Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ★★★★★

Okay, let's do this one last time. I don't like superheroes.

Obviously, this isn't the first time I've said this in one way or another, and it won't be the last time. It's not a dislike that has been born out of the proliferation of superhero films we've seen over the last five or six years either, I've not liked them for a lot longer than that.

When I was a kid I watched the Spider-Man cartoon and the Superman cartoon and the Christopher Reeve films and the Tim Burton Batman and even the X-Men cartoon when I got a bit older. Like most people, I'm sure. And I liked them! I really did. Somewhere along the line though, I stopped caring about any of this stuff.

I don't know when or where it happened. I think it might have been when I went to see the first X-Men movie. Despite having watched the cartoon for a fair while, I didn't understand half of what was going on and my two best friends, who I went to see it with, pointed out to me that I would have liked it more if I'd read the comic books, like they did.

Nah, fuck that. I went to see a film. I didn't go to initiate a multimedia commitment that would be the only way to get a full handle on what was going on with these characters. And then the MCU and DCU happened and we see, what, at least two films a year from both these lot now? Maybe it's more or maybe it just feels that way.

My dislike of these films is not blind and, I will admit, is occasionally embellished for 'comedy' effect. I recognise that many of these films have been critically acclaimed and have meant a lot to many different people in many different ways. Especially so in the case of Black Panther, Wonder Woman and the upcoming Captain Marvel. Even I'm not that blinkered.

But I am genuinely concerned at how much these films are dominating blockbuster filmmaking. It sits uncomfortably with me that two super-franchises, the likes of which have never been seen on this scale in the history of cinema, so utterly dominate big budget filmmaking and cinema releases these days. It's making it increasingly difficult for standalone films, tentpole titles and franchise startup hopefuls to get a word in edgeways.

There's also this notion of 'universes' that bothers me. These two labels are now so far down the road of their shared narratives that for those who haven't been a part of it all from somewhere near the start, it must be a daunting prospect to get into it at this comparatively late stage. You then factor in the fact there are TV series and animated series and the obvious comic book links, and it's completely overwhelming to me.

I did delve into it briefly just over a year ago when I watched Deadpool after somebody said to me that I would like this one because 'it wasn't really like all the other superhero films'. This one is self-mocking and doesn't take itself seriously and you'll like it, honest! But outside of the inside jokes, it was just the same as any other superhero film. Superheroes and supervillains twatting each other about for ages, just with more swearing.

It fascinated me that this was the superhero film that was supposed to be cleverer than the rest, the one that didn't take things seriously. Yet all I got was a film that actually lacked the self-awareness that it was claimed it had. I took away from it the realisation that these films don't even know how to mock themselves properly. It wasn't a good film at all for all of Ryan Reynolds' admirable energy and commitment to the character and movies.

The appearance of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on the horizon elicited a groan from me. I assumed it was another way for Marvel to tighten their grip on the multiplexes, only this way they were doing it with animation, perhaps as the start of a two-tiered assault on dominating the blockbuster market. It was also another title where people were insisting that I should see it because it's 'different' and 'hey, you said you wanted to sample more animation and stuff out of your comfort zone in 2019!' which frankly was a low blow, you bastards.

So along came the trailer and some admiring glances from my daughter and, I'll admit, a raised eyebrow from me regarding the involvement of Lord and Miller. Again, another low blow. Plus there was the fact that the trailer was pretty fantastic but I actually didn't pay that much attention because I don't think that sort of thing can ever be truly relied upon.

Then there's the fact that it's the Christmas holidays and I will quite often find myself dragged to see stuff half-reluctantly by my daughters that I sometimes really don't want to see. I say half-reluctantly because it keeps them quiet for a couple of hours and occasionally the film we're seeing turns out far better than expected. Last year that was the case with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and only last week I was unexpectedly charmed by Bumblebee.

