Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Years ago, after the perceived failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the subsequent collapse of Sony’s ambitious plans for its Spider-Man franchise, the whispers of an animated film seemed like a desperate grab to retain some sort of control, or to put it more bluntly, squeeze out a few extra dollars before Marvel Studios completely pulls Spidey back under their roof. But as the project developed, it seemed almost as if it might actually be worth something after all. Hooking Phil Lord and Christopher Miller following their red-hot success with The Lego Movie certainly upped the profile, and the announcement that the focus would move off Peter Parker and onto the lesser-known but highly regarded Miles Morales provided a fresh perspective. But after Lord and Miller’s highly publicized firing off the Solo movie, many began to wonder if Sony’s web of woes would continue.
Well fear not, dear reader. I can tell you that the makers have delivered not just a great Spider-Man film, but one of the smartest, best-crafted, and most visually stunning films of the year, and one of—if not the—best Spider-Man films of all time!
A bold statement indeed! So let’s examine the evidence. As a writer, I always look at character first, and every major character in this film is given a clear, organic, and significant arc. Our main focus is on young Miles Morales, and while this is an origin story, it’s also a smart subversion of that typical trope. While there are certainly parallels to Parker’s origin (bitten by a radioactive spider, familial and coming of age issues, etc.), Morales’s seems appropriately unique in context, and his decisions are personal and distinctive. Despite the inclusion of a number of “Spider-People” with their own baggage, the story never strays too far from Miles and his emotional journey. Make no mistake, this is his movie, and by the end you’ll be cheering for your new favorite superhero.
The inclusion of the various Alt-Spiders isn’t just a gimmick to offer screentime for possible spin-off characters or to placate the audience with a few more-familiar faces (though all of that is certainly clear). Their presence provides Morales with much-need mentorship and guidance, for better or worse, and the most-prominent duo of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy are the perfect yin/yang for Miles to emulate. Beyond that, each of those characters ends up learning something from Miles in return, cementing a richer reciprocal rapport than your typical noob meets sage advisor relationship.
Miles Morales is a modern young man on the cusp of puberty and dealing with the rigors of school, parents, and finding his place in the world. Actor, singer, and dancer Shameik Moore brings a street-smart innocence to the teen, effortlessly expressing his intelligence, bravado, and self-doubt while also giving him that wonderful exuberance and joy that comes with being Spider-Man. But Miles’s life isn’t all sunshine and webslinging, and he goes through plenty of tragedy, with Moore mining those subtle tones to bring out the heartfelt emotion behind the animated eyes. Miles learns, as all heroes must, to use that pain to help others, to step up and save the world when it needs you most, and especially to show others the way.
That’s exactly what he ends up doing for Alt-Peter Parker. This Peter has been through the ringer, and has just about lost everything, including hope. Reluctant to mentor young Miles, he eventually steps up, and finds the hero in himself as reflected in Morales. Bringing the character to life is New Girl’s Jake Johnson, one of my favorite comedians and a rising star in his own right. Johnson can be criticized, with some validity, for being a bit one note in his style and humor, but I suspect his turn here will force viewers and Hollywood alike to reassess. Even I had my doubts based on the trailers, as I suspected Johnson would simply take the easy route, but he stepped up and delivered, treading a fine line for his Parker who is at once crippled with self-doubt, depression, and at the end of his rope, yet cannot escape his innate heroicness and drive to help those in need. It turns out to be a completely original take on Parker (especially after 6 live-action movies!), yet is totally in keeping with the character from the comics.
Speaking of comics, one of the biggest revamps in recent years has been the reimagining of Gwen Stacy as a member of the Spider-powered elite, heading her own monthly book as Spider-Gwen. As many of us know, in the original storyline, Parker and Stacy had a relationship, which tragically ended in her death. Here, the tables are essentially turned, and Gwen gets to crawl the walls as a web-slinger. The appeal of the character has only been growing, so it was merely a matter of time before we saw her in all her glory, and young superstar Hailee Steinfeld (of True Grit and the upcoming Bumblebee film) is the first to slip into her digital skin. This Spider-Gwen shows Morales the cool, confident hero he can aspire to, a leader and a voice of reason to some of Parker’s insecure goofiness. Though young, Steinfeld has enough experience under her belt now that she easily embodies that self-confidence, using it to wrangle the heroes to be their best selves. Steinfeld also finds the humanity in the hero, which keeps her vulnerable and opens her to the possibilities of a continued relationship with Miles.
