Rising Through Fear

This still from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is CinemaGrids’ Frame of the Year.

Why Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is easily one of the best films I have seen in a long time

[No spoilers, other than general plot information.]

I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for the second time yesterday. I had first been drawn to the film’s animation style and premise, but I hadn’t expected the story to capture me the way it did. It is a joy to watch, and I found even more to love about it on a second viewing. Into the Spider-Verse follows Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a teenager who has grown up in a New York where Spider-Man routinely saves the lives of its citizens. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, he discovers that there is more than one Spider-Man—in fact, as he finds out when the Spider-people from five alternate universes are transported into his New York, a lot more than one.

What is immediately apparent from the film’s opening sequence is that the art direction of Into the Spider-Verse is fantastic. The film’s unique style evokes print comics while making full use of the flexibility of CGI, something we do not see in the animated films made by other major studios. The pride the animators take in their work is clear on the screen as well as on social media, where many of them have taken to sharing their favorite scenes on Twitter.

The film’s cinematic feel, unusual for an animated movie and better than many live-action films, is grounded in excellent storyboarding and concept work. When a metal beam nearly falls on Miles, the frame pulls in tight as the dust settles. The characters occupy a world that feels wide and expansive, even when they are battling in the confines of what was once an underground subway station. Unlike in live-action films, where exterior shots are often saved for car chases or explosions, we see Miles traveling across New York City on foot and by subway from a distance. Details make his dorm room feel as real and lived in as the rest of the world he occupies. The quiet transition moments in these spaces give the film and the character space to breathe.

Into the Spider-Verse also has one of the tightest, best-paced storylines of any film I have seen. Miles’s relationship with his family is deftly portrayed in brief scenes at the opening of the film that introduce us to his warm and loving parents (voiced by Luna Lauren Velez and Brian Tyree Henry) and his close relationship with his uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali). Miles, the first Afro-Latino superhero to get his own movie, is thoughtful representation at its best. The exchanges he has with his family and friends in Spanish are not translated, because they are a part of his life that exist whether the audience understands them or not. While the writers could easily have settled for the familiar narrative of a teenager’s strained relationship with his parents, the movie is instead focused on what Miles cares about: his social life, the joy of making his mark on the world, the pressure of middle school, and what it means to be bitten by a radioactive spider.

The film pits Miles and the other Spider-people from the multiverse against Wilson Fisk (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the villain known as the Kingpin. The Kingpin is a longtime feature of the Marvel comics, but his place as the major villain in the film is quickly established without relying on the audience’s knowledge of the Marvel universe. In one of many storytelling choices that make Into the Spider-Verse Miles’s movie, the Kingpin is not the threat that Miles is most afraid of. The terrifying, siren-like music cue featured on Daniel Pemberton’s excellent score to the film belongs to the Prowler, an otherwise minor villain whose mission is to destroy Miles. It is easy to feel Miles’s fear when the film focuses on the things that threaten him personally, not Kingpin’s dramatic but distant plan.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is its ability to fluidly switch tone and tempo. Fast-paced, high-stakes action sequences are followed by moments of rest and growth. The comedic timing of the film is perfect. I was startled into laughing aloud in the theater multiple times, even when seeing the film for the second time in only two weeks. Despite its comedic elements, or perhaps because of them, Into the Spider-Verse never loses sight of what is at stake. The highs and lows of Miles’s journey are anchored in his love of his family and the joy that he finds in music, not the grief and fear that come with being Spider-Man. This is a lovely counterpoint to the usual superhero origin story, where we are told to believe that the more grief a character suffers, the greater their strength will be.

The movie also neatly inverses a common narrative arc in superhero films: the lone superheroes who must set aside their egos to work as a team. Since the established Spider-people from the other universes are essentially the same person (or pig, as the case may be), they instinctively understand and support each other. Miles, who is struggling to learn how to use powers he barely understands, is forced to learn that he cannot help them until he overcomes his fear of his own potential. Ultimately, there are some things that Miles must learn on his own. This is not a film about accepting our own limitations. It is a film about believing in ourselves and trusting our strength.

As the end of the film makes clear, this is Miles Morales’s origin story. It is also a fully-formed story in its own right, with no unanswered questions or loose ends. This is what a retelling is meant to be: a joyful re-imagining of the core themes of what it means to be Spider-Man, told through the eyes of a character who brings something bright and new to our understanding of our own universe. In one of the most stunning scenes in the film, just before the climax, the script reads, “Miles isn’t falling through frame. He’s RISING.” For those of us who have ever been afraid of what others believe we can be, Miles gives us permission to own our strength and power and see where it takes us.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was directed by Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman, and Peter Ramsey, who became the first African-American director of a major animated film with Rise of the Guardians in 2012. Rothman cowrote the screenplay with Phil Lord, who is Cuban-American. By pushing every aspect of the film, they have created one of the best films I have ever seen—not simply one of the best animated films, or best Spider-Man films, though it is easily those as well. Other studios would do well to embrace diversity at every level—diversity of directors, cast, story, art, and character—the way Sony has done. Taking risks to tell stories like these is how we create real change. You can’t always know that a risk will pay off. It’s a leap of faith.

See this post on Twitter.

Published by Ailee Feber

Writer and artist.

One thought on “Rising Through Fear

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