Do a google image search for “Movie stars of the 1940s” and you’ll probably get something like this.
But if you do a similar image search for the current decade and you get this:
So my point is, racism is over.
No, obviously not. But, over the decades there has been a definite shift in American media as film and television has come to (somewhat) more closely resemble contemporary American society. Now picture something for me. Imagine Humphry Bogart and Carey Grant and Errol Flynn were all still alive, never ageing, and still acting in movies with hundreds or thousands of roles under their belts. Imagine how difficult it would be for new actors, particularly female actors or actors of colour, to break into the business and make a name for themselves. Imagine a world where the Golden Age greats almost never died, and even if they did someone always brought them back to life.
Picture that world, and then you’ll understand why it’s so damnably difficult to introduce more diversity into comics. Clark Kent is never going to get old, retire and pass on the mantle to a young Hispanic boy (not permanently at least). Superman is part of the Western collective consciousness now. He’s not going anywhere, any more than Robin Hood or King Arthur. And to be clear, I don’t want him to. A world without Superman, and I mean this with absolute dead seriousness, would be a far, far worse one. But the problem remains, there are only so many comic books one company can put out in a month and there are only so many seats at the table. And opportunities for promotion are vanishingly rare.
A few years back, DC rebooted their universe and established a new origin for the Justice League which now included Cyborg as a founding member, thereby implicitly placing his as one of the seven most important superheroes in the DC universe. And there was of course a lot of harrumphing that DC were pandering to political correctness by including this new Johnny-come-lately diversity hire who hadn’t earned his place on the team. Think about that. A character who first appeared FORTY GODDAMNED YEARS AGO still was deemed to have not paid his dues. Which is not to say that publishers don’t sometimes try to shoehorn diversity into their books in a way that both alienates their long-time readers while also coming off as insultingly pandering and utterly tone-dead attempts to woo a new audience they don’t remotely understand.
Cyborg is a non-white character with an original gimmick who managed to break into the top tier but in that respect he is very much the exception and not the rule. Far more common is for a new character to take on the powers and costume of an older hero, what’s sometimes called a Legacy Hero.
Introducing a new character to take on the mantle of an older, storied hero is a bit like defusing a bomb. There’s only one way it can go right, and a million ways it can go wrong. Probably the best case study of how not to do this would be the passing of the Green Lantern mantle from Hal Jordan to Kyle Rayner.
Now on paper, this was a transition that had a lot going for it. Green Lantern is a fantastic concept that was often let down by a pretty dull central character. Hal Jordan was a stodgy, by-the-book military man whose most memorable storyline involved him travelling around America with Green Arrow and being wrong about literally everything. Oh, and it had the most “seventies comics” panel in the history of seventies comics.
The idea therefore was to replace Hal Jordan with Kyle Rayner, a young artist. Y’know, a guy who actually uses his imagination professionally and might be able to use a cosmic space ring to conjure something more visually interesting than a giant green fist for the billionth fucking time. Plus, you get the interesting contrast of a young man with no experience as a superhero suddenly having to deal with being one of the most powerful capes in the DC universe. Not a bad idea at all.
How did they fuck it up?
Firstly, they had Hal Jordan go insane and slaughter the entire Green Lantern Corps and become a super-villain called Parallax. Then, while Green Lantern fans were still coming to terms with a character they’d followed for thirty five years turning into Charles Fucking Manson Kyle Rayner was foisted on them without so much as a by your leave. And, to really drive the point home, every second character who met Kyle was sure to inform him that he was now the “one, true Green Lantern”.
The fans naturally enough, rolled their eyes but decided that it wasn’t worth getting all worked up over nah I’m just kidding it was like the fall of Saigon out there. The Green Lantern fandom splintered and became a toxic mess that really only healed when Hal was restored as Green Lantern in 2005.
