Over the holidays, I pitched the idea of seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to an artist friend. She rolled her eyes and said, “I’m sick of Spider-Man.” Admittedly, that was my first reaction to hearing about yet another Spider-Man movie, which is why I hadn’t rushed out to see it on opening weekend. However, since its release, snippets of the innovative animation and friends’ reports that the story was also great convinced me to see it. And it was glorious.
As hyped, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s animation is the future: it was crazy beautiful and unlike anything I’d seen before. The story is grounded in realistic characterizations with emotional payoffs that feel earned, not forced. By the time the credits came around, I realized the film had another dimension, and not just because I had just seen the 3D version.
The credits rolled over a background of basically static images of Spider-Man in different scenarios (in an office! rollerskating! moshing!). These scenes were constructed to look like hand-made collages, as if someone had cut up hundreds of copies of the same comic and overlaid copy after copy of the same Spider-Man cut-out onto an artboard. They emphasized the replicability of Spider-Man as a hero in multiple universes (as in the story we just saw), and as a pop culture product, from the millions of Spider-Man comics that have been printed over almost 60 years, to the multiple, and frequent, movie reboots. The Andrew Garfield reboot appeared just five years after the Toby Maguire movies (which Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse references directly in blond Peter Parker’s flashback), and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man debuted two years after Garfield’s last Spider-Movie. Up until then, Hulk notwithstanding, we’d been used to decades between Superman or Batman reboots (the re-cast Batman movies in the Tim Burton era did not constitute re-writes of the Bat-universe).
The handmade look of the collages also reminded me of the notoriously low-budget 1960s Spider-Man animated series, which used the same footage over and over again, and even reused the story and animation cels from a couple of episodes of Rocket Robin Hood, another animated series by the same production house. It was this series which gave the world the gif(t) of two identical Spider-Men pointing at each other. The history of the meme is detailed in Know Your Meme. There is some offensive language associated with the original incarnations of the meme, but, of course, the success of a meme is in its very replicability and malleability. (Stay for the after-credits scene of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is basically another iteration of the meme.)
With the theme of replication in mind, the visuals in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are not just window dressing. To recap, the movie begins with the familiar story of the Spider-Man we think we’ve known from upteen reboots. It then introduces us to a regular kid in Brooklyn, Miles Morales. Miles is the brainy son of a cop who hates Spider-Man: vigilantes get all the attention when the work of everyday police like himself is overlooked. One day, Miles hangs out with his cool uncle, who takes him through underground to tag a wall by the subway system. It’s there that Miles is bit by a radioactive spider. Later, he is the sole witness to Spider-Man being defeated by Wilson Fisk, who then unmasks the hero. Miles is shocked because of the act; the audience is shocked because this Spider-Man that we thought we knew is actually blond. Then comes a bigger surprise: Fisk kills Spider-Man. It’s early in the film, yet the “hero” is dead. But long live the hero. Fisk’s attempt to create a machine that can breach the time-space continuum to bring back his beloved wife and son also bring different Spider-People to the universe.
The different Spider-People are a lot more distinct than those seen in the end-credit collages. What’s effectively a Spider-Force team includes Nuyourican Miles Morales; alabaster-complexioned Gwen Stacy from another dimension (who called herself Spider-Woman, but who looked like the comics’ Spider-Gwen); Japanese-American Peni Parker and her mecha sidekick, who are animated in the anime aesthetic; Spider-Ham, a talking pig–actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig (thanks, Dan!)–who is animated like a Looney Tunes cartoon; and a throwback to the pulps named Spider-Man Noir, who is drawn lie a black-and-white pulp anti-hero and voiced by Nicolas Cage, an actor who has a reputation for toughness and an upscale b-movieness (perfectly explored in “Introduction to Teaching”, aka “the Nicholas Cage, Good or Bad” episode of Community).
As much as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about a kid who grows to accept a great responsibility, it’s also about comics as a commercial, mass-produced art form. Benday dots, most famously embiggened in Roy Lichtenstein’s 1960s paintings, are deployed throughout as a nod to Spider-Man’s origins in off-set printed comic books. Another print-inspired visual choice are the instances of images that appear to be printed off-register. The resulting image looks like it’s echoing, further reinforcing the theme of duplication. Lettered captions of Miles Morales’s thoughts appear after he is bitten by a radioactive spider, so he thinks in comic-book superhero thought balloons *after* he becomes a comic-book superhero. The film also features visualizations of BIFF, BAM-type onomatopoeic sound effects as another nod to comics, as well as to the similar visual adaptations in the comedic 1960s live-action television series of another superhero, Batman.
