“The stars do matter to me. I have a pretty good feeling about where a film lands on my 5-star scale. It’s subjective, in the sense that it is entirely my opinion, but I try to look at my subjectivity objectively, if that makes any sense at all . . . I have a pretty good idea of what the difference is between a 3 ½-star movie and a 4-star movie, and I believe a regular reader of my reviews ought also to be able to get a feeling for what those ratings mean to me.”
I first wrote the above words in 2010, but since that time my feelings have not changed. Even though I do not write movie reviews as regularly as I did back then, when I do rate a movie, I adhere to the same rigid, five-star scale. I still know the difference between a 3 ½-star movie and a 4-star movie. The standard for a 5-star film, for me, is near perfection.
I believe Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a 5-star film.
It feels a little weird to be saying that. For the most part, I’ve actively avoided the glut of superhero movies that have filled cinema screens for the past decade. I had no interest in Into the Spider-Verse upon its release and was only persuaded to give it a chance after hearing the effusive praise it received on social media, particularly for its visual aesthetic. I decided that, if nothing else, it would be a fun visual treat worth seeing in 3-D. After my first viewing, the movie wouldn’t leave my mind. I was eager to see it again and dragged my wife to a matinee showing several weeks later. After that viewing, I was even more enthusiastic; I thought it might even be a five-star film, but I felt that I needed to see it one more time before committing to such a bold proclamation. Then I saw it one more time.
The reasons I love Into the Spider-Verse are similar to the reasons I love Atonement: all of its elements are excellent on their own, but also work together in incredible harmony.
The visual element, the thing that convinced me to see the movie in the first place, is… possibly unlike anything ever put to film before. It combines multiple art styles—from conventional CGI animation, to comic book style, to Saturday morning cartoon, to anime—sometimes transitioning fluidly between these styles in the middle of the action, to the point that it was not until my third viewing that I took full notice of it. In an early fistfight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, some (but not all) of the hero’s punches are punctuated with a “BOOM” or a “BAM” flashed across the screen. Later, when the film’s protagonist Miles Morales must run through New York’s subway tunnels in a bid to escape a villain called The Prowler, he jumps across a track just before a train collides with him. For a split-second, the image transforms into a page from a comic book, before switching back to CGI when he lands on the other side of the track. These subtle turns occur throughout the movie.
But when I talk about the visuals, I am not speaking merely of its stew of styles. It’s a remarkable achievement as a work of art. The genesis of the story is The Kingpin, one of Spider-Man’s many foes, engaging a super collider which tears the fabric of the space-time continuum. The manner in which the movie brings this concept to life is hypnotic. The super collider itself smashes globules of neon color together. The entire facility becomes tinted in orange and pink and seafoam green. When Spider-Man gets caught in its ray, opening the door to the Spider-Verse, what he sees is a kaleidoscopic swirl of galaxies. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s not just the super collider scenes, either. After Miles is bit by a radioactive, digital spider (which glitches in and out of existence as it crawls onto his body), he gains powers similar to Spider-Man. When the two meet, both of their “Spider Senses” alert the other that they are not alone. Behind each of them, the world becomes tinted in red and blue or purple and green.
But when I talk about the visuals, I am not merely speaking of the slew of styles or the gorgeous use of color, but about the direction itself. I have a great fondness for animation and I am frequently fascinated by the way animated features are presented, the decision of where the “camera” should be in a particular shot, what should be in view. Unlike a live-action film, which to some degree is limited by what is actually available on set, every last inch of an animated film is purposeful. Everything on screen is created, is a choice. Part of the success of the visual element of Into the Spider-Verse is in the choice of how to frame its scenes. Take the opening shot of Miles, headphones on, singing along with Post Malone’s “Sunflower”; the camera circles around his head as he closes his eyes and feels the music. When his parents interrupt him, the camera backs out of the room, widening the shot as he rushes through his family’s apartment getting ready for school.
Later, Spider-Man is badly injured after being pushed into the super collider and his mask is partially ripped, exposing one bright blue eye. He tells Miles that he has to be the one to stop the super collider from being turned on again. Peter Parker’s exposed eye scans Miles’ face, pleading, hopeful that Miles understands the importance of the task he’s been given. The emotions conveyed in these tiny moments, these choices of how to visualize the scene, are spectacular. One of my favorite moments arrives much later in the film and involves two characters holding hands. If one is not taking note of it, one might not recognize the fact that the camera draws focus to the removal of a glove, the arc of the arm raised upward, the tight grip when the hands touch which says so much before cutting back to a wider shot. The movie has such a strong understanding of what it’s trying to accomplish.
And this isn’t even mentioning the times when there’s amazing images seemingly just for the hell of it, as when Miles is walking on the side of a building in an alley. The image is turned sideways so that the sides of the two buildings in the alley are horizontal at the top and bottom of the screen. Miles is walking upside down at the top of the screen. He jumps from the building he’s on to the other one, becoming “right-side up” to the audience but in reality continuing to be sideways-oriented. It’s a fun moment that plays with your perception for no purpose other than taking advantage of the freedom of animation, and of its acrobatic characters.
