December 18, 2018

The Multilayered Multiverse –"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

By Tim Hruszkewycz *

Do you know how great it is to be a nerdy dad in the 21st Century? Very few things are rewarding about being a big dork, but I live in an era where I don’t have to explain the concept of a multiverse to my kids. TV shows like “The Flash” treat the multiverse like it is located two streets over and I now can take my kids to a cinematically released “Spider-Man” movie that has more than five separate versions of the webslinger. Life is pretty good.

I got my daughter Olivia started on the comics a while ago. She is six and just devours any literature that she can get her hands on. My wife is itching for the day that Olivia can spend a Christmas vacation reading the collected works of the Bronte sisters. But right now, my daughter is obsessed with comic books. She reads chapter books and I have to pretend to be excited about that because I’m an English teacher when I’m not writing. But I really get excited when my daughter keeps me informed about what is going on in “Spider-Gwen”, now titled “Spider-Gwen: Ghost Spider”. For all the parents out there, please screen these books before you let your kids read them willy-nilly. I read everything she sees before she sees them and ensure that nothing untoward is happening. But with “Into the Spider-Verse”, my daughter experienced the unbridled joy of seeing many of her favorite characters on the big screen, despite the fact that many people don’t know who these characters are.

I’ve always been a big fan of Miles Morales, the protagonist of “Into the Spider-Verse,” who is masterfully and skillfully voiced by Shameik Moore. In 2011, my favorite comic book writer, Brian Michael Bendis, created Miles to replace a recently deceased Peter Parker in the Ultimate line of comics. This ex-Peter Parker wasn’t the Spider-Man that most people had grown up with. Rather, this was a Spider-Man aimed at newer, teenage readers grounded in the new millennium. “Into the Spider-Verse” is loosely an adaptation of this story.

Miles, a student at an advanced school, like Peter, is bitten by a radioactive spider, this spider gifting separate abilities than Peter’s spider provided. Under Parker’s wing, Miles learns to accept and adapt to his new abilities. In the process, his mentor is killed while trying to dismantle a beam that opens doors to other realities. This beam attracts five versions of Spider-Man from other universes. Meeting a wide array of heroes who have similar abilities, Miles must learn to use his powers independently or risk the fate of the multiverse.

My wife, throughout the movie, kept giving me a (for once) genuine and unironic thumbs-up. If I was to tell you that the best “Spider-Man” movie would be an animated feature that didn’t even focus on Peter Parker years ago, you might have had reason to be doubtful. Traditionally, Sony Pictures has not had the best luck with maintaining their franchised properties. I’ve rallied against Sony with how they have handled what should be profitable content. But the filmmakers of “Into the Spider-Verse” knew that they were making a fine film, despite the medium.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a reminder to both audiences and creators that animation is not a genre, but simply a medium. In this era of monthly superhero movies, we have finally reached the moment that I’ve waited for in the subgenre. Superhero movies are no longer afraid to be stylized and and to break formulaic plot patterns.

There was this attitude for the longest time to respect the source material to the point of almost being slavish. Even the more outside-the-box movies like “Watchmen” or “300”, both directed by Zack Snyder, were attempts to use comic book panels as storyboards. “Into the Spider-Verse” doesn’t shy away from its comic book roots. Rather, it succeeds where many people consider Ang Lee’s “Hulk” to have failed.

This is a movie that looks and feels like a comic book artistically without being cornball or gimmicky. Rather, this is all about aesthetic choices. The movie looks darned pretty and it sounds beautiful. As a lucky dad and overall inconsiderate movie-goer, we had to bring my seven-month-old to see the movie.

Before I am lambasted, we saw a matinee, which is potentially the most acceptable time to see a movie with a baby. But that soundtrack entertained her to no end. Daddy got away with a lot of jumpy-jump time to a soundtrack that was melting my face off. It’s a quality movie that embraces what animation can do versus shying away from it.

My son did scream at one point. Henry gets very scared, very easily. The movie scared him once so intensely at one point that he screamed. On the whole, the movie isn’t scary, but there are many loud noises and startling jumps. From a Catholic perspective, I do have to mention that the Peter Parker from the alternative universe unfortunately divorced Mary Jane Watson. It is a central character trait of his, trying to win back his wife. But the word “divorce” is only thrown around once or twice and even then, it is very quickly. The bad guys can get pretty scary. Because the film is so stylized, many of the villains appear larger than life, especially in the case of the Green Goblin and the Kingpin. The Kingpin, the central villain of the film, is a killer. I wasn’t thrilled that my four-year-old watched the bad guy kill someone, but he took it like a champ.

On the positive side, however, Miles is an extremely relatable character. Often getting in trouble for his obsession with graffiti, he has to deal with a father who has a hard time communicating with him. Miles is extremely smart, but ashamed of his intellect. He is this kid who balances popularity with academic success. He’s the kind of kid I want Olivia to admire. He has realistic problems and the way that he deals with them seems realistic. Sure, he has spider-powers. But he does the best with his abilities despite the fact that he doesn’t want to.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is possibly the best superhero movie of 2018, and that is in a year that had both “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther”. Besides looking great and having fantastic characters, it is a funny film. Spider-Man was always a funny superhero and now we have more than five separate Spider-People / Animals.

Every character is well-developed with his or her own personalities and senses of humor. Jake Johnson is pretty much his character from “New Girl” as a superhero. I say that with the utmost respect because that character is perfect. Hailee Steinfeld makes her Spider-Gwen a genuine rock star. Nicholas Cage, of Nicholas Cage fame, somehow ideally channels the noir detective of 1920s so perfectly that I didn’t know I needed it in my life way before this point. I oddly laughed more at Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker more than I thought I would, considering that I rarely found the character interesting from the comic books. But casting John Mulaney as Peter Porker: The Spectacular Spider-Ham? Inspired. Absolutely inspired.

This movie isn’t necessarily for kids. It can be for kids, but I really recommend that kids be prepared with some of the source material ahead of time. My kids knew what was going to happen with the characters and that went a long way. But part of the experience was sitting down with a big stack of comic books and letting my kids discover the long history of Spider-Man throughout the ages. Sitting in that theater with my entire family in awe of the spectacle on that screen was more than I thought my little nerd heart could imagine and I loved every minute of it.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.