The remaining characters are just chock-a-block with superstars. No stranger to Marvel, Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage, Green Book) provides the voice of Mile’s idolized Uncle Aaron, a character (like many uncles before him) who grounds and drives much of Spider-Man’s journey to heroism. The legendary Lily Tomlin steps in as a hard-nosed Aunt May, with Zoë Kravitz as Mary Jane Watson. Chris Pine makes a notable understated cameo, and Nicolas Cage returns to the comic-verse as Spider-Man Noir, hamming it up—alongside Spider-Ham himself John Mulaney—with pulp-novel quips and hardboiled fisticuffs.
But the villains are just as impressive, with the likes of Liev Schreiber as Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin) and, in a magnificent twist, Katheryn Hahn (Bad Moms) as the eight-legged antagonist Doc Ock. With audiences likely familiar with Vincent D’Onofrio’s take on Fisk from the recent Daredevil Netflix series, Schreiber takes a different route, a much more openly vicious mobster-type with a New York accent as thick as his oversized body. Equally unique is Hahn as a somewhat schizophrenic Doc Ock, unsettling in how initially benign and yet ultimately deadly she can be. Both are worthy and significant foes for the heroes to battle, but even more impressive is the depth given, especially to Kingpin. His motivations, while twisted, are fairly understandable, adding dimension (pun intended) to the entire story.
Aside from its engaging story and well-developed characters, the film just looks amazing! It’s hard to describe, but the animation style is a blend of techniques, as well as a hefty dose of that blurry sort of edge you get when you try to watch 3-D without the glasses. The vibrant colors, kinetic movement, and soft-focus edging might seem like a perfect recipe for a migraine, but somehow it all blends together. Just when you think a shot is about to scramble your brain, the next backs off a bit, helping you refocus. The technique is truly a revolution, and so it’s no wonder that apparently each second of film took computers a week to render. Equally unsurprising is that Sony is filing a patent on the complicated process. More power to them!
For all its incredibly layered elements, the animation tends to be smooth and, dare I say, lifelike. Sure, when it comes to seeing Kingpin’s tiny head and inhumanly disproportionate body, you know you’re watching a cartoon, but in most aspects it feels real . . . or a better word might be “honest.” The characters are so well executed, the movements so natural (for the most part), that you forget you’re watching animation and really feel immersed in the world and the people in it. The action, too, certainly takes advantage of the animated environment, but also keeps things grounded and visceral enough that you feel like you’re really swinging through the city or the trees, or taking that punch to the face, or sneaking into that window. The duality of the super-heightened animation with the completely natural movement, expressions, and environment is a masterful blend that cannot be overstated.
If a lot of this feels familiar, it’s probably because much of the same was said about The Lego Movie. Silly, funny, original animation impossibly infused with real humanity, heart, and emotion. Chalk it up to Lord and Miller for cracking whatever code exists and reinventing the genres while staying true to core storytelling elements. It certainly makes you wonder if their Solo was as off-brand as Lucasfilm thought, but I suppose we’ll never really know. Going by what we’ve seen, they have the magic, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has absolutely earned the continuous praise heaped upon it. Hollywood is constantly chasing the elusive “four-quadrant” film, a movie that simultaneously appeals to males, females, kids, and adults (think The Princess Bride) while still being high-concept with international appeal, and I dare say we may have found it in this chupacabra franchise sequel for a studio previously on the last legs of the property. What a turnaround, and what a coup for studio and audiences alike. Head out to the theatres and catch it on the big screen while you can; it’s a movie you’ll want to see larger than life before you take it home to watch it over and over.