This was a different kettle of fish though. Even the kids are not normally bothered by the whole superhero thing, unless it's the Caped Crusader in Lego form. And that goes for me too. Obviously. This was a giant leap to say the least.

I wish I could say that I'm so confused right now by how great I found this film to be but I'm actually not. You know, if I were to ever want to have an entry point into the whole Spider-Man story, this would be it. Because what they have done here is craft a film that probes the origins of Spider-Man while also finding the time to spin an entirely different story, bring in new characters, and leave the door open for a multitude of opportunities without the kind of 'To Be Continued' ending that has been problematic not just (apparently) in superhero films of late, but in big budget filmmaking for even longer.

It takes the time to introduce us, at a sprightly pace, to who Peter Parker(s) is / are. Even I didn't feel that was wholly necessary because even those of us who aren't comic book nerds know all about the whole radioactive spider thing. Come on guys, give us some credit! But in transitioning away from the original Parker it doesn't then ignore his background and comes up with in-depth characterisation that made me interested in everyone here.

Most importantly of all - I didn't feel lost! I was concerned by one or two reviews suggesting this would be a comic book nerd's heaven but it does that thing that ALL these films should be doing. It gives fans of the characters and stories plenty to be getting on with but it's also accessible to ignoramuses like me. I'm sure it's not easy to find that balance, but it can be done, and on this occasion it's made to look as though it really wasn't difficult at all - as Dredd also did

Sure, it maybe rushes through one or two things, which is understandable when you're covering so much ground and trying to keep the running time under two hours. But it is at least in keeping with its scintillating pace and in that way it makes some sense. Its story is terrific, though, really thoughtful and it included a trope that I REALLY like in an action film of introducing a villain with a motive.

Kingpin's backstory is one that I hope they develop further in the future. It's something that is done so infrequently but it reminded me of Ed Harris in The Rock of a villain with principles who, despite clearly being a madman, isn't just another bastard intent on destroying the world for the usual old reasons. It adds a resonance and layer to the ending that prevents it from being the usual superhero film of climax of superhumans battering each other endlessly.

The strength of character is, I think, perhaps why this film worked so well for me. The odd bunch of heroes are a balance of comedy and individuality as well as collective strength, and they all have their time in the sun as well as their own universes that would each all make for enjoyable stories and films in their own right. As an old school crime and noir fan, Spider-Man Noir's story holds particular interest for me.

The pleasing development of the relationship between Miles and Gwen into a friendship was great too. You know, I'm here for the argument that modern day films could get carried away with not focusing on romantic couplings between a pair of leads as was traditional. You can have too much of a good thing. However, in this case it works for a number of reasons, not least that there are bigger things going on in their young lives, such as the fact that they have the burden of saving their respective worlds.

There's a sharpness of humour and self-reference here that also brings me back to Deadpool. With that film, it never felt as though what was going on was ever really at all serious or a threat. It really weakened the characters and the story that it spent so much of its time mocking it all. Yet here, it keeps its silliness and its deeper subjects more or less separate, but not in such a way that it felt aggressively divided. This is a very funny film indeed but not at the expense of going somewhere tangible.

Oh yeah, the animation. Look, I'm pretty hyperbolic when it comes to my reviews, something I've never apologised for, but I'm still quite guarded with some things that I say. But I've never seen a better animated film than this. Ever. It's one of those wonderful occasions where I can't possibly fathom how they did this, any of this. There are so many styles in the offshoots and subplots here, as well as the neat comic book style inserts and sound effects text even before I get to the main strand here.

Imagination is limitless, but the ability to transfer that into visuals is far from it. Yet on a few occasions here, especially during the breathtaking dimension-melding visuals of the last 20 minutes here, it felt like the gap between the two was at the very least mininal. Like with all things that mesmerise me on the big screen, I don't want to know how they did it, I'm just glad that they did.

There you have it. Phew. The finest animation I've ever seen and one of the better films of any kind I've ever seen, full stop.

This was not how I was expecting to start 2019.

Steve G liked these reviews