-verse" is fundamentally the origin story of Miles Morales, a half-Puerto Rican, half-African-American teen who, in his own universe, gets bitten by a radioactive spider and transforms into another version of the web-slinging superhero. Miles lives with his parents, Jefferson Davis and Rio Morales, and they've decided to enroll Miles in a private school for the gifted—a place Miles initially hates because he considers the school "elitist." Across town, Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, has a particle collider that opens a portal to multiple universes. The reason for the device: the Kingpin lost his wife and son when they ran from him after witnessing him brutally pounding on that universe's Spider-Man (presumably, the Spider-Man we know from the Toby Maguire/Andrew Garfield/Tom Holland live-action movies, voiced by Chris Pine—except that this Spider-Man is blond). The mother and son, while fleeing, died in a car crash. The Kingpin's interdimensional portal sucks in several Spider-Beings: Peter B. Parker, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham, Spider-Noir, and Peni Parker. Ham, Noir, and Peni are cartoon versions of Spider-Man who nevertheless are perfectly real in their own alternate universes. The problem with being sucked into Miles Morales's universe is that the heroes' atoms are subject to a kind of quantum instability that makes them "glitch" on occasion in a manner reminiscent of Vanellope von Schweetz (from "Wreck-It Ralph"). This instability grows over time, and if the stranded heroes remain for too long in Miles's dimension, they'll eventually die by disintegration.

The Kingpin's device, developed by his world's female version of Doctor Octopus, is also supposed to draw in his wife and son from a different universe so that he can have a family again. Unmindful of the risk to the entire multiverse (not to mention the fact that an alt-universe family would ultimately die from quantum glitching), the Kingpin dials his machine up to 11. The various Spider-Beings are thus faced with two challenges: they must stop the Kingpin from destroying all of reality, and—except for Miles—they need to use that same machine to get back to their home universes.

The movie doesn't expend much energy explaining (1) how it's possible to draw in people from other universes, (2) how it's possible to leap into the maelstrom created by the machine and return unerringly to one's own universe, and (3) what the interstitial realm "between" or "among" all these universes is (this is the actual "Spider-verse" of the movie's title: a megacosm that appears to us as interstellar space, but with unfathomably vast webs holding reality together). I'm not a comics nerd, but my understanding is that this weird, interstitial realm, this Spider-verse, is actually presided over by some sort of arachnid goddess. This aspect of the movie's metaphysics goes unexplained. The filmmakers are planning sequels and spinoffs, though, so perhaps this cosmology will be fleshed out in later films. The collider's maelstrom itself makes for an interesting sound-and-light show; the particle collisions are animated in such a way as to look like the computer images of real-world particle collisions, i.e., with some subatomic fragments blasting away from the impact while other fragments loop bizarrely inward, back to the impact zone.

With a nearly two-hour running time, "Spider-verse" shoehorns in a great deal of plot and a couple major themes. We watch as Miles has to adapt to his new school and try to rise to his parents' expectations; we see how Miles's father Jefferson has grown apart from his brother Aaron, whom Miles admires and likes to accompany on graffiti sprees. Although the Spider-Man of Miles's world dies early in the film—so early that I don't consider that a spoiler—the death is an important catalyst for making Miles interested in becoming his own Spider-Man, complete with a different power set that includes both the ability to turn invisible and the ability to generate overwhelming electric shocks through his arms and hands. We watch as Jefferson's attitude toward Spider-Man evolves: initially, Jefferson sees Spider-Man only as a vigilante, but over time, his stance softens. Themes of friendship and family are woven through the plot; the Spider-Gwen that we meet had lost her world's Peter Parker, who had been her best friend, resulting in Gwen's rejection of the possibility of further friendships. Peter B. Parker, meanwhile, is in his forties and has gone to seed like Mr. Incredible. He proves to be a rather poor and awkward mentor for Miles, but the two do manage to get along. The Aunt May of Miles's world, who is bereaved now that her nephew has been killed by the Kingpin, functions as a sort of Alfred Pennyworth, curating her nephew's hi-tech sanctum sanctorum, which is filled with various suits and gadgets. When the alternate Spider-People are sucked into this universe, they all gravitate to Aunt May.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It's a razzle-dazzle thrill ride that's faithful to the comic-book versions. Comics nerds say the movie is filled with a whole closetful of sly references to the movies, TV cartoons, and comic books from across the decades; I'm not savvy enough to pick up on those references, so I'm left with enjoying what I see on the screen, taking the story on its own terms. The movie's complex plot doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence, and the humor comes at the viewer with fast and furious energy. Nicolas Cage, as the congenitally black-and-white Spider-Noir, shows off his comic chops with some fine voice work.

"Spider-verse" does suffer from two major narrative difficulties, though; the first is the same difficulty found in all many-worlds tales: if this world's Kingpin could destroy the multiverse with a quantum-portal device, what's to stop an infinity of other Kingpins, in other universes, from making the same attempt with their machines? Many-worlds narratives are inherently messy; there's simply no way to tell such stories comprehensively. We just have to put our brains aside and believe that, if our heroes can solve this one problem with this one Kingpin, then that'll have to be enough for now. The second difficulty is something of a plot hole: Dr. Octopus is perfectly aware that beings brought in from alt-universes will undergo quantum glitching, but despite knowing that such glitching always ends in death for the stranded beings, she builds the collider for the Kingpin, anyway. Was she planning to explain to him, at some point, that any family reunion would be, at best, temporary? And if the Kingpin did succeed at "stealing" his wife and son from an alternate universe, wouldn't that universe's Kingpin be motivated to build his own quantum device to retrieve his stolen family? All of this strikes me as nettlesome—not necessarily enough to ruin the entire movie for me, but enough to make me think that the script has holes in grievous need of patching.

But let's table those concerns and concentrate on my overall impression of the film. Funny, witty, warm-hearted, fast-paced, and action-filled, "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse" is worth a look-see if you're into comics and, specifically, if you're into Spider-Man.

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