Thursday, December 20, 2018

Does whatever a multiverse can


Basically a piece of experimental animation they spent 90 million dollars on, believe the hype—Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is amazing, spectacular, and every other adjective you may have heard about it.

Directed by Bob Perschietti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman
Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

Spoiler alert: moderate

It means something that the two most innovative (and two best) superhero films of 2018 so far—first Incredibles 2, now Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—are cartoons.  There are all kinds of reasons why this makes absolute and perfect sense.  For starters, it's a remarriage of the concept to something closer to the medium that actually birthed it—bright, poppy, colorful, bursting with creativity—and animation allows the kind of high-test visual and narrative experimentation that even all those mostly-cartoon "real" superhero films can't achieve with the same grace, and therefore usually don't even bother with.  And while they're not necessarily better because, even in this day and age, cartoons still run shorter than two hours, it certainly doesn't hurt (though Spider-Verse, frankly, could stand to be a teensy-tiny bit longer).  I do want to be clear here, however: these films are as distinct as two movies in the same genre using the same basic techniques could be, for Incredibles 2 did its innovation within a cage of mostly-classicism, and, with the big exception of its standout op-art strobe sequence (that I wouldn't be mad if you called painful rather than merely staggering), it was relatively quiet about all the amazing things it was doing with the animated form that brought it closer to the comic-book-in-motion aesthetic I suppose Brad Bird had wanted for his Supers all along.

Spider-Verse, on the other hand, ain't quiet, nor is it classicist, nor anything but a full-scale stylistic assault from the second the opening credits roll, which are jarring and abrasive and exist to prime you for the experience by forcing you to ask the question, "Uh, is this an art film?"  The answer is, "Actually, kind of, yes."  Though it's one dedicated wholeheartedly to seeing precisely how possible it is to unify the primal visual appeal of a comic book—and not just "a comic book," but a comic book of an older era, drawn and inked and even colored by hand, and printed with bold, saturated dyes on cheap paper—with the bleeding edge of computer animation, and then combining both of those two things with the best of post-modern comedy.  The question then becomes, "Does it succeed?", and the answer to that is, "Do you want me to express my answer in 'triumphs per minute,' or what?"

Beginning some few years ago as the brainchild of ousted Sony chieftain Amy Pascal and the po-mo comedy wunderkinds Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as Spider-Verse moved through its long pre-production cycle at Sony Animation, it pushed Miller into a producer role, and Lord into a co-screenwriting role, alongside one Rodney Rothman, who wound up co-directing alongside Peter Ramsey and Bob Perschietti.  In other words, it's a tangled mess of who did what (Lord gets a solo "story by" credit, even though we know Miller helped, as did Alex Hirsch).  It seems that Lord and Miller came up with the very basics of their film's philosophy, however—not a huge surprise, since you can see echoes of The LEGO Movie everywhere here, including the adaptation of the aesthetic of a physical, tangible object (in that case plastic bricks, in this case dead trees), while the directors have executed it with more verve than I suspect you'd even believe if you haven't seen it.

The other big way it echoes The LEGO Movie is in its plot, which again charts a path through a commercial enterprise's sprawling multiverse.  This time, however, it at least keeps the focus tight: specifically, on the various men and women bitten by a certain spider and gifted with its proportional strength and agility and all that other stuff.  Indeed, its principal focus is on just one Spider-Man, the Spider-Man of an alternate Earth—but then, they're all "alternate" to somebody—thirteen year old middle school student Miles Morales (Shameik Moore).

Now, Miles doesn't know he's going to be Spider-Man yet, because the Spider-Man he's familiar with (Chris Pine) is the more conventional web-slinging hero we meet in the first instance of the film's greatest running joke, a narrated origin story that always begins "one last time...", and which, of course, shall never, ever actually be the last time, because legends never die, even if we do get sick of hearing just how their legend came to be.

For the moment, anyway, Miles is just a kid in the midst of an awkward change—partly puberty, certainly, but also matriculating at a new magnet academy where he is nowhere near as comfortable, nor as popular, as he was at the public school he used to go to—and who thus tends to resent the hell out of the person making him go, his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), a loving but extremely-square and somewhat-overbearing NYPD cop.  It's fortunate, or it seems so for now (loved ones of people named "Spider-Man" tend to fare so well, don't they?), that Miles has an outlet in the form of his much cooler uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali).

It's during such a spirits-boosting trip with Aaron to an abandoned part of the subway in order to practice Miles' hobby, vandalism (well, it is), that Miles makes his encounter with that oh-so-fateful spider.  This brings about all manner of low-impact misadventures before he runs into Spider-Man and gets into a much, much higher-stakes one that ends up with the veteran hero promising to mentor the young superhuman about three minutes before he's unceremoniously executed, victim of the supermassive mob boss Kingpin and the Kingpin's newest project, an enormous gateway to the multiverse that will either bring back his dead wife and son, or will kill everybody on this Earth and possibly several other ones.  Either way, it's already brought Miles a number of unlikely allies, and the first he meets is, well, Spider-Man again—that is, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson)—and Spider-Woman—that is, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfield)—the former being a much older and much, much sadder version of the hero whose whole modus operandi is already being slightly pathetic and mediocre, whereas the latter is the result of a timeline where Gwen was the recipient of the radioactive spider bite, and hence didn't get dropped off the Brooklyn Bridge.  And that's not even all of the "Spider-People" who show up, although if you somehow managed to miss their placement in the marketing, I'd really rather not spoil the splendid stunt casting that went into these various Arachnid-Americans, let alone the outright insane clash of animation styles that inhere to their appearance, because it shocked me to my core even though I knew they were coming.  Anyway, you know the drill: to get back to their home realities before they decohere and die, they'll have to take on the Kingpin and all his goons and stop his multiverse engine from destroying everything.  But if Miles can't master his still-new powers, which have so far only malfunctioned when they even work at all, then that means one of his new friends has to stay behind and perish in order to wreck the Kingpin's machine for good.

