“Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.”
– Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire
Writer and producer Phil Lord used the above quote from Michael Pollan during his 2012 TED talk to shed light on the difficult realities of the creative process. To best illustrate how that’s the case, he walked us through the crazy story of how he and his collaborative partner, Chris Miller, went about making their surprise hit comedy Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. It’s a story that involves their hiring, their firing, their rehiring, their scrapped ideas, their pitfalls, their a-ha! moments and how all those things ultimately led to the coherent, meaningful and successful movie that everyone got to see in theaters.
Since then, Lord and Miller have gone on to direct and produce a number of films that are not only uproariously funny, but have set a surprising benchmark for their emotional depth and profoundly resonant themes. Heck, it’s almost become a little tradition for the general audience to be skeptical of their new film (a movie about toy line? A TV reboot? A sequel to both?) before embracing the hilarious final product that also just happens to make everyone cry like babies. And I believe that Lord and Miller have largely accomplished this by bucking conventional trends and dispelling a lot of unfortunate myths about creativity.
The first myth is that great directors are automatic geniuses who should have a precise vision of a movie locked in their head, then just bring it to life with perfect exactitude. All this really accomplishes is emboldening people who already believe in their own genius. (Meanwhile others succumb to the pressure to feign cocksureness, even when they have no idea what they’re doing). On the other end of the spectrum, there’s an unfortunate myth that you cannot plan at all and just “find” the movie while winging it in a wishy-washy fashion.
But no, the reality marries both sides in the best possible way. You absolutely need clarity of vision and to be able to communicate that to your collaborators constantly, but you also need to be able to change your mind when you come face to face with new and better ideas. Some people get a little too attached to certain things just because they’ve worked in the past, and it makes them defensive. But that’s when the saying, “just because it’s good, doesn’t mean it’s right for the story” carries more weight than ever. You have to be willing to evolve.
Then there’s this ongoing myth that tandem directing teams are two halves of the same brain, where each person can finish the other’s sentences. They’re not. They’re always two different people with different ideas. But that’s the advantage. You’re adding more viewpoints to possible solutions. And the duos that work well with each other often do so because they understand the strengths and weaknesses of the other person and trust the other to do good work.
For Lord and Miller, the creative process does not just rest between the two of them; they have not done any of this alone. Going all the way back to 2002’s Clone High, they’ve worked with a slate of collaborators—writers and directors like Bill Lawrence, Chris McKay, Seth-Grahame Smith, Michael Bacall, Jonah Hill, Will Forte, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay (director of the supremely underrated Rise of the Guardians) and so many more.
The lesson should be evident: successful collaboration is inclusive by its very nature. Not just because it allows more ideas to rise to the top, but because it can enable wider viewpoints in the first place.
And now, Lord and Miller’s creative team has set its sights on one of the more complicated and retread recent figures in the modern mythos: Spider-Man. But the result is nothing short of remarkable. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse maybe even my favorite superhero film of all time. But in order to truly understand why, there’s a whole bunch of recent history that really needs to be accounted for…
I feel like we’ve always misunderstood the concept of “media saturation” when it comes to films. The idea that audiences get sick of a certain genre has just never been true. Simply put: just because studios race toward trends, doesn’t actually mean the audience does. Supporters will often cite “evidence” and say westerns eventually died, but they weren’t some quick fad. The golden age of the western went on for decades. And even if westerns are no longer one of the go-to action genres, we’re still making great ones year after year.
The simple truth is that genre films are successful in perpetuity. Horror? Action? Family? They all have baseline success year after year with blockbuster capacity. And yet when superhero films started becoming all the rage beginning with 2000’s X-Men, people cited the same conventional wisdom that they would be a quick flash in the pan before audiences moved on to something else. And yet, here we are almost twenty years later and we’re still telling these stories.
