Monday 24 June 2019

Paul Whitington: 'If you're not a spider-fan, you will be now'

This brilliant and endless inventive animation is the superhero movie of the year, says Paul Whitington

Spider-Men from multiple universes team up
Spider-Men from multiple universes team up
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

I don't know about you, but I'm sick and tired of listening to me carping on about how superhero films are killing mainstream cinema. One grows repetitive, it doesn't make a blind bit of difference, and meanwhile more and more of the blessed things are churned out by the hour. On and on it goes, with no apparent end in sight, and whenever the studios run out of old comics to gut, they resort to sequels and remakes.

In this regard, the Spider-Man franchise is the worst offender of the lot. Three TV movies knocked out in the 1970s don't really count, but in the late 90s, Sam Raimi and Sony hit box office gold with a big budget Spider-Man movie starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, the nerdy kid from Queens who develops a very particular set of superpowers after being bitten by a genetically modified spider.

Two sequels followed, and made shed-loads of money. Then, in 2012, just five years after the last Raimi film, they remade the first one! Andrew Garfield lasted two movies before being turfed out in favour of the current Spider-Man, Tom Holland, who guested in an Avengers film before getting a stand-alone Spider-Man movie of his own. There's another one out next year, so the very last thing we need at this point in human civilisation is a Spider-Man cartoon, right?

Well, wrong in fact, because despite its terrible title, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is a witty and winning animation that brings energy and imagination to a tired story and is among the best two or three superhero movies I've ever seen. It's gorgeously animated and succeeds more completely than any other Spider-Man movie in conveying the true terror of teenage angst.

The teen in question is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a bright and outgoing but secretly anxious young New Yorker who is not thrilled when his parents transfer him to an elite boarding school. His policeman dad is ambitious for his son, but Miles misses his old friends and starts deliberately flunking exams to get kicked out. These concerns become secondary when Miles is bitten by a radioactive-looking spider in the subway, and starts spouting webs from his palms and sticking to doors and walls. He is becoming a Spider-Man, but not 'the' Spider-Man, who already exists, though not for long. Manhattan is horrified when Spidey perishes while trying to stop a hulking villain called Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from kick-starting an unstable gismo that will open a portal to other dimensions.

Open it, he does, and in floods lots of nastiness but also some goodness, including various Spider people from parallel universes, one of them an older, flabbier Peter Parker who will act as Miles' reluctant spider-coach. There's a Spider-Girl (Hailee Steinfeld), a Spider-Pig (a nod, perhaps, to that divinely daft Homer Simpson song), and a film noir Spider-Man who says portentous things and is voiced with winning hamminess by Nicolas Cage. All must join forces if they're to stop Kingpin and get back to their own dimensions, and meanwhile, Miles is finding it hard to get the hang of being a superhero.

That may all sound dreadfully complicated, but creator, writer and producer Phil Lord's film makes it all seem perfectly simple, and moves too swiftly and gracefully to get bogged down in the details for long. Superhero films are at their most tedious when they indulge in coy self-references, but Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse casts its pop-cultural net much wider.

There are, of course, some Spidey jokes, and Miles is about to tell his mentor that "with great power comes great responsibility" when the paunchy Peter Parker interrupts him by screaming "don't you dare say that!". But the script's witticisms are constant, often said quietly and half-thrown away at the end of busy scenes. This film is funny, but never glib: it has a heart, a central character you care about, and a gritty connection to the human experience. New York has perhaps never been so lovingly animated, and the sights and sounds of the great metropolis are so gloriously rendered that you feel like booking a seat on the next available flight.

Also releasing this week:

Aquaman review: 'It’s silly stuff, awash with clumsy CGI, daft beyond compare' The House that Jack Built review: 'Good, bad, pretentious, reprehensible, sometimes hard to watch' Mortal Engines review: 'An awful mess'

Films coming soon...

Mary Poppins Returns (Emily Blunt, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury); Bumblebee (John Cena, Hailee Steinfeld, John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Abby Quinn).

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