Okay, let’s do this one last time.
I believe that good movies tell you exactly what they are about. Screenwriting guides often talk about using a variety of narrative techniques to properly convey a story to an audience: recurring themes, foreshadowing, multi-act structures, symbolism, etc. But all of these story devices culminate in one thing: function.
Function, simply put, is the story’s overall objective. What are the filmmakers trying to say through their film? And equally as important, why do they feel the need to say it?
With a different cast, setting and continuity, Into the Spider-Verse is the fourth cinematic iteration of Spider-Man. At this point, all the hallmarks of the character are already common knowledge. Peter Parker getting bit by a radioactive spider, Uncle Ben’s death, Mary Jane, Harry Osborn and Oscorp, yadda yadda. We get it.
The challenge now is to re-tell the Spider-Man story without boring fans of the franchise, while simultaneously keeping new viewers from getting lost and falling behind.
If I were to ask a viewer to tell me what Spider-Verse was about, they would likely talk about how high-schooler Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) must stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from opening a multidimensional portal and destroying New York. Along with his newly acquired spider-like abilities, Miles also enlists the reluctant help of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a hapless Spider-Man from an alternate universe.
But that’s only the story of Spider-Verse on a surface level. It gives context to the movie, but says nothing about its subtext. Or in other words, this brief synopsis tells us what happens in the movie, but not why it happens. So why does it happen? What is the point of the entire movie?
Miles lives in Brooklyn with his family: his mother, his baby brother, and his policeman father (Brian Tyree Henry). But Miles is also a gifted student, and has earned himself a scholarship to a prestigious private school. He clearly feels pressured by the atmosphere, and decides to slip out of the campus dorms one night to hang out with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) and paint some street art.
In the first fifteen minutes of the movie, its ethos is made clear. Miles is a teenager, increasingly besieged by adult responsibilities, with great expectations thrust upon him. He loathes the rigid dedication of his father, preferring the romantic self-expression of his uncle. Hell, Miles is even assigned a book report on Dickens’ Great Expectations! The filmmakers couldn’t be any more obvious with their thematic intentions.
And as Peter B. Parker enters Miles’ life as a reluctant mentor, it also becomes clear how they intend to tell this rendition of Spider-Man. Every Spider-Man movie has a father figure at its core: Uncle Ben in Spider-Man, Doctor Octavius in Spider-Man 2, Tony Stark in Homecoming. And in Spider-Verse, the theme of father figures is carried over as well, albeit slightly modified. In the absence of the father figure he truly admires, Miles must come to accept the guidance of an imperfect mentor. It’s a small distinction, but one that truly clicks as the plot moves forward. The way Miles’ family life mirrors his growth as Spider-Man is deeply cathartic.
Of course, I could talk about the many other ways in which Spider-Verse is remarkable. The voice acting is hilarious, the art style is dynamic, and the animation is nothing short of stellar. But you knew that already, didn’t you? You can tell from the trailer alone that this movie was going to look and sound amazing.
Which brings me back to function. Now more than ever, modern technology has made it possible to make movies that impress on a technical level. Any movie can look great, so long as one is willing to pay hundreds of animators and CG artists. But in concerning themselves with creating a visual spectacle, major movie studios have completely neglected functional storytelling. It’s why we get so many forgettable big-budget blockbusters every year.
So what is Spider-Verse about? And why should we care? Let’s take it from the top, one last time.
Into the Spider-Verse is the story of Miles Morales. Gifted with intelligence and superpowers, he struggles to meet the expectations that others have set for him. But with the love and reassurance of his family and friends, he ultimately excels, casting aside his doubts and discovering his identity in the process.
And that’s what this movie is really trying to say. In the end, anyone can be a hero, even you. Being a hero just means doing the right thing and helping others, even when it isn’t easy. But whenever you find it hard to get back up and carry on, just remember the people who love you, who believe in you. And you’ll rediscover the hero that you were always destined to be.