Dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman. Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber
This is the kind of superhero movie I imagined when I was a preteen: witty, action-packed, heartfelt, and most of all absolutely overflowing with possibility. Multiverses are cheating, fine, but here’s an example. The first superheroes I ever got into were the X-Men. The X-Men have multiple characters who can fly, but it’s not just that so many of them can fly: it’s that they can fly for a zillion different reasons. Angel has wings. Storm uses the wind to transport her; Banshee is disrupting his path with sound waves; Magneto is disrupting his path via electromagnetism; Rogue just does, but that’s because the woman she stole her powers from just did, too. This does not include characters who can do things like flying or, perhaps, even better than flying, such as gliding around on ice or BAMFing. The nitty-gritty isn’t just technical, and it’s not just plot; discovering this stuff felt cool to me when I was a kid, and the further and further we get into the options around us for superhero pictures, the less cool I think these movies can be. Repetitive origin stories, clunky jokes, twists that don’t surprise anyone: from the Nolan Batman movies to the MCU to stuff like Deadpool, it’s all trying so hard. What we can all agree on is that trying hard is what makes people cool; it’s what we loved about James Dean and Joe DiMaggio and Ferris Bueller, how hard they tried all the time. Spider-Verse is filled with try-hards, but the movie itself is not exerting itself to squeeze every last chuckle or gasp out of us. Think about the opening sequence of Thor: Ragnarok, which is typically given as the funniest entry in the MCU. It begins with Thor revolving on a chain while he has a conversation with Surtur. Surtur is going on about the apocalypse; Thor, twisting in the wind, pauses the conversation at multiple points so Surtur doesn’t have to talk to him while he’s facing the opposite direction. The movie wants to start with a joke—subverting our expectations, as it were, in a universe where something has to be leveled just to get our heartrates up—and forces this particular square peg into a round hole. But there’s nothing forced about the moments of humor early in Spider-Verse. Miles’ (Moore) bad singing, his father’s (Brian Tyree Henry) insistence that his son tell him he loves him in front of the entire student body, a snicker in the back of the classroom when Miles tries to excuse his tardiness by invoking Einstein. Miles is trying much harder than Thor, but his movie is effortless. Ish.
It’s hard to call any movie which so aggressively fills any screen with detail “effortless,” especially when it’s animated and we know how much effort must have gone into filling every frame. As a technical accomplishment, Spider-Verse is remarkable. The animation for the glitches which shake Miles’ version of New York City, an alternate version of our own, are spot-on. (The gags to let us know it’s a different New York are also pretty fabulous, from the prosaic details like “PDNY” instead of “NYPD,” to the too-funny From Dusk ‘Til Shaun instead of Shaun of the Dead.) The evidence of what’s gone wrong is attractive, artistic, so much so that some character can be heard asking if it’s the newest from Banksy. And it’s also unsettling; the shapes don’t look right even in this animated world. There’s something offputting about their colors, which don’t fit into the moody evenings, or the shapes, which have one dimension too many. The collider is probably the primary example of “too much animation,” a criticism that’s been levied at the movie and which, after two viewings, I don’t think it deserves. Animation makes it possible to make everything appear on screen, where the only roadblocks are cost and effort. The sequences in and around the active collider are absolutely dizzying, especially on a big screen, and it’s because it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the twinkling, brightly colored things moving a hundred miles an hour: what stands out, of course, are the characters in black, like Kingpin (Schreiber) and Miles in his updated Spider-Man getup. Importantly, in their black/white and black/red outfits, respectively, they are simplicity itself compared to the swirling world spinning around them. My favorite animation in the movie takes place at the research facility. Aside from the gorgeous trees in autumn with fresh snowfall beneath, which makes the red of those Spider-Man costumes stand out as brilliantly as the black costumes stand out in the collider, they are the movie’s best outlet for animated humor. In one shot, which extracts an intoned “Clean your desktop, lady!” from Miles, we see just how many files are cramming Doc Ock’s (Kathryn Hahn) computer. In another, a bagel is flung backwards and knocks out one of the armed scientists chasing the Spider-Men; as he falls backward, the word BAGEL! appears above him. It’s easy to overstate how much like an actual comic book this movie is, but this is a lovely homage.
What makes Spider-Verse special, in the end, is the honesty in the way it approaches the contractualist heart of these superhero movies. From Nolan’s Batman movies to the MCU, sometimes it seems like the writers don’t remember what every Spider-Man movie seems intent on driving down our throats: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Nolan’s Batman movies foreground the helplessness of the people of Gotham: “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” It’s the sort of hero who can basically set up a superpowered-NSA operation because he needs something done, the kind of hero who, as so many Internet wits have pointed out, would rather do vigilantism in costly material (“I’m not wearing hockey pads”) than use his vast wealth to support the law in more effective ways. The contract is one in which Batman does what he will because Gotham “deserves” that person. In the MCU, there’s always a crowd of people who need saving. There’s a portal which opens above New York City in The Avengers, and said superheroes array themselves in a circle and get to clobbering the faceless aliens set to obliterate the Big Apple. The Guardians of the Galaxy are at least the guardians of Xandar in the first movie, as countless colorful people scamper around in hysterics. The helpless refugees of Asgard have to be protected from Cate Blanchett’s army in Ragnarok. It’s the superheroes as FEMA. Spider-Verse, by making the focus of the story less on the faceless people who will ultimately be saved by Miles’ actions and more on the ones we have come to love, is intimate. This is not powerful versus powerful or good versus evil. When Kingpin unleashes this potential doom on New York, Miles finds himself at the center of a home invasion which involves six other Spider-beings he’s responsible for sending home, plus a family he feels deeply for, even if it turns out one of them is an essential piece of the danger. Gotham of The Dark Knight and New York of The Avengers never feel that personal and lived-in. There’s some Scanlon (or maybe just Good Place) in Spider-Verse. Even the movie makes fun of “With great power…” but what it has instead is something more personal, and more fitting for the teenage character at its center: it’s about what we owe to each other. It’s why the climactic moment of this movie isn’t at the collider, has no physical contact, in fact is deeply quiet.
Jeff shows up at Miles’ door after days of separation. The Morales can get in touch with their son, but Jeff can tell that Miles (who has been tied up and gagged by the other Spider-folks) is in his room because he can see his shadow. He doesn’t say all that much—to see it written out feels like nothing, though on screen it feels like it takes ten minutes to say—but what he says is naked and honest. “I love you,” Jeff finishes, but he shows that he can change a little in his approach to his kid. “You don’t have to say it back, though.” It’s a deep understanding of his teenage son, who is up to his neck in 20th Century America’s great story of pubescent angst. (There is a straight line between that scene where Peter gets his hand stuck in Gwen’s hair and that scene with “hair gel” in There’s Something About Mary.) He realizes that what he owes to Miles is a more reserved and patient kind of love; Miles realizes, leaning his head on the door with such affection, realizes that he owes his father more respect and appreciation than he has ever given him. There must be a score of moments like this throughout the movie. Miles owes Peter (Chris Pine) the attempt to shut down the collider; Peter B. Parker (Johnson) owes Miles a mentor who can help him grow into a responsible hero; Aaron (Mahershala Ali) owes Miles a better example than the “cool uncle” type he’s been pushing. Maybe this is an idea which can’t really be brought out in your average superhero movie, because they’re so focused on the uber that they’ve forgotten about the mensch himself. But in plot and animation and focus, Spider-Verse is anything but.