Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is out today for your digital consumption, and you should definitely watch (or re-watch) it because it actually deserves all the awards it’s received.
In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse deserves all the awards its won and some (like Best Picture) that it wasn’t even nominated for.
At a time when discussions of superhero fatigue have become nearly as ubiquitous as the superheroes themselves, and where it seems like each new superhero movies promises to be ‘unlike anything we’ve ever seen before’ — only to offer up the same genre trappings, character arcs and story beats that we’ve been fed a dozen times over — Into the Spider-Verse gives critics, fans and general audience members something unique, exciting and absurdly good.
It is that rare feature that is not only an amazing film, but manages to be a truly great comic book movie — one that embraces both the heroism of its character and the weirdness of the genre.
Most movies based on comic books are mostly superhero stories.
Superhero stories are just easier to adapt to the big screen. They have straightforward plots, with easy narratives that closely follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and have a definite ending with a valuable lesson.
This is not to say that superhero stories are easy to get right — just that they’re easier to adapt to a two-hour story than decades worth of comic book narratives.
After all, a great superhero movie doesn’t necessarily need to rely too heavily on its plot — we know, mostly, how that’ll go. In many ways, the end point is somewhat predetermined in a superhero story.
Because with superhero stories, the plot isn’t really the point. The point is the character — watching their journey to becoming or being a hero, caring for them, rooting for them, and admiring them.
However, comic books — like any other book — are dense, filled with hundreds of thousands of words worth of dialogue and emotion, scenes and subplots.
Now, add onto that the fact that most comic book characters — particularly the ones which have enough social appeal or cultural capital to tempt a studio into financing a film — have been around for decades, with thousands of issues worth of history and plot, conflict and characters.
With comic books, the point is not just the character (though of course the character is important); the point is also the plot and the sub-plots, the side issues and the special issues (and that crossover event that requires you to pick up issues of a series you’ve never even touched before).
And the thing with comic books is that with thousands of issues worth of story and character, you’ll generally find some really weird shit.
Some of that is because after decades of storytelling, writers tend to get pretty creative (we can perhaps sometimes even call it desperate) in order to find something new to inject into the pages of the comic book. Some of that is because comic books, as a medium, allow for more fluid storytelling and are less confined by genre conventions.
Some of that weird shit is just, well, so weird it’s hard to have an opinion on it. Some of it is really quite cool. Some of it doesn’t feel like it should work, but it does.
(And some of that weird shit doesn’t work at all, and we all just try and forget it ever happened. Sometimes canon itself wants to forget that it happened, and then we all get a new timeline!)
The point is — comic books are weird and big and messy because they can afford to be. They don’t have to wrap everything up and return to the status quo in two hours — they can meander back to the status quo in 25 issues or 50 issues or never.
As such, they’re filled with alternate timelines, parallel universes, rebooted characters, dead characters brought back to life, characters from alternate and/or parallel timelines, clones (so many clones!) — and that’s barely even scratching the surface.
So as much as Hollywood loves its superheroes, it’s not all that into the weirdness of comic books.
Movies don’t necessarily have the luxury of time that comic books have, and those films that have strayed into deeper comic book territory have generally been met with greater resistance.
And because there’s so much money at stake and so much money to be made, Hollywood mostly tries to stay away from all that messy weirdness altogether, preferring instead to give us the relatively safe and easy superhero story.
But Into the Spider-Verse is more ambitious than that — it chooses not to just to tell a great superhero story, but to make a great comic book movie.
Rather than steering clear of comic book weirdness, Into the Spider-Verse leaned into — fully, and with complete and total dedication.
Far from giving us one alternate version Spiderman, it gave us five different Spider-people — all from widely different universes and each one weirder than the rest.
This is a level of strangeness that other cinematic franchises wouldn’t dare to even attempt. And while I could maybe (this is a big maybe) see someone like Peter B. Parker — a different version of a Spiderman we’ve already seen — pop up in an MCU film, I can’t believe we’d ever characters like Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham. Especially in a franchise that took 20 films to feature a non-white hero as the lead (and also basically ripped off Miles Morales’ storyline, supporting cast and characteristics and transplanted them onto Tom Holland — but that’s another article for another time).
While parallel universes have long been a feature of comic books, they have always been seen as just too outside the norm for your standard comic book movie.
Of course TV shows, with their smaller budgets and smaller stakes, have been more amenable to the idea of a parallel worlds, but movies have strictly dedicated themselves to forcing every character into one crowded universe.
Into the Spider-Verse treats these comic book tropes not as a weakness of the storytelling or a thing to be ignored, but instead as strengths of the genre. And in doing so, opens up the narrative to try something that is actually fresh and exciting and just oh so fun to watch unfold on our screens.
Into the Spider-Verse successfully embraces the absurdity of its comic book roots without ever losing sight of the importance of storytelling and character.
The film and its writers recognize that what audiences want is not necessarily a grounded story — one with sound logic or keeps its feet firmly planted — but grounded emotional storytelling.
A plot itself can be outlandish and zany and employ any half dozen ridiculous comic book tropes, as long as the emotional beats land and the character arcs are organic and well-written.
Into the Spider-Verse goes big and ambitious, and is really, really weird — but without making that ambition and strangeness the point. It uses genre tropes in service its storytelling and its characters.
And what fantastic characters it gives us.
First, it shows us a different version of the Spiderman than the one we’re so used to seeing.
While the live-action movies have struggled to keep an age old character fresh and exciting, eventually aging Peter Parker back down to his teenage years and running through the same beats we’ve seen time and again, Into the Spider-Verse goes in the exact opposite direction.
With Peter B. Parker, we an older, more experienced and more cynical version of the beloved character. And in a world where most superheroes are picture perfect specimens with impeccable judgment and character, Into the Spider-Verse’s Peter B. Parker is — frankly — a mess.
With his character, we get to see a side of superheroics that rarely get depicted on the big screen — where the job of being a superhero actually seems like a job instead of a teenage fantasy come to life. We go past the triumphant ending of the superhero movie and explore what comes after the final battle and the vanquished villain — the tedium of the job, the wear and tear on relationships, the hard business of living two very different lives.
Along with this, it gives us a brand new Spiderman in the person of Miles Morales.
And while many of the character traits are similar to that of Peter Parker — Miles is still a science geek, he’s still from New York, he’s still a teen when he takes on the mantle of Spiderman — the story beats and character arcs are different because Miles has a decidedly different experience and perspective as an Afro-Latinx character.
Standard genre conventions and story tropes aren’t tired for characters from marginalized communities — they are instead new to the point of feeling revolutionary.
With Miles, we’re able to see a story that we love told in a whole new way, with a whole new perspective. We get to see a person of color not defined by his suffering — even though he does suffer — but instead defined by his character, his choices, his courage and his heroism.
We get to watch an Afro-Latinx boy as not just a protagonist, but a hero. He is the driver of the story and the narrative is pushed forward by him, rather than regulating him to the sidelines as so many characters of color have been forced into in their own films. Events don’t just happen to him, he is an active part of them.
And though Peter B. Parker is a mentor and a guide, he is not Miles’ savior.
Instead, it is Miles who helps Peter B. Parker regain his lost sense of self and remember his value as both a hero and a man.
Miles Morales embodies the ethos that we so love about Spiderman in the first place — that with great power, comes responsibility. And he reminds us why we love superhero comics in the first place — because they instill in us the belief that anyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, can be a hero.