Over the past few years, I’ve steadily built up a tolerance for superhero comics. They are hamstrung by their tangled continuity, their narrow focus on appealing to thirty-something hardcore comics readers at all costs, their reticence to green-light any change to the status quo that lasts longer than six months. All that, and superhero comics executives have historically treated their creative staff like garbage. Reading Sean Howe’s history “Marvel: The Untold Story,” it seems that every significant artist, writer and staff member is either scammed out of millions of dollars, or dies of a heart attack from overwork. Or both!
But several talented people have passed through the industry, creating genuinely interesting work. Walt Simonson’s bombast, Ann Nocenti’s radical politics. Peter Milligan’s aggressive pop-art weirdness. The artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz, who elevated relatively conventional story arcs in New Mutants into stark horror. David Mazzucchelli’s succession of bedroom tableaus in Daredevil: Born Again. Their lack of repute among “serious readers”, and the compactness of the monthly issue, is exactly what allows these writers and artists (when not hamstrung by resources or by executive oversight) to take huge creative risks.
That said, there is one thing I have never learned to love about superhero comics, and that is crossovers. I despise them. Of course, it can be fun to watch your favorite characters interact and fight together. Marvel sold its specific line of comics on the promise of a living, changing world its characters share. Unfortunately, crossovers are generally bad. Any change to the status quo they make is inevitably undone. Even worse, they interfere with writers and artists in the middle of telling their own stories. Secret Wars is perhaps the best crossover of the decade, but how many readers of G Willow Wilson and company’s excellent Ms. Marvel were alienated by the event temporarily infecting their favorite series? (Reader: I was.) The best crossover tie-in comic I’ve seen is in Garth Ennis’s Hitman, where the characters spend the whole supposed world-ending apocalypse drinking in a bar. The cast know that whatever happens won’t matter in a year.
Yet Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is a crossover, one that takes inspiration straight from the comics. After seeing it twice, I can say without hesitation that it is one of the most impressive animated films I’ve seen, and probably one of the better superhero films as well. This is despite the fact that Spiderverse leans directly into weird comics lore that give people the willies. This is a movie where popular alt-Spiderman Miles Morales shares the stage with midlife crisis-era Peter Parker, Spider-Gwen, an anime character in a giant robot, Nicholas Cage, and a talking pig. Not to mention at least five villains, all of which appear in different incarnations from their previous appearances in Sony Spiderman movies or Netflix TV dramas. But people are seriously invested in this movie, blasting social media with fanart and proudly advertising the number of times they’ve seen it in theaters. Some of these folks are fans of the original comics, like my coworker who has seen it in theaters three times now. But others are only familiar with the character through Sam Raimi’s movies or Tom Holland’s character in the Avengers. Others don’t like superhero movies at all. But this film is working like gangbusters. How can this be?
The reason is that crossovers, by themselves, aren’t inherently bad. There are just often multiple logistical reasons standing in the way of them being good. For instance, let’s examine this year’s Avengers: Infinity War. In order to “succeed”, this film needed to: properly introduce a new villain hinted at from the beginning of the series, continue the storylines of every major character in his universe, find a way for all of them to interact naturally without disrupting each other, orchestrate memorable fights that gives each hero a moment to shine, please hardcore fans of these movies while not being completely impenetrable for newcomers, and then end on a huge game-changing cliffhanger whose resolution in the next film won’t frustrate viewers of this one. Oh, and one more thing: leave space remaining in this universe so that the film doesn’t frustrate all future narrative possibilities in the process. And wrap it up in under three hours. How do you do this? I venture that you can’t. The creative staff tried their best, and how successful they were has been hotly debated. Commercially, the film was a success. But there were undoubtedly aspects the staff needed to compromise on so that they could finish the thing at all.
Here is what Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse sets out to accomplish: make the viewer care about Miles Morales, sell his relationship with depressive middle-aged alt-Spidey Peter B. Parker, find opportunities for the rest of the cast to show off. Do so with some of the most inventive CG animation of the past several years. That’s it! There are places where this movie falls a little short, like how Gwen Stacey’s character feels underused or how Miles’s parents could have been tied more tightly to the central narrative. But since Spiderverse focuses so intently on Miles’s relationship with his family, with Peter and with himself, it is able to work as a grounded character-driven narrative while its extended cast serve as fun comics-flavored garnish. Spider-Ham is one of this film’s great joys, he earns some moments of legitimate sentiment, and he never gets in the way! Most importantly, despite the countless sequels I imagine Sony is lining up to this film, watching Spiderverse I never had the impression that the film was holding back possibilities for future movies. Everything introduced earlier in the film pays off hugely at the end, and while I’d love a sequel the movie stands perfectly fine on its own.
Spiderverse has other qualities to recommend it, of course: excellent music, a really good Stan Lee cameo that pays homage to the man as Marvel’s guardian spirit and carnival huckster, and maybe the most slyly loving post-credits jab in a superhero film. But it stands most of all as a film in the Lord and Miller mold, despite the limited influence I imagine those folks had on this movie overall. Like the Lego Movie (an excellent movie about toys) and 21 Jump Street (a hilarious spin-off of a trashy television series), Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse takes a historically alienating and often badly written superhero convention and turns it into a groundbreaking animated film. It may even inspire young fans to read the comics after this! I wish them luck.