screeplay by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman
directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, hereafter Spider-Verse, is a game-changer. It's American anime, essentially, an Akira moment for our film art that will sooner or later be identified as the definitive event where everything tilted forward. I hope sooner. More than beautiful, it's breathtaking. More than kinetic, it's alive. And more than just alive, it's seething with possibilities, self-awareness, a real vision of a future in which every decision in Hugh Everett's quantum tree produces an infinite series of branches. It's a manifestation of optimism. There's hope in Spider-Verse, along with a reminder that more people in these United States believe in progressive values than don't, no matter who the President is. Empathy and compassion hold the majority; there's a recognition we are essentially the same--the same desires, the same disappointments. When a father tells his son he's proud of him, it makes us cry because we identify with the entire spectrum of complexity such a conversation entails. When it happens in Spider-Verse, the son is unable to respond and the father is unable to see why, and the visual representation of the distance that can grow between fathers and sons is astonishingly pure. Turgenev never conceived a more graceful image on the subject. It's perfect.
Spider-Verse is the creation story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn kid, the child of black cop Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican nurse, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), who speaks to him in a lilting Spanglish. He's lotteried into a private school but feels like an outsider. His parents force him to go because they want him to have every opportunity to thrive. One of his teachers there presents Miles with a test on which he's scored "0." She asks him what the score would be if someone just guessed and, because he's very good at math and science, he answers "50%." You have to know the right answers to get them all wrong. Miles is trying to be something he's not because he believes he's affecting something he isn’t. He spends time one night with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), doing his graffiti art in an abandoned portion of the subway, when he's bitten by a radioactive spider. But there's already a Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Chris Pine), and during a battle with Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) in some sort of dimensional portal the crime boss is constructing to bring over versions of the family he's lost, Spider-Man is killed. The portal is open long enough, though, for a multiplicity of other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men? Spiders-Men?) to get through, including another Peter Parker (this one voiced by Jake Johnson) and, with him, another chance for Miles to gain a mentor.
The film is about Miles seeking out mentors. His father is ultimately too stentorian, his uncle too permissive, but Peter is perhaps just right, if not for his sadness and injured self-esteem. Miles needs, as all young men do, to find a way for himself into an adulthood where he can be happy and productive. Spider-Verse tells his journey with animation and graphic design that's indescribable and stunning. The creative team sees Brooklyn as an infinite probability curve: the city is impossibly vibrant, impossibly huge. There's too much to see, though you try. It evokes somehow the feeling of visiting New York for the first time--a nexus between something eternal and the future unfolding. When Kingpin gets his contraption up and running again with the help of brilliant Doc Ock (no telling), the city literally unfolds. The final battle is fought in a collision of ideas. Miles's friends each offer to sacrifice themselves for the greater good once Miles shows he's not ready to be a hero--and it's their example of selflessness that finally teaches him. "It's a leap of faith," says Peter. Taking one is the only way Miles is able to figure out who he really wants to be. It's the only way anyone ever figures out who they're going to be, and it's terrifying to discover what's there underneath your mask. The moment Miles reveals his suit, the way he's customized it for who he's becoming, reminded me of the scene where a black woman lets her natural hair down in Beyond the Lights. I cried a lot in that movie, too. I'm 45 years old this year, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about myself only to discover, standing there on the edge of a great drop, hand to my heart, about to take another leap of faith, that I don't know anything.
Spider-Verse is an instant classic, not for visuals that will, after all, only be singular until the next ground is broken, but for the tremendous care it's taken in finding Miles's heart and then things to fill it, break it, strengthen it. It's as good a film about adolescence as you could imagine, made better by how kind-hearted it is. Funny, too. At the end of one of the worst years of my life--in a lot of our lives, of course--to be able to warm myself next to this movie is a gift, a surprise of the most extraordinary kind. Let me tell you about another scene: Miles has met the new girl in class, Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and as he tells Uncle Aaron about her later, he tries to hide his excitement, but can't. In a movie of huge moments and literal rifts in reality expressed in splashes of paint and motion, it's these little observational touches that align it with the great Japanese masters. Miles runs through a series of facial expressions--embarrassment, excitement, curiosity, caginess--and his uncle does the same. They move around on the couch and the directing trio knows where to put the camera. And in the end, as his uncle teaches Miles how to make a very innocent move on Gwen, there's a brilliant, true moment of shared elation between them. Spider-Verse is a film made with love about love. Miles is a mixed-race kid from a working-class family who counts among his new powers situational invisibility* and the ability to manipulate electricity. He learns how to use them with the help of his new friends, who respect him, and his family, who adores him. Even the villain is motivated by love, and so there's a conversation to be had about how love can turn into obsession and violence if you're not careful. Anyway, I'll be seeing it again soon. I bought a couple of Miles Morales Spider-Man back issues, too--you know, because my kids. Well, because me, too.
*Not unlike the character design for villain Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, also played by an African-American (Jamie Foxx), the manipulation of electricity and the concept of literal or social invisibility seem like callbacks to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. return