Is it blasphemous if I propose that the best Marvel film is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Is it even more blasphemous if I propose that we have not had a great superhero film since The Dark Knight?
Without denying the thrills of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I would like to suggest that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best Marvel film and one of the best superhero films in a while. In an age of superhero film fatigue and Spiderman origin story overdose, this version of Spiderman knows the challenges it is up against. It skilfully mocks genre conventions, radiates visual creativity and, to my pleasant surprise, fosters emotional resonance.
The Spiderman of this universe is Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, but he’s not alone. Enter the Spidermen of the parallel universes: the classic Spiderman with an extra belly, voiced by Jake Johnson; the nimble and witty Spiderwoman, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld; the stylish and black-and-white Spiderman Noir, voiced by Nicholas Cage; the food-loving Peni Parker, voiced by Kimiko Glen, and her high-tech SP//dr suit; the hilarious Spiderham, voiced by John Mulaney, seemingly straight out of a Looney Tunes episode. Together, the group must fight to return to their original universes while saving the one that Morales lives in.
Ever since The Avengers came out, it seems that superhero films have been in a constant race to claim the title of being the biggest, best, most spectacular of them all. Yet an invisible force always looms over these films and chains creativity to a rigid formula. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse twists this formula in refreshing ways, simultaneously fulfilling and subverting audience expectations.
The most striking feature at play is the animation. The unique animation styles of each Spiderman create a visual buffet that never overwhelms. The styles interweave and complement each other in a miraculous and exciting fusion. There are also the animation techniques that are inconspicuous to the untrained eye, mine included. We may not be aware that the film lacks motion blur and shifts between animating on ones and twos, but the result is gorgeous and matches the energy of the story itself.
The film also owes itself to the comic books that came before. Blended into the animation are ample visual references to comics, from panels to off-centred halftone dots to tingling lines springing from the characters’ heads. In these ways, the film plainly announces its own history. It acknowledges the comic books, the previous Spiderman films, and all the associations that come with an animated film. It is never shy to converse with these preconceptions. Case in point: Spiderham self-reflexively points out the cartoonish quality of animation before demonstrating that animation does not limit, perhaps even magnifies, his fierceness. The film thus embraces its unique position at the intersection of standard blockbuster material and emancipation from visual constraints.
It is no surprise that Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the directing and writing duo behind The Lego Movie, are involved with this project. Although they are not the directors (Lord co-wrote the screenplay and the duo produced the film), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse bears much of their signature, challenging conventions without suggesting irreverence. The film revels in its creativity just as the audience revels in the cinema, as though the screen is simply a transmitter of the filmmakers’ playful ambitions.
Let us not forget the role of the directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. They paint the screen with vivid colours without abandoning the heart of the story. Here is where the film stands out. Morales is an engaging character because he is actually a character, not a thinly sketched outline that throws punches at the convenience of the plot. Sure, some problematic clichés remain: an expendable villain, an inspirational message that never inspires except for in a touching mid-credits dedication to Stan Lee. But one trap the film avoids is the inclusion of perfunctory emotional moments. When bad things happen, they leave lasting consequences. They change characters but never superficially. These changes flow through the story and imbue it with a delicate touch of warmth, accomplishing what Marvel and DC films have, in my opinion, tried and failed to accomplish: make emotions matter.
Possibly the film’s most intriguing achievement, however, is a less discussed one. The racial diversity of the characters is both ineffaceable and invisible. If there was a moment when a black Spiderman or his Latino mother or the Japanese Peni Parker struck us, these ethnic markers are soon placed within the overall persona of each character. Race becomes one facet of the characters and, by extension, one facet of the film. Of course, we still have a long way to go in diversifying representation on screen, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is perhaps the ultimate dream: a film in which race, while important, need not be declared as a form of protest. The film’s greatest triumph is in being a thrilling and heartfelt superhero film.