So what’s to be learned from that? I think it boils down to respect. Rather than simply replacing Hal Jordan, or allowing him a heroic death saving the Earth, DC elected to destroy him, to trash the character so badly that readers would (they assumed) flock to Kyle Rayner as their one true lantern. They didn’t respect the character or their audience’s love for him and so they were completely unprepared for the backlash against the new guy who they (rightly) saw as the reason why Hal was done dirty.
On the flipside, for an example of a Legacy Character being introduced about as well as can be, look to the introduction of Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man.
The Ultimate universe was an imprint started by Marvel at the turn of the millennium to have rebooted versions of their heroes that weren’t constrained by 6 decades of continuity. It was also intended to allow creators to take riskier approaches with classic characters and answer questions like “What if Captain America was a dick?”, “What if the Hulk ate people?” and “What if Hawkeye was just the worst?”
By far the best thing to come out of the Ultimate Universe was Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man, a run which I will always recommend to anyone who wants to get started in comics. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel. It’s just the story of fifteen year old Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man and encountering his usual rogue’s gallery. But the art is gorgeous and the writing is sharp and sweet and funny and it’s probably my favourite run of Spider-Man and yeah, I include the original Lee-Ditko run in that. But what made Bendis and Bagley’s version of the story of Peter Parker so memorable was that they were actually able to give it an ending. The Green Goblin attacks Peter Parker’s home and tries to kill Aunt May, with Peter sacrificing his life to save his aunt.
Okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. Just don’t show the panel with him meeting Uncle Ben in heaven…
I won’t say that there was no backlash to the introduction of Miles Morales because look what planet we’re living on, but his introduction went about as smoothly as these things can, and there’s a reason why Miles Morales was one of very few elements carried over to main Marvel continuity once the powers that be finally stuck a pillow over the Ultimate Universe’s face. Because Peter’s story was concluded on such a deeply affecting note, Miles felt less like an interloper and more like a fresh start. It also helped that Miles, like the fans, was someone who greatly admired Spider-Man and was grieving his death. That created a connection between the character and his new readers and made them more willing to accept him.
Let’s be honest, the omens for Into the Spider-Verse were not good. Firstly, it’s an animated film by Sony, who have probably the worst track record of any of the major American animation studios. Secondly, it’s a Spider-Man film by Sony, who have definitely got the worst track record of any American studio that has ever made Spider-Man movies.
Of course, there is a simple rule in Hollywood. Think of the worst idea for a movie you can; a comedy reboot of an old police procedural? Two hour long toy commercial? Movie where weather is food? Give it to Phil Lord and Chris Miller and they will spin that shit into gold.
The movie begins with Peter Parker (Chris Pine) filling us in on his origin story…
I know, I know, we’re all origin storied out. Thankfully, this takes all of ten seconds. Peter was bitten by a radioactive spider, had a career that spanned ten years and followed the broad strokes of the Raimi movies and is now a beloved A-list superhero. “There’s only one Spider-man” he says “and you’re looking at him.”
Miles Morales, dorkily singing along to a song he doesn’t know the words to in his room when he should be packing his bags for boarding school. It’s a lovely little moment that instantly gets you on this kid’s side. So this movie sets itself three goals:
- To tell the story of Miles Morales.
- To act as a theses on the concept of Spider-Man.
- To succeed as an artistically significant animated film and a visually beautiful work.
Now I’ve been flying the banner for this film pretty much since it came out so, no surpise, I think it succeeds totally in all three goals. But it’s not enough to say that it’s a well animated film, it’s a film that uses its animation in a way that is thematically relevant and technically groundbreaking. The colour scheme replicates the four colour printing process of Silver age comics, rendering its world as a living, breathing, moving comic book page. Once Miles is bitten by the spider, comic book elements like thought panels and written sound effects start bleeding into his world. And every so often a single frame will be rendered by hand. The effect is as if the creators were able to film the version of a comic that plays in your head when you’re reading it, when your mind is subconsciously making the static images move and playing the voices in your head.