YANG: The Christmas Chronicles
It’s that time of year, of course, and alongside chilly temps, madcap shopping, and festive decorations comes a slew of holiday-themed entertainment. With the cycle going back so many years, it’s inevitable that stories become fairly boilerplate. But in some ways that’s not a bad thing, as the familiarity breeds a comfort as warm and inviting as a snuggle by the yule fire. Netflix’s recently released The Christmas Chronicles bears the standard trappings of so many of its ilk, yet brings with it a fresh, modern feel that balances the best of the old and the new.
The basic premise is your classic kids versus Santa entanglement. Elfin cutie Darby Camp plays Kate Pierce, a young girl stuck at home on Christmas Eve with her delinquent older brother (Judah Lewis) and convinces him to help her try to capture Santa on camera. (You may be familiar with that setup.) Surprisingly, things go awry, and the pair find themselves helping a handsome, fit, leather-clad Santa save Christmas before the lack of spirit cascades through the planet and potentially sends us back to the dark ages. High stakes indeed!
That’s the familiar half, but the updated innovations are just quirky enough to inject some lovable fun. The most obvious is casting Kurt Russell as St. Nick himself, a stroke of pure genius. With his early Disney background and later action-hero cred, he’s the perfect mix of twinkle-eyed tough guy to imbue Mr. Claus with light-hearted gravitas. Russell is obviously enjoying the role, hamming it up without ever being disrespectful to the essence of the character or to the audience. The running gag of his annoyance at the falsehood of his portly representation is cheeky and cute, as is his gear-head thrill at racing a suped-up Dodge Charger through the streets of Chicago. But revisions aside, you never once feel that this isn’t the Jolly One, and Russell is delightful as he cleverly guides the children, and a local Chicago police station, to find not just their Christmas spirit, but their best inner selves.
And that introspection is the larger journey here, as Kate—and especially Teddy—work through the recent loss of their father (played by Goldie Hawn’s son Oliver Hudson). Without Dad, Teddy has spiraled into an angry rebellion, and treats everyone around him with venomous disdain. In fact, the biggest criticism I have with the film is how despicable they made Teddy at the start. He’s so cruel he very nearly oversteps to where we just don’t care if he’s redeemed or not. Fortunately, Lewis is a fine enough young actor with such a disarming youthful charm that he pulls us back in over the course, and by the end we are happy to see the Pierce kids hugging it out. Kate, for her part, represents that ever-stalwart power of belief and resiliency, and despite her young age and self-doubt, perseveres to help Santa, and even gets to visit the North Pole and develop a special relationship with the Helper Elves!
Because the kids can’t be the only ones to grow, the adults are best represented by Martin Roach (The Expanse) as Officer Poveda and Larmorne Morris (New Girl) as his partner, Officer Jameson. Per IMDB, Roach seems to have plenty of Christmas-movie-making experience under his belt, and so slips into the role of Santa-doubter with conviction, yet also with a wink of knowing. Morris, as the one who witnesses the extraordinary events, uses his comic exuberance to full effect over his few scenes, adding that hilarious brand of silliness that only he can as he tries to convince the doubters around him.
The tone is kept family-friendly, though there’s plenty of excitement for grown-ups. That should come as no surprise given the creators behind the scenes. Director Clay Kaytis previously helmed The Angry Birds Movie and has an extensive background in top-notch animated films. Writer David Guggenheim is known mostly for his action work (Safe House, Designated Survivor), so it’s little wonder the combination makes for a thrilling yet heartfelt yarn. The action is supplemented with decent, if not top-of-the-line special effects, most impressively utilized in the sleigh-flying sequences and Santa-magic. The elves—completely CGI creatures—are cute and certainly serviceable, if not photo-realistic, but more impressively are given personalities that somehow turn their occasionally homicidal tendencies into adorable little quirks.
All in all, The Christmas Chronicles may not be the most original holiday story, but it’s certainly the sort you enjoy over the season. The characters are all developed thoroughly and honestly, and the adventure is rollicking and leaves you with that warm feeling of Christmas joy. If the film on the whole doesn’t tickle your tinsel, the epic rock-number sung by Russell himself, with guitar licks by none other than Steven Van Zandt (of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band), will get your toes tapping and your yule-tide spirit dancing. As one of many this season, The Christmas Chronicles might just be your go-to for family viewing this year; and with such a fresh take, it may have the legs to become a go-to for years to come.