Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.

Even if Into-the Spider-Verse had stuck to a single, straightforward Spider-Man origin story, it chose the exact one that could have kept the formula fresh for a modern audience. Afro-Latino teen dweeb Miles Morales is a welcome deviation in representation from the countless white-boy Peter Parkers who have swung across the screen over the years. Miles inhabits a hip-hop centric version of NYC that’s largely missing from the rest of the Spider-Man canon- represented in graffiti bombing, boomboxes, earbuds blaring legitimate radio-rap tunes, and a social pressure to code-switch when attending a predominately white school for the gifted. It’s a refreshing perspective for a Spider-Man universe NYC . . . until the obligatory machinations of the Spider-Man origin story take over the plot. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, the audience has an all-too-clear idea of where his story will & should go as he transforms into an unlikely, geeky superhero. Except, Phil Lord immediately dislodges this story from that well-established groove to chase something much more unpredictable & self-aware.

Two distinct narrative deviations disrupt the typical Spider-Man origin story trajectory once Miles is bitten by that spider. First, he becomes aware that he’s living in a comic book. His inner thoughts become deafening narration he cannot escape, and his world is suddenly contained in Ben Day Dots and sectioned-off panels. Second, he becomes aware that his is not the only Spider-Man comic book. In fact, there are countless variations on the Spider-Man origin story that exist in a vast multiverse that begins to perilously overlap with his own. These variations include novelty spider-people like Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) & Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), whose outlandishness could not be further from Miles’s grounded hip-hop version of reality. Miles’s first-act run-in with a radioactive spider (and subsequent heartbreak with the tragic death of a family member) may be as consistent with Spider-Man lore as the NYC setting, but the comic book environments & quest to reconstruct the multiverse in proper order that result form that bite feel wildly imaginative for the material.

Those comic book environments & psychedelic multiverse overlaps do more than just open the Spider-Man origin story to exiting new avenues; they also allow for experimentation in CG animation that feels like a huge creative breakthrough for the medium. Where most modern animation pictures feel flat & unimaginative in their design, Spider-Verse is overflowing with ideas. The Ben Day Dots, panel divisions, and deliberately off-set screen-printing effect of its comic book design afford it a distinctly retro visual style, one enhanced by the claymation effect of its off-kilter frame rate. The endless possibilities of its collapsing multiverse also invite a total surreal meltdown of psychedelic colors & shapes, transforming Miles’s grounded NYC into a melted-candy nightmare. I usually dread CG animated kids’ movies even more than I dread the latest needless reboot of Spider-Man. Both of those well-worn mediums subverted & exploded my expectations for what they could achieve in this out-of-nowhere visual stunner, often multiple times in a single scene.

The only arena in which Into the Spider-Verse falls a little short is in eliciting a genuine emotional response for Miles’s journey from geek to hero. It’s a little difficult to lose yourself in his story when the visual language of the film is so (literally) flashy, and when other Spider-Men are on-hand to make self-aware, Deadpool-lite references to things like the character having “an excellent theme song & a so-so popsicle.” Every time a new, outlandish spider-person appears to announce, “Let’s start from the beginning one last time,” it’s an amusing joke at the expense of the character’s endless parade of reboots. However, by extension that also means it’s at the expense of Miles Morales, who likely deserved to have a straight-forward, gimmick-free Spider-Man origin story more than any other version of the character we’ve seen in the countless live action adaptations before him—one that’s likely to never arrive now.

The most emotional I got in Into the Spider-Verse was in an end-credits acknowledgement of the character’s creators – Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, who both died last year. Whether or not its boundless creativity left room for genuine pathos, Into the Spider-Verse feels like as perfect of an encapsulation of everything that collaboration inspired as you’ll ever see – both in its scramble to gather every variation of the character it can and in its vivid graphic artistry. I went into Spider-Verse expecting a humorous, satisfactory reboot of a character who’s been through the ringer too many times to yield any true surprises. I was frequently surprised and more than merely satisfied by the psychedelic, playfully meta spectacle that unfolded, then imploded before me instead. By the end of the film I could only cite one unturned stone that felt like a true missed opportunity, and then that exact gag ended up being a standalone scene after the end credits. The movie is that good.

-Brandon Ledet

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Star Wars Fans Don’t Love Star Wars, They Love to Complain

Although I’m not quite as enthusiastic of a fan of The Last Jedi at its most fervent defenders, I greatly respected that film’s willingness to burn the Star Wars franchise, one of the most historically lucrative intellectual properties around, to the ground and start anew. Rian Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars canon was a bomb meant to blow up age-old traditions from the inside. It states its intentions in blatant terms by literally burning sacred texts, portraying the franchise’s longest-established hero as a coward who wastes his days drinking grotesque alien goo, and spelling out its mission statement in dialogue like, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.” I was personally more emotionally invested in the earnest, nostalgic mythmaking of The Force Awakens than anything Johnson’s film accomplished, but I do resect the way his flippant blasphemy attempted to smash the reset button on Star Wars at large, making it more palatable to younger fans without prior attachment to the series. It’s understandable why old school Star Wars fans might feel alienated or even offended by that blasphemy; maybe that reaction was even part of the point. What’s less understandable is why they were also furious with the modern revision JJ Abrams gave A New Hope in The Force Awakens, which was extremely cautious in how it updated series lore (and, in my opinion, was an improvement on the source material). What’s absolutely maddening is their disregard for the latest entry in the canon, Solo: A Star Wars Story, which returns the series back to the sci-fi radio serial swashbuckling of the original trilogy, which should be exactly what old school fans want. Longtime Star Wars devotees have no idea what would actually make them happy, except the mundane activity of complaining on the internet.