On the visual merits alone, this movie is a jaw-droppingly beautiful, utterly unique work. But it gets better.
So Miles lives in New York with his police officer Dad Jeff and his paramedic mother Rio. He’s just been accepted into a prestigious school which he’s kind of iffy on because it means being away from his family and, as a black kid from a poor neighbourhood he’s worried about being a sell-out. After school he goes to visit his Uncle Aaron who’s like his dad but is actually fun to hang out with. Aaron and Miles go graffiting (graffitoing? graffitoising? I dunno man, I’m a very white mouse) and Miles gets bitten by a spider that looks like it’s just got back from a rave.
The next morning Miles wakes up to discover that he’s undergoing puberty-metaphor. He’s grown taller, his inner monologue is manifesting as dialogue panels and his hands are becoming strangely sticky. He bumps into a new girl at school, a blond who introduces herself as “Wanda”. Miles tries a move that he learned from his Uncle Aaron, where you place your hand on a girl’s shoulder and say “Hey…”
Unfortunately his hand starts sticking to her hair and the nurse has to shave them free. Now properly freaking out, Miles races through the school discovering new powers like wall-crawling, spider-sense, and the ability to re-enact the music videos of Childish Gambino…
Miles finds a Spider-Man comic and realises that oh hey, yeah, that’s what happened. He goes back to the subway station to find the spider and instead finds Spider-Man battling Green Goblin and Prowler.
So one of this movie’s most enjoyable conceits is constantly taking the very idea of Spider-Man and mixing it up and contorting it into new and different shapes. Basically taking the concept of the character and seeing what makes it tick. This Spider-Man is Peter Parker if he got his shit together. He’s cool, he’s successful, he’s beloved, he’s happily married and most importantly he is a fucking amazing superhero. The is Spider-Man as an aspirational figure, and as a fan who’s been watching Peter Parker getting shat on by the fates for all of my life, there is something immensely satisfying in seeing at least one version where he actually got his due and it all came right for him. You know, until his sudden brutal death because this is still Peter Parker we’re talking about.
Miles stumbles into an underground cavern where there’s a massive particle accelerator and almost falls to his death. He’s rescued by Spider-man who realises that Miles has the same powers and promises to help him as soon as he’s saved the world from the big machine. Said big machine turns out to have been built by this guy:
So if I have a complaint (and this may in fact be my only complaint) it’s that I don’t think Kingpin was the right choice for the main villain. I love the design, and I think Liev Shrieber gives a great performance but Kingpin is just an odd fit for this story. Firstly, while he was originally a Spider-Man villain, Kingpin’s more a Daredevil foil and has been since the early eighties. Secondly, Kingpin’s not really a “crazy mad science” kind of villain. He’s supposed to be the ultimate manifestation of organised crime. He’s Vito Corleone, not Victor Von Doom. And I just find it weird because there is a character just sitting there who is all about mad science and has the same money and resources as Kingpin and has a far more personal and storied enmity with Spider-Man.
I dunno. Maybe they felt that because Norman Osborn was present in both the Raimi and Marc Webb films they wanted to go in a different direction. But if that’s the case, it’s weird that they have Norman Osborn here in his Ultimate Universe Big Green Monster mode essentially just acting as a mook for Kingpin, a role that could very easily have been filled by Rhino, Venom, Lizard, Scorpion or any number of freaks. It’s kind of like if you had a Batman movie where Joker is working as hired muscle for the Riddler.
The Goblin shoves Spider-Man into the collider which causes a ripple in reality that kills Goblin and badly wounds Spider-Man. In the wreckage, Miles finds Peter who gives him a flash drive to destroy the collider. He warns Miles to never show his face, as Kingpin will target his family if he knows who he is. Miles hides and watches as Kingpin and Prowler find Spider-Man. Peter warns Kingpin that if he keeps up this high tech supervillainy which is way out of his established idiom, he could open a black hole under New York and that he won’t be able to bring “them” back. Kingpin does not take this well, and kills Peter before Miles’ horrified eyes.