A second element that works wonders here is sound. First, there is the choice of songs on the soundtrack. When Miles comes into his own and embraces his newfound superpowers, it’s to pulse of the song “What’s Up Danger” by Blackway and Black Caviar, building and building to the explosive lyric Can’t stop me now! The entire movie is filled with propulsive, adrenaline-summoning hip hop. Once again, it’s not just the songs selected, though. As the movie starts, there is a sound that I have previously likened to an airplane taking off; it’s a low whir building louder and louder, like an engine revving, until the action ignites. It immediately gets your heart racing and puts you as viewer onto the movie’s level. Also of note, the actions of a character who is more traditionally cartoonish, in the style of ‘Looney Tunes’, are continuously emphasized with wacky sound effects. The movie doesn’t draw attention to this choice in the least.
Third, the expert handle on the tone of the movie. This is a very funny movie! It’s packed with jokes. I took notes when I last watched the movie and a lot of the things I wrote down are the things that had me cracking up in the theater. Yet at the same time, the movie is very dramatic. Just as it fluidly switches between different art styles, it likewise manages to combine sincerity and pathos with its comedic side in a very natural way, sometimes in the same scene. Take, for instance, a Peter Parker from a different dimension seeing his ex-wife, Mary Jane, in this dimension. He pretends to be a waiter in order to speak to her, using the promise of bringing her table more bread as a metaphor for his feelings. The ridiculousness of the situation is hysterical, yet the regret this Peter Parker has for how he treated the Mary Jane in his universe is apparent at the same time.
Additionally, on the subject of tone, the movie delivers some powerful thrills. When the Kingpin realizes Miles is in the facility where the super collider is being tested, his blunt command to his henchmen is chilling: “Kill that guy.” Liev Schreiber, who voices the Kingpin, does terrific work. A later scene in which Miles tries to conceal himself from the Prowler in a darkened apartment is incredibly tense, recalling the raptors in the kitchen from Jurassic Park. And as I referenced before, the moment when Miles takes control of his powers is wonderfully energizing, blue currents of electricity alighting his eyes and flowing through his body as he transforms like Popeye eating a can of spinach.
Lastly, I am impressed by the movie’s respect for its characters. Miles Morales’ parents are African American and Puerto Rican; he represents a different perspective that is not often exhibited in mainstream films which tend to gravitate toward white men. A major theme of the film is about Miles being proud of and expressing himself. His competing father figures—his actual father and his uncle Aaron—though they seem aligned against one another, are both treated humanely by the movie. Each has his foibles, but both also have rich inner lives and the fundamental goodness of both men is apparent. Even The Kingpin, behemoth though he may be, is treated as a human being. His recklessness with the super collider results from a deep well of regret and rage which makes him a tragic character rather than a mere villain.
And again, there’s so much depth that goes unspoken, that’s only there if you’re paying attention. When Peter wants to speak to Mary Jane, Gwen warns him away from it: “Trust me, I’ve been there,” she says. “You gotta move on.” In her universe, she witnessed the death of her best friend, Peter Parker. So when she says she’s been there, what she means is that she had to wrestle with knowing that another Peter Parker still exists, and having to come to grips with the fact that he is a different person. She doesn’t lay out her meaning in detail, it’s implicit, and the sadness beneath the comedy is very moving.
I could easily go on and on. There is so much to talk about. Consider, for instance, the moment when the divorcee Peter Parker dismisses the Peter Parker from Miles’ universe: “I feel sad for this guy.” He is literally talking about himself. He feels sad for himself. Yet again, the movie doesn’t make that explicit. It also never explains that Miles’ power to turn invisible is a metaphor for code-switching, or for his assessment of himself. There’s so much going on in this movie and after three viewings I am still finding new and exciting elements to ponder and discuss. How about the fact that the light from Miles’ flashlight is drawn with a bunch of tiny dots, like a comic book would be—the light from his flashlight is drawn in that style. How about the first-person shot of Miles scrolling through his phone, trying to decide who to call for help after he first realizes he’s gained superpowers, his left knee in the background bouncing up and down nervously; it’s a minor thing, but it’s such a realistic affect. How about that moment at the start of the movie where Miles falls out in traffic and a police car flashes its lights at him on the ground: the terror, the images of violence that flash through your head immediately from your knowledge of how the police have historically antagonized minorities… and the relief when it is revealed that the police officer is his father. How about the scene where Miles tries to steal a computer from the Kingpin’s science lab: Dr. Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hahn) yells “Give that back, young man!” Then as she bears down on him, growls, “It’s proprietary.” That line reading sends shivers down my spine.
I could go on and on. Everything about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is extraordinary. I already want to see it again.