Scalding Hot Takes: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
One of the things that I love most about the comic book medium, beyond, of course its ability to entertain small children with funny animal stories, is its sense of infinite possibilities. Anything can happen in the world of comic books. Nowhere is this more true than in the mind-spinning, brain-melting, endlessly trippy realm of the multiverse, a dizzying expanse of alternate universes featuring versions of beloved heroes and villains in different forms that sometimes co-exist with the originals that inspired them and sometimes supplant or usurp them.
It’s a concept that exponentially expands the possibilities of iconic characters and reduces the stakes because there’s no reason a character dead in one universe can’t be doing just swimmingly in another.
How crazy is the world of multi-verses? What if I told you that there was a comic book series where Superman, yes Superman, the most American hero this side of Donald Trump, was a goddamn Commie from Mother Russia?
And what if I told you that this bizarre and brazen desecration of an American icon was not the work of a wild-eyed, LSD-soaked Bolshevik lunatic who was promptly imprisoned or executed for his cultural heresy and also copyright infringement but rather an official DC publication written by Mark Millar entitled Superman: Red Son? You might think that I’m taking crazy pills, but this actually exists!
I could go further but if I embark on a wide-ranging discussion of multiverses it would send me deep down an internet research rabbit hole from which I might never emerge. I’ll spiral into obsession and neglect my career and family and die even more of a hermit than I already am.
Thanks to the concept of the multiverse anything can happen in the world of comic books, and, by extension, comic books-derived media. But what does end up happening over and over again is that we see the same kinds of stories told the same kinds of ways involving the same interchangeable white protagonists played by the same kinds of actors, like Ryan Reynolds and Chris Evans. And that is boring. Really boring.
The genius of the multiverse is that it doesn’t just presuppose that in some crazy alternate dimension, Flash villain Captain Cold is actually Colonel Hot, although that’s just the kind of madness that can occur in this creative Twilight Zone. The multi-verse doesn’t only apply to the pluggers, the background characters, the b-list villains. No, it applies to everyone, even A-listers like Batman. Especially A-listers like Batman.
Spider-Man does not always have to be a neurotic white dude who’s good at science and has a thing for Mary Jane and an aphorism-spouting uncle with an unfortunately abbreviated lifespan. No, he could be a black teenager. Or a hardboiled 1930s Noir detective archetype. Or a wisecracking cartoon pig in the Looney Tunes tradition. Heck, Spider-Man can even wear sweat-pants. Or be a Japanese girl in the distant future with a robot. If your brain is willing to travel that far, Spider-Man could, I suppose, even be a girl, although god knows what her superhero name might be: Arachna Girl? Spider Lass? Insectohoney?
In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, not only can all of these wildly divergent conceptions of what Spider-Man look and act like theoretically exist; they all actually do. And the voice casting! Just thinking about John Mulaney as Spider-Ham makes me happy. That is a spin-off that needs to happen. And it’s great to hear Nicolas Cage cap a terrific comeback year as the voice and soul of Noir Spider-Man, although it does seem a little messed up that even in a movie focussed on a black Spider-Man a character named Batman Noir (Black in French) is voiced by a white guy.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about Spider-Men, Spider-Women and the Spider-person inside all of us, metaphorically spinning webs of any size, capturing thieves just like flies, but its primary focus is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a half-black, half-Puerto Rican Brooklyn teenager who is bitten by a funny little arachnid and becomes the latest, if not the greatest, to acquire the powers of a man-sized spider.
In his capacity as Spider-Man, Morales ends up tangling with Kingpin (Liev Shrieber), who has built a machine to access alternate dimensions in an attempt to bring his dead son and wife back.
When the Peter Parker (voiced briefly by Chris Pine) ends up dead, Miles ends up getting mentored by a depressed, loser alternate universe version (voiced by Jake Johnson) whose decision to wear sweatpants despite being a superhero says everything about him.
Then a whole bunch of crazy shit happens involving the aforementioned different Spider-Men and Women and a female version of Doctor Octopus voiced by the great Katherine Hahn. Normally it would be incredibly reductive, even, dare I say, unprofessional, to summarize the plot of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as “a bunch of crazy shit happens.” Not here. Not only is that description as accurate as it is succinct, but it honors the movie’s trippy, assaultive sense of sensory overload.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was co-written and produced by the team of Lord and Miller and co-written and co-directed by Rodney Rothman, who previously collaborated with the duo when he co-wrote 22 Jump Street. You might know Lord-Miller from their brilliant work on the 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie as well as from getting fired from Solo, presumably for injecting too much youth, anarchy and irreverence into a franchise deeply skeptical of those qualities. It’s funny, Disney hired Lord-Miller because they wanted some of that Lord-Miller feeling and figured that they would have it in spades, only to give them one of the highest profile firings in film history.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels very much like a Lord-Miller production. It shares with The Lego Movie and the Lego Batman Movie (which they also produced) a child-like sense of play as well as a post-modern hunger to experimentally relentlessly with mega-billion dollar intellectual property not out of contempt for the icons they’ve been entrusted with but rather out of a super-fan’s sense of love and appreciation. Lord-Miller and their collaborators know that Spider-Man is sturdy and dependable and rock-solid enough to withstand all manner of post-modern goofing and meta-textual self-deprecation.
Besides, the beats of Spider-Man’s creation story are so familiar, so deeply woven into the fabric of American pop culture that Into the Spider-Verse can bullet-point them repeatedly, for Spider-person after Spider-person, without losing anything necessary or even important in the process. When we know this song by heart, when we love this song, why not remix the elements to create something at once exhilaratingly new yet reassuringly rooted in some of the most beloved iconography in American culture?
I was never entirely sure what was going on much of the time in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse but I did not mind. That felt like a feature of the film’s vision, not a flaw. It’s supposed to be pleasantly disorienting, overwhelming in the best possible sense. There were moments throughout when I felt more than a little lost but I loved it.
Spider-Verse is so dense with ideas, and universes, and Spider-Men and Women of all different races, nationalities that it might take a couple of viewings just to take everything in. The filmmakers have enough faith in the audience’s intelligence, hipness, and quickness to toss them into the deep end when it comes to conceptual complexity.
The multiverse exists to liberate comic books and comic book movies from the dreary strictures of reality in just one universe, no matter how wild or outrageous that universe might be but they also serve the additional purpose of making movies that deal with time travel seem elegantly uncomplicated and non-convoluted by comparison. I’m not sure how I would even describe Spider-Verse to someone like my comics-and-superheroes-hating wife or my 70 year old dad, whose mind is blown by the idea that there’s a movie where Batman and Superman fight but that’s okay. Spider-Verse was created for a superhero crazed age where fans quite literally can never get enough of their favorites, in any form, when they want more, more, more. Spider-Verse is more, more, more and then some.
I dig Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for many reasons, one being that after mercilessly beating the (non-funny) dead horse of comic books just being funny animal stories for children in my writing, I’ve finally encountered a widely beloved instant blockbuster whose most entertaining aspect involves a funny talking animal, the kind children and emotionally stunted grown-ups like myself love.
And he’s perfectly voiced by one of the funniest men in the world. What a delight! This may not be the best of all possible worlds. Hell, I would vastly prefer to be living in a world where Obama has just finished his tenth year in office but while this world may be, in many, if not most ways, a hideous dystopia spinning off course and devolving madness and oblivion, at least it gave us Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and John Mulaney as Spider-Ham, so while this isn’t the best of all possible universes, at least it’s not the worst either.
I make my living largely though crowd-funding, so if you would be kind enough to consider pledging even a dollar a month over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace it’d be