Kingpin sees him and sends Prowler after him and after a harrowing chase he ends up back home and tearfully asks his parents if he can stay the night.
The next day, all of New York is mourning the death of Peter Parker. Miles decides to honour Spider-Man’s legacy and buys a Spider-Man costume. There’s a scene that I absolutely love where Miles goes up to the very top of a skyscraper, looks like he’s about to jump off and then…goes right back down the stairs because obviously that’s crazy. Unfortunately, while trying to web swing, he ends up smashing the flash drive Peter gave him.
He visits Peter’s grave at night and is suddenly accosted by a vagrant who turns out to be Peter B. Parker,a Spider-Man from an alternate dimension who was sucked into this world by Kingpin’s collider.
Peter B. Parker, or “Beter” as I shall henceforth refer to him, is a Spider-Man for whom nothing ever goes right and whose life is a never ending parade of misery.
Okay, he’s like our Spider-Man but he lost all his money, Aunt May and his marriage to Mary Jane (not by trading it to the devil though, thankfully).
So if Peter Parker is the aspirational, platonic ideal of Spider-Man who acts as an inspiration to Miles, Beter is like a warning to Miles as to how it could all go wrong, kinda like Lindsay Lohan. Beter is a cynical sonuvabitch who just wants to get back to his home dimension but Miles is able to guilt him into helping him stop Fisk. With the flash drive busted, the two Spider-Men decide to infiltrate Alchemex, the company that built the collider. There they are suddenly confronted by this nice lady…
One of the things I love so much about this movie is that it assumes a basic fluency in Spider-Man lore and then uses that to subvert your expectations. The movie knows that the second it shows you a pudgy scientist named “Otto” a good chunk of the audience will instantly twig that it’s Doctor Octopus so it uses its alternate universe setting to keep throwing curve balls. And honestly, Liv is probably my favourite version of Doctor Octopus in any medium (and it’s a character I have a lot of love for). I love Kathryn Hahn’s performance and how she switches from dorkily adorable to flirty to stone cold terrifying.
So after getting their spider-asses handed to them by Liv, Miles and Peter flee into the forest surrounding the lab where they meet our next Spider-Man.
It turns out that “Wanda” is actually Gwen Stacey, the amazing Spider-Woman from a universe where she got bitten by the spider instead of Peter Parker. The three pay a visit to Aunt May’s house and May shows them Peter’s super-fancy spider cave where three more spider people are waiting for them: Spider-Man Noir, Peni Parker and Peter Porker the amazing Spider-Ham. The other spider-people start glitching and Miles tells them that he’ll have to be the one to destroy the collider because if any of them stay in this universe they’ll die. But the others don’t think Miles is ready to be Spider-Man just because he has no control over his powers whatsoever. Devastated Miles goes to Aaron’s apartment to get his uncle’s advice and is horrified when Prowler arrives and even more horrified when he takes off his mask.
Miles races back to Aunt May’s house to warn them but is uniwittingly followed by Prowler, Doctor Ocotpus, Scorpion and Tombstone. Out on patrol, Miles’ Dad gets the call and races to the scene. Prowler chases miles up to the rough and is about to kill him when Miles takes off his mask.
Aaron, of course, can’t kill his own nephew so Kingpin has him shot. Miles gathers up his uncle and tries to get him to safety but Aaron dies in his arms. Making matters worse, Jefferson catches Spider-Man standing over the murdered body of his brother and thinks that he killed him.
Devastated, Miles returns to his dorm room. The other spiders visit him to offer their condolonces and say goodbye. Beter tells Miles that he’s going to stay behind to ensure the other spiders get home. Miles begs Beter to let him go so that he can make Kingpin pay but Beter tells him he’s not ready. Miles asks him when he’ll know that he’s ready, and Beter says “You won’t. It’s a leap of faith. That’s all it is, Miles. A leap of faith.”
