We need to talk about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – and the value of animation

I have never seen anything like this film.

I wandered down to the cinema this week with the choice between Aquaman and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and boy, did I make the right choice.

Spider-Verse (as I’ll call it for the duration of this post) is an animated movie that’s sees Sony trying to make sure they can capitalise on their ownership of the Spider-Man property now Tom Holland’s webslinger is well and truly a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The story follows not Peter Parker but Miles Morales as he becomes Spider-Man. Morales originally appeared in the Ultimate Marvel comic books, a continuity of characters separate from the mainstream Marvel Universe. This, his first feature-length film appearance, takes a page from these comics as we’re introduced to the Spider-Verse – a collection of parallel universes which each have their own version of Spider-Man.

These Spider-beings are brought together to stop Wilson Fisk who’s trying to create a link between universes to bring back his wife and son. Along with Morales as Spider-Man, we’re introduced to three Peter Parkers – one the quintessential Spider-Man, one an older, out of shape Spider-Man and Spider-Man Noir, a Humphrey Bogart-esque Spider-Man from a 1930s noir universe.

The line-up of Spider-beings really adds a lot to Spider-Verse 

Joining them are Gwen Stacy who’s a Spider-Woman in her universe, Peter Porker, a spider that was bitten by a radioactive pig to become Spider-Ham and anime universe resident Peni Parker who shares a telepathic link with a radioactive spider inside a biomechanical suit.

When you write it all done, this sounds nuts… But this cast of characters just about sums up the movie. It’s absolutely crammed full of goodness and is built on a foundation of very original ideas, great performances, a rich and complex story and perhaps most importantly, the most drop-dead gorgeous animation.

Guiding all of this is are producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, of The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street fame and three directors – Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr. and Rodney Rothman. They come together to create something unlike anything else.

Listening to a podcast interview with Lord and Miller, the filmmaking duo talked about how with Spider-Verse they wanted to create a look and style that was fresh and new. And to say that they achieved that is an understatement. The style and the look and feel of the visuals continually change throughout the film. Each character has their own visual style which adds different perspectives to the film. The backgrounds of each frame look like textured comic book pages and the colour palette is vibrant and engaging. All of this is expertly blended together on the screen, and none of it a detriment to the storyline.

Fortunately Miles’ origin story as he becomes Spider-Man isn’t complicated by the presence of several other Spider-beings, it’s enhanced by it. They all bring something to the table and leave the party with something significant. They move the story along or aid Miles’ character development as he becomes the hero his universe needs.

On the way home, I was scrolling through social media when I saw a tweet which questioned why animated films are considered separately to live action films when it comes to awards and recognition. Should they be talked about in the same conversation?

The current bar set by recent animated films is incredibly high – they can engage audiences, deliver the same emotional punches and create worlds just like any other movie. So maybe they should be considered alongside live action counterparts. But when you look at process, they really are a different beast.

Because when I talk about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, we need to talk about the value of animation.

Lord and Miller said when producing this film, that they wanted to create something that wouldn’t be possible with live action filmmaking. And this is something that’s fairly common in animated filmmaking. Pixar’s Inside Out is one that stands out to me when I thought about this. This is a film that humanised the emotions inside a teenager’s head and posed several existential questions to an audience of kids, young and old. This would have been nigh on impossible and downright batshit crazy if you tried to do that with live-action.

Lots of new techniques had to be developed for Disney’s Fantasia

Since the early days of animation, this has been the case. Think about Disney’s Fantasia. Using colours and shapes to tell a story instead of people and words wasn’t something that had been done before on a major stage and here’s a two-hour film which does just that. During production, animators in Disney’s studio would come up with new animation techniques specifically for the film. And this is a trend that’s continued ever since. Pixar has frequently needed to write new programmes to deliver on the ideas and enthusiasm of its creative teams, as well as the physicality of the film’s subjects.

The processes that go into animation have traditionally been painstaking and Spider-Verse is no exception. The amalgamation of styles meant different schools of animation had to come together. It’s a film that marries computer-generated graphics with hand-drawn elements – traditional processes with modern innovation.

What Spider-Verse is a prime example of is that so much goes into creating an animated film. To make an objectively accomplished live-action film, the core of what you need is a camera, a good story and some actors. And that’s not to diminish any filmmaker’s work – live-action directors, producers and cinematographers are always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Motion capture and green screen are just two examples of techniques that have changed the very face of filmmaking.

But to make a really good animated film, there has to be so much more. Every technique that has come before is present. From the movement of colour seen in Fantasia to the iconic Dynamation style of animation created by Ray Harryhausen. Animated films from Pixar draw on as much emotion as any actor and the latest computer programmes provide audiences with the possibility to be present in worlds beyond imagination.

In my opinion, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse represents the latest in what’s possible with animated films. And that’s why animation isn’t considered in the same conversation as other live action films. They deserve their own category because when done right, animation can really be something special.

Now – I’m going to watch the Iron Giant for the millionth time….

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