As we prepare ourselves for another spring-summer of superhero schlock, it’s best not to make too much of a distinction between Marvel and DC. Obviously, the former trumps the latter in most departments, but the late Stan Lee’s runaway train of pop culture signifiers has become so obsessed with outdoing itself movie after movie that the effort becomes a slog for everyone involved, including the viewer. The Spider-Man franchise has always managed to set itself slightly apart from the crowd, and I have no idea if it’s because the brand is handled by Sony rather than Disney, but reportedly the makers of this ambitious animated take on the series had problems selling the studio on their concept, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a genuine kids’ movie, but for kids who are brainier than your average superhero fan, since it deals with multiple dimensions that incorporate parallel plots requiring the viewer to process characters on-the-go. Eventually it was greenlighted, and Sony/Marvel got more than they expected: a huge box office hit and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
It also incorporates a visual gestalt that mashes up the best of Japanese and Western animation styles. Though it definitely has a distinct look, that look is variegated and often psychedelic. There is so much going on within the frame that the characters can feel secondary to the production design, which is frustrating since the characters are so much more compelling than most denizens of Marvel films. The central figure returns the Spider-Man ethos to its adolescent origins and even dials it back a little further. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a transfer student to an elite middle school in Brooklyn where he doesn’t feel comfortable. Raised by his NYPD father and hospital technician mother, Miles is basically a younger Peter-Parker-of-color. We eventually come to understand that another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson)—or, at least, an older, less robust version—exists in another dimension that somehow collides with the one Miles occupies after he receives his radioactive spider bite. Miles goes through the usual awkward confrontation with his new super powers, but the awkwardness feels somehow more natural, the struggle with the hackneyed sense of Spidey responsibility more genuine and immediate. He has a tough time adjusting, and several times sees his powers as a curse that he’d rather be rid of.
The through-line has a multitude of Spider-Folk converging in Miles’ universe to simultaneously help him become the Spider-Man he needs to be, as well as solve the problem of the multiverse, which is losing its structure. The usual villains appear—Doctor Octopus (as a woman, this time), Kingpin, Scorpion, Green Goblin—and they often feel gratuitous in a story whose action set pieces are built on a learning curve. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Marvel blockbuster without a big violent finish that ties all the loose ends together, but this one is such a kaleidoscope of color and shape that you don’t get the feeling the material world is being bruised senseless, probably because it takes its most visceral cues from comic books rather than CG superhero movies. In reclaiming its heritage, Into the Spider-Verse boots the Marvel blockbuster into an unexpected and exciting future.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse home page in Japanese