Beter leaves him webbed up so he can’t follow them, and Miles is left behind.
His father arrives at his dorm to tell him that his uncle is dead, but because he’s webbed up he can’t speak or answer the door so he just has to listen in silence as his father breaks down. It’s a beautiful scene, and Brian Tyree Henry’s performance is heartbreaking. The way his voice cracks as when he says “Something happened…”
I love this movie so, so much.
Jeff tells Miles that he loves him, and that he only pushes him so hard because he sees such incredible potential in him: “I see this spark in you, it’s amazing…”
Miles finally realises that he can control his venom blast and uses it to free himself and heads out into the night.
And now, one of my favourite scenes in any movie.
Miles goes back to the Spider Cave, the door opens as if it was expecting him. Aunt May is sitting there, drinking a cup.
“Took you long enough.”
He takes the web shooters. He takes the suit. His shooters. His suit.
He goes and wait at the top of skyscraper, looking down on New York city.
The words of his family echoing in his mind.
I see this spark in you, it’s amazing.
Our family doesn’t run from things.
You’re the best of all of us Miles. You’re on your way.
A leap of faith.
Miles Morales falls. Spider-Man rises.
Team Spider arrive at Fisk Towers where Kingpin is re-activating the collider to bring back his dead wife and daughter. Doc Ock almost kills Beter but is rescued by Miles who is now fully in control of his powers and ready to kick ass.
So after a fight scene where you could literally hang every frame on the wall of a museum because it is all just so beautiful, Miles prepares to deactivate the collider and send his new friends home. I know I’ve kind of skimped on Noir, Peter Porker and Peni in this review because there is so much I want to talk about in this movie. But I always choke up at Noir’s goodbye: “I…uh…I love you all.” Just a simple little moment but it always gets me.
Beter is the last to go, but when he sees Kingpin coming for Miles he tries to stay behind to fight him even thought that’ll mean his death. Miles refuses to let him sacrifice himself and drops him into the collider, returning him to his own dimension.
Finally realising that Miles is ready, Beter goes, and Miles turns to face the man who killed his uncle. Jeff, whose followed the trail of destruction to Fisk tower, watches Spider-Man and Kingpin battle. Kingpin beats Miles to a pulp, but when Miles realises that his father is watching and willing him to win he gets back on his feet and shows Kingpin just what that spark sees him in him can actually do.
Miles closes the portal and saves New York. Miles calls his father they share a tearful moment over Aaron’s death. And the movie ends with Miles taking his place as his world’s Spider-Man and telling the audience:
“I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff. But I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now. Cuz I’m Spider-Man. And I’m not the only one.”
Not just the best Spider-Man movie, Into the Spider-Verse is my pick for greatest comic book movie of all time and a strong contender for one of the best animated films of the 21st century. In all honesty, I consider it one of the best films I’ve ever seen and I’m only slightly embarrassed that I have to make that claim about a movie with the word “spider-verse” in the title.
Downright revolutionary. Up there with Snow White and Toy Story in terms of re-defining what the medium is capable of.
A deeply appealing main character who goes on a text-book perfect hero’s journey.
I might disagree with the choice to have Kingpin as the main villain, but they do it about as well as it could be done.
Supporting Characters: 20/20
Between the spider-people and Miles’ and Peter’s families it’s a huge supporting cast without a single bum note.
One of my all time favourite movie soundtracks.
After a credits sequence that I honestly love more than most movies, Miguel O’Hara, Spider-Man 2099, travels back in time to the old 1967 Spider-Man cartoon and gets into a point off with that universe’s Spider-Man.
And the audience went:
Hey, was that Stan Lee?
That was Stan Lee, selling Miles his Spider-Man costume and telling him that it will fit, eventually.
FINAL SCORE: 96%
NEXT UPDATE: 14 May 2020
NEXT TIME: A movie so big it’s going to take two reviews to do it justice.