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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Could (And Should) Redefine Its Entire Medium—But Will A Biased Audience Let It?

As pretty much everyone would agree, the newest Spider-Man movie is fantastic. But will it be enough to convince Hollywood—and audiences, for that matter—of the endless potential for animated storytelling?

At the time of this writing, we stand a few weeks out from the domestic release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  And, in that time, it has become pretty clear to me a few things. First and foremost, the film is absolutely beloved by both the critical and fan community, to a point that is quite frankly unprecedented. In a world of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and pretty much any MCU movie, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see big blockbusters of this type get universal acclaim across the board. Usually there’s a contingent of critics and (usually) fans out there offering a dissenting opinion and very politely explaining why, no, your opinion is garbage. But the harshest thing I’ve seen lobbied at the film to this point is that it’s good, just not “that good.” Which is like the opposite of “damning with faint praise,” whatever that might be. “Heartening with mild criticism?” Eh, I don’t know, I’m not an etymologist. But my point is this: it’s become quite clear that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is already a most beloved motion picture.

And yet, even in the midst of all that praise and extremely positive reaction…I still can’t help but feel that this movie isn’t getting its proper due. That the discourse surrounding Spider-Verse, though rapturous, isn’t rapturous ENOUGH. Which, yeah, I get it: is a bit of looking a gift horse in the mouth. But here’s what you have to understand: I’ve seen this movie three times now, and every viewing has just served as a reminder of many things: 1) I goddamn love the thing to death 2) it’s doing things that put other comic-book superhero movies to shame 3) it’s pushing the medium of animation forward in ways that we’ve never seen before and 4) it should be a monster, monster hit. The fact that the later has yet to be fulfilled is, to me, a massive bummer, and just reflects something that has been on my mind for a while now: time and time again, American audiences refuse to give animation the respect it deserves. And until they do, the medium won’t be allowed to embrace the ridiculous highs it can…even when movies like Spider-Verse offer a tantalizing look at just what an animated film can truly be.

Which it absolutely does, by the way. In the three viewings I’ve had of the film thus far, I’ve only grown more and more impressed with what this movie is, and what it is doing. It’s a perfect combo of a movie feeling absolutely groundbreaking in the way it is presenting its story, while also telling that story in a way that is refined and perfected. It’s hilarious, exciting, exhilarating, breathtaking, inspiring — it’s what every superhero movie should aspire to be. It really is a masterful piece of work — undoubtedly one of my top films of the year (maybe even THE top film), and easily one of the best superhero movies ever made.

But it’s not just a fantastic movie — it’s a groundbreaking one. Because, I can guarantee you, there’s not a movie in the world at all like Into the Spider-Verse. The way that it’s animated is absolutely unreal, a beautiful facsimile of the comic book form, brought to life in a way that is nothing short of dazzling. Into the Spider-Verse could have easily just been a now standard, run-of-the-mill CGI toon. And I probably still would have liked the film a great deal (the bones of a great, creative story were there, no matter how the film presented its world.) But by going the extra mile, Into the Spider-Verse ended up creating something daring and bold, and it’s a risk I could only hope more animated (and hell, live-action) films will take. Because the way this movie moves and lives and breaths is going to inspire people, especially kids, to go out and make their own things…just like Spider-Man 2 did for me so long ago.

Yes, honestly, I could spend the next two or three thousands words of this just waxing unpoetically about how absolutely wonderful Into the Spider-Verse is — and it would take me a long time to run out of superlatives, let me tell you. But the film’s quality is far from in question here: like I’ve already iterated, everyone likes this movie. But when it comes to mainstream acceptance, especially in the form of the almighty dollar of box office performance, that’s when things get a whole lot dicier.

Now I want to be clear: Into the Spider-Verse is not a box office failure by any stretch of the imagination. With $135 million in the bank in less than a month of release, the film has already made back its entire budget just in the states alone. And like past Christmas releases such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the film will likely have a long tail going into the first few weeks of 2019. With word of mouth as strong as it is, and with pretty much no other competition in the animation field until The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part in February, odds are that Spiderverse will still be making money for a good long while, at least enough to get it around the $200 million mark (hopefully.)

Yes, Spider-Verse will probably end up doing just fine for itself, in the grand scheme of things. But it should be doing more than “just fine.” The damn thing is good enough and well-crafted enough and crowd-pleasing enough to be a smash hit. Instead, it will probably just end up being a moderate one, saved by its relatively efficient budget. And all that I can think about when faced with that reality is, frankly, anger. Especially when faced with the box office results from Spider-Verse’s superhero brethren.

