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How the Spider-Verse films do things differently

The much anticipated ‘Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse’ and its predecessor, ‘Into The Spider-Verse’, clearly out-perform the Marvel movies

A scene from 'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse'. Image via AP
A scene from 'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse'. Image via AP

Sony’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman) arrived in 2018 in a blaze of glory, introducing Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino Spider-Man (with an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother), amidst a delicious line-up of Spider-people from alternate universes.

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The film ended up winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and influencing the animation styles of several films—see how Dreamworks’ Shrek spin-off, Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, released in December, uses opaque backdrops in a very similar way.

Into The Spider-Verse also gave us a much better-written “multiverse” story than any of Marvel’s recent efforts in this context, including Spider-Man: No Way Home, which featured Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire as three live-action versions of Spider-Man.

Last week, Spidey fans were rewarded with the release of the much-anticipated Across The Spider-Verse, the sequel to Into The Spider-Verse. “Let’s do things a little differently this time,” says Spider-Woman/Gwen Stacy in the opening scene, as though referring to the surprise runaway success of the first film. In the sequel, Miles finds himself on the wrong side of a group of Spider-people who have banded together to fix time warps across the multiverse. Meanwhile, a new, black and white villain called The Spot (he can open portals to other universes at will), voiced by Jason Schwartzman, is adding to Miles’ troubles.

The animation techniques and illustration styles used by both films to introduce their characters are impeccable, each style contributing something meaningful to the character in question. For example, Spider-Man Noir (voiced by the brilliant Nicolas Cage) is a black and white, darker, brooding World War-II-era iteration of Spider-Man who speaks in 1930s and 1940s “transatlantic” lingo, à la the reigning superstars of that period, including James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (Cage studied the performances of these two for his performance). And so, the character design of Spider-Man Noir is straight out of actual 1940s comics like Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Towards the end of the first movie, we see Noir being fascinated by a Rubik’s cube he finds in Miles’ version of Earth—and the black and white superhero takes it with him, to liven up his monochrome world. Little touches like this are proof that the makers are particularly mindful of visual novelty and the way it enhances the storytelling on display.

The most eye-catching character in the sequel is Daniel Kaluuya’s Spider-Punk/Hobart Brown, who looks like he has been ripped straight from the pages of an underground zine. Lots of punk magazines employed cut-and-paste or collage-styled stories and Spider-Punk is representative of this aesthetic, with a studded metallic vest and a “faux-Hawk” over his Spidey mask. Also, because his design is two-dimensional in a 3D world, he only ever appears as a planar figure (you have to see the film to believe how well they have pulled this off), his outlines betraying his lack of spatial depth. In true punk fashion, Hobie hates authority figures and is suspicious of the government. He also presents an alternative model of mentorship compared to Into The Spider-Verse.

In the original film, the mentor figure was Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an over-the-hill, washed-out version of Spider-Man in his 40s, who guides Morales through the initial phase of figuring out his Spidey powers. As Johnson and the makers confirmed, this character was written conventionally, as a kind of “Mr Miyagi, if Mr Miyagi knew nothing” (as Johnson put it in 2018, referring to 1984’s The Karate Kid). He urges Miles to grow out of the shadow of the other Spider-people and be himself. Sometimes, we don’t need a wise word to rev us up, sometimes it’s a mischievous voice that goes, “Of course you should burn it down.” Especially since in Miles’ case, the adversary, i.e. the legion of Spider-people, is insisting Miles isn’t a true Spider-Man because his origin story isn’t grounded in tragedy (like Peter Parker’s uncle Ben being murdered).

That last bit—debating the necessity of a tragic origin—is as close as the film gets to openly debating the virtues of Marvel vs DC. If you remember the 2018 Indian superhero film Bhavesh Joshi, there’s a scene where the immature protagonist, Sikander (Harshvardhan Kapoor), boasts that he reads DC and not Marvel comics because they are “darker and grittier”. Meta-commentary, then, is yet another thing where the Spider-Verse movies clearly out-perform the Marvel movies.

And to be honest, there’s so much Marvel could learn from the Spider-Verse. Firstly, and most importantly, Marvel films need to stop looking the same. It boggles the mind that directorial talents as diverse as Chloé Zhao (Eternals), Sam Raimi (Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) have all released Marvel films between 2018-23 (i.e. between the two Spider-Verse movies). And yet, there’s not one scene, one moment, in any of the three films that’s visually distinctive or stays in the mind’s eye long after the credits have rolled.

Secondly, Marvel films need to realise that Multiverse stories aren’t just props for better fan service. Spider-Man: No Way Home was basically a two-hour trailer that depended upon the “wow” factor of its stunt casting—i.e., featuring three actors who have played live-action Spider-Men. There was no depth to the story, no character evolution, no meat in its low-stakes plot—other than to duly kill off Spider-Man’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and tick off “tragic origin” from Peter Parker’s call sheet (the Across The Spider-Verse debate about tragic origins feels especially pointed once you have seen this film).

And finally, Marvel needs to realise that at its heart, these are stories meant for children and young adults, which is why younger protagonists are always going to work better. Look at the success of Ms. Marvel, perhaps the only Marvel streaming show to receive universal acclaim. I think audiences have finally called time on the “world-weary” superhero (think Captain America or Thor) and Marvel needs to pay attention.

Meanwhile, if you are down with a severe case of Marvel fatigue, do yourself a favour and watch the two Spider-Verse movies back-to-back. There’s a third film, Beyond The Spider-Verse, slated to be released in the summer of 2024. I think that once the dust has settled on Hollywood’s superhero era, the Spider-Verse trilogy may well be remembered as the single best superhero franchise of them all.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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