That’s because audiences have always been interested in one type of film: quality ones. Make good movies that people enjoy? Those films will generally be the ones to rise to the top (there are outliers in both directions, of course). And when it comes to superhero films, though I may have overall problems with the direction of the Marvel empire, there is no doubting it has been a great steadying force for the genre at large, mostly because it has society locked into one big ongoing TV show.
So the dangers only really exist for a given series or brand within the genre when the storytelling gets lazy. And that brand only falls when the films themselves embody the confused, cash-grab cynicism of the green-lights behind them. But even through the rise and fall of excitement for a given property, audiences will generally stay hopeful.
Which is good, because there is no modern film character that has been put under more stress in these ebbs and flows than Spider-Man. While I could go on for weeks about the history of the character in the comics and cartoons, it can simply be said that it was Sam Raimi who reignited the popular love of the character with 2002’s original movie (many also forget that it was the first film to break $100 million in a single weekend).
And its status as a massive hit soon gave rise to Spider-Man 2, which many consider to be the best offering of the entire Superhero genre. Why? Because it so earnestly zoomed in on what made the notion of super-heroism so grave: the fleeting nature of adoration from strangers, the reality of the danger, the destruction of your personal life and the aching desire for normalcy amidst upheaval. It is one of the least glorifying movies I’ve ever seen, and yet it still communicates the importance of that very job and “why it matters” perhaps better than any other.
But with Spider-Man 3, we had our first cinematic step backward. Not so much because of the off-cited reason that it featured “emo Peter Parker,” but more because of Raimi’s complete disinterest in Venom as a character (unsurprisingly, the character’s inclusion was forced on him). As a result, the characters might be the most perfunctory and least empathetic ones that Raimi’s ever put on screen (usually he delights in the brashness of his villains). And as we’ve already established, cynicism kills you.
But what really ended up killing the series was the oversized contract negotiations. Raimi and the principles’ deals had already swelled the budget of Spider-Man 3 to a then unheard-of $300 million, with that number only expected to climb in renegotiations. So the fourth film was tossed.
Amy Pascal (then head of Sony) wanted to scale back the series to somewhere around $80 million and reimagine the film with a story resembling a high school love parallelogram (rather than a simple triangle). This was largely a reaction to the cheaply-produced yet insanely profitable Twilight series that was dominating at the time. But when mixed with the producing interests from others and the desire to strip of the “aww, shucks” demeanor from Raimi’s work, the result was Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films, which might be some of the most confused work I’ve seen. There are certainly likable moments, chiefly between the two stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and that was probably enough for a forced sequel. But I will always be hard on these movies because there isn’t a single cohesive choice within them, nor anything really under the surface.
They were filled wall-to-wall with momentary affectation and posturing. Worse, Peter’s psychology and behavior never made a lick of sense; he was simply made to seem cool or aloof in every single scene. And let’s not forget the ugly ethics of the film’s gross fixation on blood and lineage that ended with bad thematic lessons like, “the best promises are the ones you can’t keep.”
Naturally, the people who most liked these films were the people who always hated the “corny” nature of Raimi’s work and just wanted Peter to be TOUGH and COOL and taken SERIOUSLY—you know just like THEM. It’s a bad recipe for any character, let alone one of the most earnest ones in all of comic-dom. So when the second film crashed and burned, Sony finally decided to throw in the towel and partner with Marvel productions, split the profits, and let them run the show.
That’s when Spider-Man was cinematically rebooted for a third time in the last sixteen years. But this time, he was designed to slide right into the already existing MCU (even making his debut in another film, Captain American: Civil War no less). Here, he was less the young, half-orphaned kid who feels the burden of responsibility, and more Iron Man’s surrogate son. Again, the surface level delights of fun and charm are there aplenty. Tom Holland was lovely as Lil Baby Spider-Man, and the film at least tried to portray a Queens that looked like a modern day representation of different cultural ethnicities.