Which, if you haven’t heard, are all kicking an enormous pile of ass. Take, for instance, current King of the Ocean/Box Office Aquaman — that film opened with $67 million in its first weekend, nearly double Spider-Verse’s first weekend take of $35 million. Which, to reiterate, does not speak poorly on Spider-Verse’s part — a take like that was not just right in line with industry expectations, but even slightly outdid them. But why were expectations so low? And why is Aquaman, at nearly an hour longer, a week later, and a Metascore almost half as strong, doing double the business?

Pictured: A “live-action” superhero movie, I guess.

This isn’t even an indictment on Aquaman, not really — I haven’t seen the film yet. Frankly, both times I planned to do it, I balked and just watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse again. But that’s all besides the point: audiences are flocking to Aquaman in droves, and will continue to do so as the film marches to a $300 million+ domestic cume (and frankly insane $1 billion internationally.)

And even amongst the fellow Sony Spider-Man productions, Into the Spider-Verse pales (slightly) in comparison. Fellow Spider-Man Cinematic Universe (eh, not sure I love that, chief) entry Venom ended up racking a total of $213 million domestically, something Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will have to work really hard to match. Even the $204 million of infamous The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will take some work to get to, and that movie destroyed an entire series, mind you.

Once again: perspective. Into the Spider-Verse cost significantly less than TAS2, and had a lot less to lose as essentially just an experimental spin-off movie. And that spin-off effect in and of itself can’t be ignored here either: like fellow Holiday surprise Bumblebee, it’s the latest entry in a movie franchise not starving without its fair share of films. And, in both cases, the studios have to be blamed for flooding the market with similar products, to the point that the diamonds have no opportunity to shine in the ruff — they’re left to just sink in it. Hell, maybe movies like Aquaman and Venom succeeded to the extent they did just because they were (slightly) new concepts, and offered a first glimpse at a character who had never received their own feature length movie before. That is certainly a huge factor in this entire thing.

But it’s not the only one. Because if people paid attention at all to anyone who had seen the film, they would know Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just boilerplate Spider-Man, leftover bits of spider-gunk scrapped off the husk of a bloated franchise. Despite being the seventh movie in fifteen years about the character of Spider-Man, Into the Spider-Verse ends up feeling like the freshest, most unique superhero film we’ve seen in ages. So if audiences were simply flocking to the new (which, c’mon, we know is not the case), then Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would have already reached $200 million by now.

So the question, again, becomes clear: why isn’t Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse a gigantic hit? Why is a film that is getting so much praise, staring one of the most popular pop culture figures of our time, slowly chugging along to a ceiling of $200 million? I’ll stop beating around the bush, and just say it: because it’s animated. And for so many audience members, prime targets for Into the Spider-Verse, that makes it a lesser superhero movie.

I shall provide you with an example close to home: my own mother. I was home over the holidays and, being me, was going to force my family to see some kind of movie. By that point, I had already seen Into the Spider-Verse twice, dragging different people along both times. But I was still not content: I still wanted to see the film and, more importantly, share it with my mother.
She is, after all, a big superhero fan: she watches all the MCU movies, all the Netflix/Marvel stuff, and even superhero things I don’t touch (namely, the DC/CW series.) I knew that she would end up loving this one, so I dragged her to the nearest cineplex in my hometown, nearly an hour away (living in the sticks as a movie buff rocks, y’all). And when I say dragged, I mean dragged — she really had little interest in the film, and was much more eager to see–you guessed it–Aquaman. And sure, shirtless Jason Momoa had a part in that desire, as it secretly does for everyone in the world. But still: she was firmly in the camp on “waiting” for Spider-Man, and seeing Aquaman.

Frankly, I didn’t care.

I took her to see Into the Spider-Verse and — surprise, surprise — she liked it a lot. Had a grand ol’ time. You know, just like everybody else who gets the chance to see the film. After the film, I asked her about her thoughts, especially in light of her initial reluctance. Her response. “Well, I didn’t know it would be like that.”

I’m still somewhat unsure what my mom meant by that descriptor, although I can fill in the gap a little bit to get to the gist of it: she had a very standard idea of what an animated movie is, and what this animated movie would be, and thus wasn’t interested in watching “the Spider-Man cartoon.” Because the cartoon is for children. And well it’s fun to watch children’s cartoons every once in a while, they can’t compare to REAL movies.

Which, sadly, is simply code for live-action.