I had very little interest in seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story after comedic pranksters Phil Lord & Chris Miller were booted from the project in favor of personality-free workman director Ron Howard. Reports that execs were especially frustrated with Alden Ehrenreich’s talents as an actor were especially alarming, considering that Ehrenreich gave one of the most complexly sweet, funny performances in recent memory in Hail, Caesar! just two years ago. It turned out, of course, that paying attention to this production history in real time, knowing things like the fact that Ehrenreich was given an acting coach and that new ideas from the Lord/Miller crew where being shot down in favor of those from series dinosaur Lawrence Kasdan, was only detrimental to Solo’s entertainment potential. I felt like I had been following complaints about Solo: A Star Wars Story on the internet for a full year before the final product actually hit theaters, to the point that I was too exhausted to really care whether it was a good movie or not. It’s a shame, to, because Solo is a really fun sci-fi adventure movie, even as a compromised finished product. As Boomer points out in his review, the first half-hour or so of the film is a little iffy in its handling of the burdens of telling an origin story for a character we already know. However, once Han Solo meets up with Chewbacca in a prison pit, the movie is all cheesy swashbuckling & space heists and I had way more fun with it than I expected to. The average, longtime Star Wars fan did not have fun, if they saw the film at all. They even relished Solo’s box office underperformance as if it were punishment for Disney’s sins against the brand, despite Solo delivering the exact old school Star Wars tone they supposedly wanted to begin with. The most fun Star Was fans had after Solo’s release was complaining online about how corny the movie was in cataloguing how Han Solo got his name, his ship, his buddies and so on. If you have been complaining about how corny Solo is, let me let you in on an open secret: Star Wars has always been corny. You were once too young to notice it; now you’re too cynical to get over yourself enough to enjoy it.

Of course, it’s worth addressing that at least some aversion to the modern Star Wars canon is born of racist & misogynist politics, not matters of taste. Just this week actor Kelly Marie Tran­­ was chased off her Instagram account by Star Wars “loving” trolls who have been relentlessly bullying her for months because they did not appreciate the perceived progressivism of her character arc as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. Similar complaints have ben lobbed at Rey, Finn, Vice Admiral Holdo, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t resemble the legion of white men who used to command the spotlight in older entries. It’s grotesque behavior that should be called out for its bigotry, but I really do think that regressive politics is just one motivator for longtime Star Wars Complainers. The more widespread problem among (to use a cursed word) the fandom is that complaint culture is Star Wars culture. The (admittedly, objectively bad) prequels from the early 2000s arrived at a time when complaining on the internet was a fresh, novel activity that kept longtime fans busy whining for over a decade before the Disney era sequels arrived. Its presumable that many Star Wars fans out there were socially raised complaining about The Phantom Menace & its ilk on the internet; it’s part of their DNA. The problem extends even further back than that, however. Young fans who first saw A New Hope in 1977 had enough time to grow cynical in the six years until The Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, which gave them plenty to complain about in the adorable teddy bear space alien Ewoks. That’s not even including the two made-for-TV Ewok movies and the cursed Star Wars Holiday Special that gave “fans“ complaint fodder between proper franchise entries. If, in all these instances, the loudest complainers speak for the hegemony at large, The Old School Star Wars Fandom only enjoys two out of the ten movies in the Star Wars canon: A New Hope & The Empire Strikes Back. Not only is that a dismal percentage for a supposed devotee, but the practice of complaining about everything under the Star Wars umbrella has become such an ingrained routine that when something like Solo actually does recapture the old school sci-fi swashbuckling charm of those two pictures, they’re entirely unsure how to enjoy it without complaining about it.

Usually, intensely dedicated fandoms complain because they have too specific of an idea of what an entry into their pop culture obsession of choice should be, especially in adaptations of pre-existing material, instead of enjoying it for what it is. Star Wars “Fans” certainly suffer that pitfall to an extent, forming concrete *shudder* “headcannons” of what should happen in Star Wars movies based on pre-existing video games, novels, fan theories, and (most disgustingly) regressive race & gender politics. In a roundabout way, though, the recent films are giving them exactly what they want: a reason to complain on the internet. If Solo’s old school swashbuckling cheese isn’t faithful enough to the Star Wars originals’ tone to satisfying these serial complainers, it’s doubtful anything ever will be. I’m only respecting The Last Jedi’s flippant blasphemy more the further I get away from it. Star Wars Complainers deserve to see their sacred texts burn to make room for new, potentially appreciative fans who haven’t spent the last few decades exhaustively complaining about the thing they supposedly love most. New fans at least stand a chance of actually finding joy in what’s projected on the movie screen, instead of finding joy in bitterly abusing its stars & creators on the computer screen.

-Brandon Ledet