But again, its core problems rested in the thematic arena. The movie features a lot of lip-service about responsibility and getting in over your head, but it mostly resulted in confused, strong-armed lessons about “not being ready” that are put into place for solely artificial reasons. Sadly, Peter’s journey largely amounts to the story of rich kid not getting to play with his cool new toys and screaming WHY WON’T YOU LET ME BE AWESOME. Even the ending fake-out where he almost joins the Avengers is a confused lesson about maturity.
But I’m talking about all of this history and its complications because that matters so much when it comes to the simplest and most pertinent questions: Why would you want to reboot this all over again? How would you even do it? How do we uphold the ethos of golden age Spider-Man and fit it into the modern cultural lexicon? How do we make him work in a value system that reflects the changing world of inclusion and broader perspectives? Who is Spider-Man, really? And why does this still matter?
Well, it turns out the most beautiful answers to these questions all lie within Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
A Verse for All
The other reason the history lesson above matters so much is because this new animated effort from the Lord and Miller team is not a reboot, but a film that impossibly exists alongside those entries, in them, of them and beyond them. And while it sometimes references these films directly, it actually uses the comics as the main backbone for its mythology, even drawing on the most tangential moments and side characters for inspiration. Essentially, it uses ALL of Spider-Man lore.
If that sounds confusing or as if it would be too much, Spider-Verse simplifies the scope as elegantly as possible, mostly because the main bad guy creates a dimensional anomaly that brings five of these various Spider-persons together through an accident. But more importantly, these clashing unions are all brought to life with the same humor and earnest thematic work that allows the final product to leap off the screen with assured clarity.
Still, there’s no way to talk about how this team pulled it off without massively spoiling the film, so consider this a warning.
It all begins with a greatest hits rendition of Spider-Man’s origin story from Peter Parker, our “classic” version of the character (voiced by Chris Pine). He’s the golden boy, a paragon of good who is now happily married to Mary Jane. But I can’t stop thinking of a little tiny line he says in the middle of a giant fight: “I’m so tired.” It’s just one of the many small, heartbreaking moments of a film that lends weight and psychology to the character. And when young Miles Morales enters his orbit (now also having been bit by a radioactive spider in his own right), Peter releases some earnest relief at the idea he’s not alone in this, and promises to take the kid under his wing. Of course, our golden age Peter is then promptly killed. The world mourns the loss of their paragon while Miles is left in the lurch. He is the only one who can take up this impossible mantle…and good granola, he is not ready for it.
But the dimensions clashing together bring forth an unlikely (and perfectly apt) mentor: Peter B. Parker. If you’ve never read the comic The Amazing Spider-Man, I must say that it only adds to the functionality of this film, because he was the first “rebooted” effort in the comics. And I have to say that what Peter B. faced was a bit more callous than any other Spider-Man, and the superhero has faced some pretty dark stuff in life (sometimes too dark).
But in Spider-Verse, they’ve taken everything I both loved and disliked about the character and found a way to explore his struggles for humane laughs. Peter B. is living in a crappy apartment. He’s let himself go, and become more comically cynical and lazy. It’s all explored through the context of his crumbled relationship with Mary Jane and the internal pain he carries with him. (Going into the film, I was unsure of why they went for Jake Johnson, but seeing what they did with this character made me realize there could not have been anyone more perfect). Peter B.’s a man nearly broken by loss and cynicism, and so he is set up as the perfect reluctant mentor figure for Miles, because they each have something to learn from the other.
But Peter B. won’t be the only one helping, for the shades of Spider-lore go deep in this film. We get a fully realized version of Spider-Gwen, the self-assured and spritely young woman who is grounded in her own agency. And while she has painfully lost her best friend, she gains a new one in young Miles. We also get Peni Parker, the young anime girl from future New York with her gigantic robot. We even get Spider-Man Noir, a perfectly in-tune comedic performance from Nic Cage as he mines the dark night of his soul for perfectly outdated 30s aphorisms.
