Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
I'm not a Spider-Man fan, nor am I a fan of US CG animation. But I am a curious person and when the positive buzz surrounding the latest Spider-Man animation reached me, I was actually quite exited to give it a chance. The few screenshots I saw promised a film that didn't conform to the norm and that's exactly what this film is all about. It's not made to appeal to control groups or specific fanboy niches, instead Into the Spider-Verse upsets the status quo and dares to be bold and unique. It's a risky film alright, but one that I couldn't help but appreciate.
"Fuck it". Somewhere, in some scruffy, corporate Sony tower, during a crucial but boring meeting, must have uttered those two words. It shifted the new entry in the Spider-Man franchise in its current direction. Those words were a proverbial middle finger that was about to shatter people's expectations. Expectations of what a Spider-man film must be, expectations of who a US CG animated film must appeal to. And I want to thank the man that uttered those two words, because he gave the world a glimpse of what can be accomplished when calculated box office projections don't stand in the way of creativity.
The Spider-Man franchise is no doubt my least favorite superhero franchise out there. From the clunky old cartoons to Raimi's tepid trilogy, from the countless reboots to his latest kiddy-proof reincarnation, I never could find anything to like in Peter Parker's red & blue-webbed universe. But as is so often the case, it's not really a matter of content, setting or narratives, it's a matter of execution. Make something fun, creative, dashing and original enough, and I'm game. And that's where Into the Spider-Verse really shines.
The story is interesting enough, bringing together a bunch of Spider-Men (and Women) from several different realities and having them fight side by side to trump evil, but it's hardly the main selling point of the film. The story is merely a crutch for a myriad of self-referential jokes and the introduction of some creative ideas (like 30s noir Spider-Man, anime Spider-Man and Porky Pig Spider-Man, because why not). The narrative frame is there to push things forward, but it's the craziness that happens within those bounds that really demands all the attention.
Into the Spider-Verse's visual style is almost impossible to describe, not in the least because there is so little to compare it with. It's clear that a lot was borrowed from the traditional comic book look, but the way it is integrated into the CG graphics is just beyond stunning. From the slightly "misprinted" colors to angular character designs, from the blurry backgrounds to the sick detail in setting and motion, it's a mind-blowing visual trip from start to end. Add to that the insane camera work and the creative editing and you have just about everything that US CG animation usually fails to deliver. It's almost like watching a US branch of Studio 4°r;C at work, which is about the biggest compliment I could give to an animation film.
Sadly, the sound design isn't really up to par. The soundtrack itself is an amalgam of poppy hip-hop and more generic sounding adrenaline-pumping music. Nothing terribly offensive, but hardly on the same level as the visuals. The voice acting on the other hand is just plain bad. Several celebrities were hired to do the voice work, which looks nice on the poster but can be incredibly distracting while watching the film. Jake Johnson and Nicolas Cage in particular have voices that are way too distinctive, making it unnecessarily difficult to match the voice to the character. It's a shame they didn't dare to be a bit bolder when selecting the voice talent, luckily the rest of the film is strong enough to soften the blow.
Apart from the disappointing voice work, I also had a little trouble with the comedy. The film was co-written by Phil Lord (responsible for The Lego Movie) and at times it shows. There are some great laughs here, but they come from almost entirely from visual gags and creative ideas. Whenever the film shifts to more traditional laughs, it goes sour real fast. Predictable and derivative jokes that feel out of place in a film like this, but I guess you can't turn around everything in one clean swoop.
These minor quibbles aside, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a breathe of fresh air. It's an exhilarating experience, a visual rollercoaster in the best sense of the word, but also a painful reminder of the unrealized potential that has bogged down US animation for the past 25 years. Hopefully this isn't just a random blip on the radar, but a sign for others to stop trying to copy Pixar and to find their own voice. Sony proved that it can work and Into the Spider-Verse is the perfect example of a risk that pays off. By far the best entry in the Spider-Man franchise.