And that's where things start to get really Goddamned wonky as a story.  In fairness, as an origin story for Miles Morales, it's better than you could possibly expect, given that he splits his screentime with six other Spider-People, and that mixing the concepts "Spider-Man" and "trippy cosmic battles" isn't exactly intuitive in the first place (though, in truth, it goes together at least as well as "Spider-Boy and Iron Dad," and that used to be my favorite Spider-Man film).  To this end, Spider-Verse sets up a wonderfully spiky mentorship between the new Peter and Miles—one that's quite clearly suboptimal in comparison to the one he would've gotten if this universe's Spider-Man weren't dead, but one that fits Miles' needs better than either his father or his uncle's tutelage—and it's the heart and soul of a film that sometimes has too much heart and soul, and sometimes not nearly enough.  Effectively, Miles' movie becomes a two-hander on account of it: this flabby, depressed Peter, who's ruined his marriage, and whom we later learn is pretty much actively suicidal, turns out to need Miles at least as much as Miles needs him, and Johnson's almost-too-mean Spider-wit and comically shitty coaching skills have a real tendency to steal every scene they're featured in.  Or maybe what we have is actually a three-hander: Gwen comes forward as just as important as either of the central Spider-Men, and Steinfield is predictably great (and Moore is probably at his best, certainly at his most awkwardly teenagery with her).  Spider-Woman winds up a sort of an intermediate stage between the in-way-over-his-head Miles and the barely-gives-a-crap Peter as a hero just entering her prime, but processing her own tragedies in her own way.

And that's the wonky part.  It's already wonky, naturally: there are probably literally a dozen Spider-Man villains I could name off the top of my head better for this story than the Kingpin—who's best-known as a Daredevil villain for a good reason.  (Indeed, one of those better villains is already in this particular movie, in a radically different, very cool form.)  The fanservice goes extraordinarily deep in Spider-Verse, to the point it's actually critique: "Peter Parker gets a divorce" is a subtle but, if you're a comic book fan, unmissable riposte to One More Day (aka Spider-Man Sells Mary Jane to the Devil and Kills Their Baby to Save his Stupid Septuagenarian Aunt), possibly the most brutally infamous retcon in comics history, brought about solely to make Peter a "swinging" bachelor again (ugh).  Meanwhile, Peter Parker's actually been a high-school teacher; he probably ought to be better at this, and that's the joke.

The thing is, I think Spider-Verse actually likes comic books more than any comic book movie ever made.  These guys get it, and they get it in really, really fine detail: the flashback that relates Kingpin's motivations, and which alludes to the Daredevil graphic novel Love and War, even takes on artist Bill Sienkewiscz's surrealistic style to tell its tale.  That's beautiful and extraordinary.  Of course, then they warp that tale out of recognition, and rush it so much it barely makes sense, and it does not hide the fact that they wanted to use Kingpin solely because they were in love with what they could do with Kingpin's visual design if, like Sienkewiscz, they freed themselves of all restraint.  It feels all-but-pointless to plumb the villain's loss when he's just a visual idea at heart; it feels perverse when so many other losses go almost unnoticed.  That circles us back to Pete and Gwen, and the enormous void all the fans this was clearly made for can't help but perceive when Spider-Verse will not give these two characters, both of whom have been defined by the other's death, a single exchange of dialogue about what this weird encounter means to them.

But then you read the synopsis of the actual Spider-Verse comics this film is based on, your face melts off your skull, and you're suddenly relieved they adapted all the truly awful out of it.

Yet it is a recurring small problem: the film is so stuffed with innovation and humor and big "wow!" moments, it only has time for the little human stuff with Miles, which would be ideal if it were Miles' movie, but it's not, even if he's first among equals; and it doesn't even have all the time it needs for Miles, with one particularly heart-stinging moment winding up smooshed into so small a space that it's the only thing in the whole film that feels badly-staged, except, actually, for Miles' denouement with his villain, a callback that calls attention to itself mainly for how odd and bad it is.  (Though don't get me wrong—the emotional culminations of  both Miles and Peter's superhero's journeys are each exactly right.)

But it is so stuffed with innovation and humor and "wow!" moments that it's kind of shitty to complain that it can't do every thing it needs to.  Because practically every frame of Spider-Verse feels like it's presenting something new, radical, and crazy: from the 3D animation that flattens characters into icons without actually sacrificing depth, rendered in a limited palette of solid colors, to the strikingly creative ways that all those spider-powers are portrayed (especially sticking to walls, sometimes whether Miles wants to or not, adding yet another complication), to the limiting of the framerate that reminds you subconsciously that these are still images and came from still images, to the density of information achieved with comic-panel splitscreen, to the in-your-face deployment of onscreen narration boxes and sound effects, to the bizarre vagaries of light sources and colors that feel like they were printed on a piece of paper in the 1960s, even though they're moving.  And even that's before getting into the unhinged cartoon-cartoon sense of humor that never feels like it's interfering with the underlying seriousness of the story, or the eye-searing psychedelia that permeates the movie and explodes fully in the kind of climax where you have no earthly idea what is happening, but your eye can still follow it all like you did.  This film is a riot of imagination and a testament to its many creators' craft.  It's a masterpiece of animation.  It leaves too many rankling doubts to call it a masterpiece of anything else, but even at its worst, it only stumbles, and the most important thing about Spider-Man is that he always gets back up.

Score: 10/10

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