Heck, you find literate spider-jokes in every nook and cranny of this film (please oh please stay through the credits). But best of all, we get Peter Porker the Spider-Ham. And there are three utterly astounding aspects of this character. First, I cannot believe they took an oddball character of Marvel folklore and included him in this damn movie. Second, I cannot believe that this is the first successful on-screen adaptation of John Mulaney’s comic persona—to the point that this may be the role he was born to play. And lastly, I cannot believe they made his role work as brilliantly as they did.
But that’s part of the Lord and Miller ethos: Every character is hilarious because it’s our way into liking them, but then every character has something deeper and more vital going on beneath the surface. Because this storytelling team understands it will be equally heartbreaking for that same cartoon pig to suddenly lose his composure, sniffle and quietly deliver the lines, “you just can’t save ‘em all.” For all the jokes, the aching sincerity is also right there in on screen. And their moment of group commiseration over loss is anything but perfunctory. It is there to remind you that they are characters with fully realized psychologies, needs, wants and fears.
Hell, Spider-Verse even manages to deliver the most heartfelt and purposeful Stan Lee cameo, bar none. So sure, I can talk forever about the ingenious animation and the way the perfect jokes propel the film (favorite gag: “It fits in your pocket”), but the jokes don’t matter if there is no core to the story.
Luckily, that core is the story of Miles Morales. The second he was introduced, badly singing along to “Sunflower” alone in his room…I just started crying. I don’t even know if I can explain it. But it was immediate, visceral and achingly necessary. Every bit of characterization added up to cement his personhood. I knew exactly what he was feeling at every moment and why, and understood what it means to be a young person caught in between two worlds, trying to self-destruct. I could recognize the terrifying double-meaning behind the question, “Dad, do you really hate Spider-Man?” Miles is so remarkable precisely because he is so vulnerable—especially when he cries, despite all the times he tries not to. You feel the enormous weight of what it feels like to be a young person, aspiring to create a better world, but still stuck with the same weight of that world on his shoulders.
I can’t remember the last time my heart swung for a protagonist this hard. And during the film, I cried no less than five times. Just as I can’t remember the last movie that was true for, as well. But that’s because it never felt like it was trying to be abjectly cloying or sad, but simply empathizing the aching fears within this burdened young man. But through the other Spider-persons in his story, Miles doesn’t just see the fears of what he may never live up to, but the hope of what he could be. And it all gives rise to the moment where Miles takes his leap of faith and earns his own “cover,” which might be one of the most cathartic cinema moments I’ve had in years. And it’s because the moment was so damn earned.
This is near perfect storytelling. Not only does it honestly dig into the crux of its characters, but it gets into super-heroism at large. It takes the same difficulties of Spider-Man 2 and prints them across the experiences of many people. It thumbs its nose at the gross notions of “destiny” and instead fixates on the lovely notions of what it truly means to be a random person who has great gifts and great responsibility thrust upon them. It gets to the heart of everything I not only love about Peter Parker, but Peter B., Gwen, Peni, Porker, Miles and so many more. Essentially, it fixes Spider-Man by showing us that all these characters have the same validity as any other person.
What Lord, Rothman, Ramsay, Persichetti and Miller have crafted here is a film that evades every toxic value of modern comics while upholding everything that makes them great. It’s a film that understands that, just like with the creative process, inclusivity in movies is a true strength. It engages in a daring narrative with both charming ease and a well-mined effort. It shows us how to make a film that is both dependent on all that comes before it, while using that mythos as a stepping stone to jump off into the sky and soar to something so much more.
So, as Hollywood keeps bungling its meaningless Peter Parker retreads, finally a movie comes along that simply gets it: anyone can be Spider-Man. And today, thankfully, it is the wonder of Miles Morales, Gwen, Peni and the gang. Sure, they arrive at that position through a series of accidents, but so does everyone. And perhaps the same can be said for the movie itself. And in the end it doesn’t matter, because it all comes together to become something so much more…
A miracle of purpose.
< 3 HULK