Any studio that holds rights to comic book properties and plans to “reboot” them needs to stop and take a look at “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
In today’s parlance, “reboot” is code for "telling another origin story." I understand that occasionally those stories may get lost as new fans come to a character, but the origin story is always there.
Bruce Wayne? Someone kills mom and dad and he’s exacting his revenge.
Superman and his messianic allegory? Yes, orphan baby jettisoned to Earth by mom and dad hoping to protect him and his future?
Peter Parker? Radioactive spider bites him … blah … blah … blah … great powers great responsibility … blah … blah … blah.
But wait. What if instead of modernizing familiar names and faces, although they hold iconic status, new characters receive the same powers? What a concept.
Meet Miles Morales (voice by Shameik Moore). He’s Latino and African-American, and, oh, he was bitten by a radioactive spider and is now Spider-Man. It may not sit well with some (I don’t care), but Morales’ Spider-Man has been around in comic books since 2011 and now is front and center with a few other Spidey folks — including Peter B. Parker (voice by Jake Johnson), Spider-Man Noir (voice by Nicolas Cage), Spider-Ham (voice by John Mulaney), Peni Parker (voice by Kimiko Glen), an anime take on Spidey and Gwen Stacy (voice by Hailee Steinfeld).
Why so many? Spidey’s archnemesis Kingpin (voice by Liev Schreiber) and a certain scientist, Doc Ock (voice by Kathryn Hahn), have created a device that opens doors to alternate universes and they have to join forces to save each of their respective Earths. That in itself provides for a compelling story as told through Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s script, with direction by Rothman, Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti. It’s witty, intelligent and makes an emotional connection.
However, by flipping the script with respect to Spider-Man, the filmmakers behind “Spider-Verse” open up a new world to fans of the character across the spectrum.
While certain similarities exist, Morales embodies who America is now in some respects, and his background allows for different avenues of exploration for the character of Spider-Man. To a certain degree everyone lives — some would say exists — within the construct of “mainstream” society and culture.
However, there are cultural differences within that structure, with different groups and experiences. While some would love to envision America as this great big melting pot, nothing is further from the truth in a country where St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and Kwanzaa are all celebrated by many.
Whether that’s good isn’t the point; it's that their celebrations are inclusive. And despite the cultural and ethnic differences of Morales’ character, the themes in “Spider-Verse” remain universal and compelling as Morales attempts to navigate his way through his new, unfamiliar powers and how they will mesh with his teenage years.
In that regard, “Spider-Verse” is on point. Even more importantly, it allows different avenues into the character’s psyche.
Some will find it jarring to watch, not because of the thematic elements, but because of conscious decisions made by the director and the animation team in their presentation, as they try to duplicate the experience of looking at a comic book.
Is it tolerable? That’s up to the viewer to decide, but to a certain degree it mars the overall experience of a film that takes something old and freshens it with a millennial sensibility that thrills.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.