October 19, 2019

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A tangled web

Spider-Man franchise gets revitalized with action-packed animated reboot

Oh, Spidey. One of the best comic-book characters ever has in recent years become a mess of cinematic starts and stops, revisions, reconsiderations and reboots.

Somehow this new all-ages animated adventure doesn’t add to the problem. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse actually solves it. In exploring multiple versions of Spider-Man (including male, female and even a pig),this eye-popping, super-entertaining movie becomes an antidote to all that Marvel Extended Universe overload.

The story, overseen by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, feels fresh, starting with its likeable hero, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Hispanic teenager from Brooklyn. A regular, comic-book-loving kid who is a reluctant scholarship student at a boarding school outside his neighbourhood, he’s awkwardly trying to fit in. He’s got a complicated relationship with his loving, law-and-order cop father (Brian Tyree Henry) and often retreats to the laidback loft apartment of his much cooler Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali).

Then Miles gets bitten by that life-changing radioactive spider. He doesn’t know what to do with his new abilities, and — as with Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man — the onset of uncontrollable superpowers is compared to the blurting, unpredictable embarrassments of adolescence.

Oh, Spidey. One of the best comic-book characters ever has in recent years become a mess of cinematic starts and stops, revisions, reconsiderations and reboots.

Somehow this new all-ages animated adventure doesn’t add to the problem. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse actually solves it. In exploring multiple versions of Spider-Man (including male, female and even a pig),this eye-popping, super-entertaining movie becomes an antidote to all that Marvel Extended Universe overload.

The story, overseen by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, feels fresh, starting with its likeable hero, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Hispanic teenager from Brooklyn. A regular, comic-book-loving kid who is a reluctant scholarship student at a boarding school outside his neighbourhood, he’s awkwardly trying to fit in. He’s got a complicated relationship with his loving, law-and-order cop father (Brian Tyree Henry) and often retreats to the laidback loft apartment of his much cooler Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali).

Then Miles gets bitten by that life-changing radioactive spider. He doesn’t know what to do with his new abilities, and — as with Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man — the onset of uncontrollable superpowers is compared to the blurting, unpredictable embarrassments of adolescence.

Sony Pictures Animation / The Associated Press</p><p>Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, in 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.'</p>

Sony Pictures Animation / The Associated Press

Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, in 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.'

Miles’s personal problems soon get overshadowed by a much bigger situation when he bumps into the regular Spider-Man, who’s in the middle of a deadly battle with Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). The hulking villain has built a "multi-dimensional collider" to search for a parallel universe in which his beloved wife and child are still alive. While this quantum-warping contraption threatens to rip a hole in the space-time continuum, it also means that different versions of Spider-Man keep arriving from other dimensions to help out.

There’s alternative Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who on his Earth is depressive, divorced and just a little paunchy around the middle. There’s a tough, hoodie-wearing Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a wise-cracking cartoon pig (John Mulaney), a plucky girl right out of Japanese anime (Kimiko Glenn), and even a noir version of Spider-Man, who’s rendered in black and white and says things like, "Sometimes I let a match burn down to my fingers just so I can feel something." Noir Spidey also offers one of the best Nic Cage performances in recent memory.

The script is meta in a way that’s light and joshing but also sneakily serious. Exploring several versions of Spider-Man allows the scripters to have a little fun with the multiverse tradition of comic-book storytelling. They also get to make some self-aware comments on the tangled web of Spidey’s recent filmic history, even getting in an affectionate dig at Tobey Maguire’s misbegotten dance scene.

The fact that "many can wear the mask," as the script points out several times, also allows for a superhero dynamic that is inherently more team-spirited and democratic than the usual lone-wolf fantasy. Bringing all these different Spider-people together becomes a low-key way of addressing issues of representation. The Spider-verse is a place where the faces on the screen reflect back a truer picture of the faces in the audience.

The look of the film, from directors Rothman, Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti, is eye-popping and innovative. Realistic in some ways — conveying a crowded, gritty sense of modern urban life, for example — the animation is highly stylized in other ways. Picking up the punchy, graphic feel of comic books, the animators extend it into super-kinetic motion that just bursts with energy and dynamism. In spots, especially those involving Spider-Ham, there’s a bit of the comical anarchy seen in old Warner Bros. cartoons.

Add in a story that handles both large-scale superhero action and small-scale human problems and actually pulls off some real feeling, and this Spider-Man — along with all his Spider-Friends — is the best cinematic webslinger in years.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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