Lest you, gentle reader, have harshly judged my friend who rolled her eyes about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the film itself raises the question of why we need yet another Spider-Man story. The very first spoken lines in the film are:
“Alright, let’s do this one more time. My name is Peter Parker. I was bitten by a radioactive spider and for ten years I’ve been the one and only Spider-Man. I’m pretty sure you know the rest.”
The line does a couple of interesting things: first, it acknowledges that there have been many reboots—perhaps too many—and, second, that the viewer is tired of them. It was like they were anticipating my response to the announcement of this movie.
The film thus opens up a dialogue with itself, which is really a dialogue with the audience. It goes on to answer its own implied question.
Q: Why do we need another Spider-Man story?
A: So that we don’t feel like we are the only one.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has a different Spider-Hero for people at different stages of life, from different countries, of different species. The movie is for people who are differently gendered, who are interpreted through different genres, and who come from different economic backgrounds. Miles, the newest Spider-Man, needs Spider-Man stories to teach him how to be Spider-Man. Peter, the washed-up Spider-Man, needs Spider-Man stories to teach him how to be Spider-Man again.
Immediately after a quick visual recap of iconic scenes from past live-action Spider-Man movies, the blond Spider-Man lists the different iterations of himself that he knows of: “Look, I’m a comic book, I’m a cereal, did a Christmas album. I have an excellent theme song. And a so-so popsicle.” Blond Spider-Man is dismayed about being commoditized, which calls attention to the fact that Spider-Man in our universe is literally a commodity, a piece of intellectual property. Spider-Man in our world is everything that’s shown in the movie: he’s a comic book character; his image has appeared on cereal boxes; there are Spider-Man popsicles; and there actually is a Spider-Man Christmas recording.
Other than the lucky readers who discovered Spider-Man when the character debuted in Marvel Comics in 1961, most people’s first encounter with Spider-Man was with a derivation of the character, be it through subsequent Marvel Comics, television cartoons, or Marvel movies. No one in our world is less of a Spider-Fan for not having read the character’s first appearance at the time of publication. Similarly, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, no one is concerned with who might be the “real” Spider-Man. Every Spider-Character feels that their experience is real, and is not threatened by the existence of other Spider-People. In fact, they are comforted by knowing that they are not unique. In contrast to the blond Peter Parker, who sarcastically refers to himself as “the one and only Spider-Man”, the subsequent Spider-People greet each other with the heartfelt phrase of relief: “I thought I was the only one.” It’s not an original statement, but each Spider-Person feels it profoundly. At the end of the movie, Miles reflects: “When I feel alone, like no one understands what I’m going through, I remember my friends who get it.”
I found the film’s willingness to embrace multiplicity (so many Spider-People!), diversity (so many different types of Spider-People!) and community (so many different Spider-People working together!) was very refreshing. As a long-time comic reader, and reader in general, I grew up in the shadow of the baby boomer romanticization of the auteur and the solitary hero. Had the film been made in a different era, it may have spent some time on the question of who was the original or “real” Spider-Man.
I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s essay “Travels in Hyperreality”. (I realize the irony of invoking an essay that is largely about the ersatz world of Disneyland in an essay about a Sony film about replicable intellectual property owned by Marvel, which is owned by Disney.) Eco mentions Superman’s “wunderkammer”, or museum of memorabilia, in the Fortress of Solitude. No one lives there, but the fortress is populated by identical robots that Superman built in his own likeness. The blond Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also had a wunderkammer. It doesn’t have Spidey robots, but it does have a gallery of old or alternate costumes. But this collector Spider-Man is dead, and so is the idea of a museum to collect all the official (or canon) Spider-Gizmos, now that it’s known that he is not “the one and only” Spider-Man (he’s not even the first, being ten years younger than Peter B. Parker, the “janky-old, hobo Spider-Man”).
So, who needs a new Spider-Man story? A lot of viewers, apparently! And we are not tired of it. I did eventually convince my artist friend to come along when I went to see the film again. She ended up loving it. As I began to write this piece, she posted on Facebook that she was on her way to see the film a second time. While nearing the end of this essay, I arranged to meet up with another friend for my third viewing, her second viewing, and her partner’s first viewing.
The Spider-Fans are replicating.
Quotes from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are from my notes, verified by the official script, which the filmmakers have made available online.