The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is bad for comic book movies. Hear me out.
I love Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. I enjoy spending time with Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Shuri. I can’t wait to see how Avengers: Endgame plays out. The MCU has delivered iconic movies packed with beloved characters. They transformed nerd culture into mainstream culture, and attracted countless fans to the genre. But Hollywood is a copycat industry. Studio execs love hedging their bets with a sure thing. And right now, the MCU formula is a sure thing. MCU-style movies limit creative freedom, stifle ingenuity, and force filmmakers to play in one giant sandbox – granted, it’s a massive one.
The beauty of comic books is their limitless potential for creative expression. Unlike “tent-pole” films, a single issue isn’t backed by hundred-million-dollar investments. Major comic book movies haven’t captured the free-wheeling creativity and anything-can-happen sense of adventure found in the best comic books. Until now.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s co-directors Rodney Rothman, Bob Persichetti, and Peter Ramsey have made the most comic book-y superhero film in years. Working off a script by Rothman and Phil Lord, Spider-Verse embraces its pulpy roots, lets its freak flag fly, and delivers a bonkers yet coherent feel-good story. The film offers the excitement found in the pages of a graphic novel but infused with the visceral thrills you only get at the movies.
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is no Peter Parker. Peter is a parentless nerd, and a ne’er do well who life always finds ways to crap on. Miles has two parents who love him dearly, as does his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who he turns to when life gets him down. He’s even popular–or he is until his family wins an educational lottery and ships him off to a new school in a gentrified part of Brooklyn. For the first time, Miles doesn’t fit in. When he turns to his uncle for support, they slip beneath the city streets for a bit of tagging.
The underground graffiti spot is next to a secret lab run by the Kingpin of crime (Liev Schreiber). And it’s here where an enhanced spider creeps up and bites Miles – you know how this part of the story plays out. But this is also where Miles’ story veers off from Peter Parker’s. Miles finds Spider-Man in a life and death struggle to stop Kingpin’s secret “supercollider” from firing. A mortally wounded Spider-Man stops the collider from reaching full power but not before it rips through the fabric of space and time. With Peter Parker dead, it’s up to Miles to fill his shoes and stop Kingpin and his goons from reactivating the device before it tears New York apart.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first hip-hop superhero movie. It’s not because Miles is Afro-Latino. And it’s not because he has a Chance the Rapper poster on his wall or because he listens to Biggie Smalls. And it’s definitely not because a scene is scored to a verse from Black Sheep – those are all nice touches. Spider-Verse is the first hip-hop superhero film because it spiritually embraces hip-hop culture’s four main pillars: graffiti, breakdancing, emceeing, and, most importantly, DJ’ing.
Graffiti presents the most obvious overlap with young Mr. Morales, who loves blazing through Brooklyn’s streets throwing up tags. But it also applies to the film’s wild colour pallet and distinct visual aesthetic. We’re two decades deep in superhero movies, and none of them look like Spider-Verse. To bring Miles’ world to life, the film’s art department had to channel the free-form spirit of the flyest graffiti artists. Colourful panels seem to pop off the screen in what feels like a meditation on sensory overload. The visual flourishes are way more over the top than they need to be. But excess is a staple of hip-hop culture, and that’s one of the movie’s charms. This film doesn’t want to wow you. It wants to sear itself straight into your cerebral cortex.
Emceeing, or MC’ing, is the role performed by the rapper who hypes up their DJ. It involves quick thinking, ruthlessness, and verbal dexterity when used in freestyle rap battles. Spider-Man is the comic book genre’s OG trash-talker. And he fires verbal quips as easily as he throws blasts from his web shooters. Spidey’s verbal daggers are more than just sick burns. Like a master MC, his words throw opponents off-guard, before he swings in for the victory blow. The movie’s PG-humour is laugh out loud funny, and sure to please general audiences. But don’t fret die-hards, Spider-Verse features a trove of Easter eggs for fans to hunt down.
Breaking or b-boy/b-girling is a vigorous style of dance that requires near superhuman levels of athleticism. Breakdancers often do flips, walk on their hands, and spin on their head. The developers of the new Spider-Man PS4 game even modelled Ol’ Webhead’s fighting style after breakdancing and capoeira. Spider-Man’s movements have always come across like visual poetry, and it’s easy to see hip-hop’s influence on Miles and the other Spider-people. The action sequences are as inventive as they are breathtaking. This film almost demands to be seen in slow motion for one to catch its subtler details. Nothing matches the rush of watching Miles’ leap from a skyscraper with a glass window adhering to him and breaking off bit by bit with shards sticking to his fingertips as he divebombs the streets below.
The DJ, finally, is the heart and soul of hip-hop culture. It’s the DJ who picks a record, finds the groove, and then synthesizes it into something fresh and exciting. Think of this picture as cinema’s version of the hip-hop remix. Spider-Verse’s directors took familiar elements from Spider-Man’s history – the origin story, Aunt May, classic villains – and then threw them into a creative blender. They churned out a new concoction. This Spider-Man remix feels tonally true to the character (who made his debut in 1962) but still very much of the moment.
Thematically, Spider-Verse reminds me of last year’s controversial Star Wars entry, The Last Jedi. Like Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars’ source material, Spider-Verse asks the audience to let go of the past to make way for a new and inclusive cast of characters. The plot hangs its hat on this point as well. The central villain Kingpin’s unwillingness to let go of the past literally threatens to tear the world apart. The message couldn’t be any more of a middle finger to the MAGA crowd. This isn’t your Pappy’s Spider-Man, and that’s A-OK.
After what he and his partner Christopher Miller accomplished with The Lego Movie, it should be no surprise that Lord found a unique entry point for this well-tread mythology. Spider-Verse’s inclusion of a multiverse lets the film go as big as the art department’s imaginations allow to deliver a movie that feels like a living breathing comic book. And despite the dazzling visuals and memorable characters, the film’s poignant themes are its most impressive assets. This hilarious, moving, and empowering film aims its web shooters at your heartstrings and yanks away. Don’t be surprised when you get hit with the feels. This isn’t just the best Spider-Man movie so far, it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made. Period.
Bottom line: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has more heart than Homecoming, more impressive visuals than Doctor Strange, and is more daring than Infinity War. Spider-Verse leaps to the front of the crowded field and web-slings its way towards the top of the superhero flick pantheon.