Now my mother is not a foolish person, and overall has strong taste in pop culture. But like many in her generation, she can’t shake off her animation bias: the art form is Disney, and Looney Tunes, and Saturday morning cartoons. And that’s the full extent of it. So when a movie like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse comes out and dares to be something different, it takes her a while to really adapt to it. And she’s not the only one, apparently. A large majority of the population underestimates and undervalues a good piece of animation, which is why the medium is so often just treated as the newest vessel to release the latest Disney or Illumination family pic. That’s what people expect, and that’s what they get.

And let me be clear: I have no problem with those movies existing! I love Disney and Pixar and the like. And it’s not like Into the Spider-Verse is some grim-dark, adults-only affair: Into the Spider-Verse is a GREAT family movie, and inspired by the best cartoons of old (lot of Looney Tunes style stapstick here, and all of it works marvelously.) But the movie is still something of an odd beast amongst most animated studio releases, and well I very much consider that a “pro” in the film’s favor, many others simply can’t see past their perception of what an animated film is in order to truly embrace it.

This issue just becomes even more disheartening when you consider what qualifies as a “live-action” film nowadays: honestly, most of the big ones contain just as much animation as they do live-action. Just because it’s seated in the term of “CGI,” and often looks photo real, mass audiences give it a pass. Even without seeing the damn thing, I’m willing to bet a majority of Aquaman was animated inside a computer, just like Into the Spider-Verse was. But only one of the films get the “cartoon” moniker, and the baggage that comes with it.

That term in and of itself causes such a disrespect to the incredible stories that animated films and TV can accomplish, a disrespect that leads to a needless live-action adaptation of one of modern animation’s best — inherently animated — tales. Or the needless “live-action” adaptation of a film that, full-stop, can’t be made in real life. Or the needless live-action adaption of an animated classic outgrossing the original, adjusted for inflation, by a healthy sum. All of these examples just go to show the depressing fact that, for most animated things that aren’t Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks (or in their style, ala Illumination or previous Sony Animation joints), audiences are hesitant to embrace them.

“Ah yes, a REAL Lion King, what for adults! Now THIS is a movie I can embrace!” — Some Idiot, Probably

It’s gotten to the point that animation fans like myself have to coach there praise in unnecessary qualifiers, using the now-standard phrasing format: “it’s not just a good [blank] movie, it’s a good movie PERIOD.” [blank] can be any of the mistreated genre films — horror, romantic comedy, musical, or in this case, animation. But the sentiment always remains the same: for movies outside of what audiences see as a standard “movie,” the quality has to be emphasized outside of its genre. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just a good animated movie — it’s a good movie, period!” That whole song and dance is frankly tiring, and obfuscates the real truth of the matter: the medium of Into the Spider-Verse isn’t some albatross of quality. And Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just good for an animated movie: it’s good because it is an animated movie, and takes advantage of the form in ways that a live-action film simply could not. From impressive, elaborate background gags to frenetic, exciting action sequences, the style of Into the Spider-Verse relies heavily on what the animated form can bring to the table, and it’s so wonderful to see a piece of pop culture that truly embraces the technique to its fullest…while also featuring an approachable, crowd-pleasing, and emotionally riveting story.

If Into the Spider-Verse shows us anything, it’s this: animation, when in the right hands, is one of the most capable forms of film-making there is. And if Hollywood truly embraced the nature of the art form, both in its 2D and 3D forms (or in Into the Spider-Verse’s case, a crazy hodgepodge of both), who knows what kinds of blockbusters could be made. But the only way Hollywood will take a chance on these huge animation experiments is if they do well and, unfortunately, the taint of failures like Titan A.E., Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within, and Beowulf are hard to shake off. Which is exactly why it’s so important to support films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and see them perform just as well as there live-action counterpart. If we want the world of non Disney/Dreamworks/Illumination animation to evolve from its niche, they have to not just be proven as financially safe bets, but as financially strong bets.

For what it’s worth, I’m sensing a sea change here, especially with younger people. The term “adult animation” is no longer this weird Fritz the Cat level curiosity that weirdos probably masturbate to (well, it’s mostly not that.) And as things like video games and anime grow in popularity, the realization that we don’t need real things to make “real” art (and, in fact, can often do better without the limitations that reality presents us) might finally set in, at least with some. And when that happens, it will be films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse paving the way for young artists to push the medium forward in the way it always could. But they have to get made first, and then once they are made, they have to be seen, by as many people as humanely possible. Step 1 has already been achieved for Spider-Verse’s case. And now this is my way of contributing to Step 2.

Please, if you haven’t, go see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Chances are you will love it, and the film’s success means a whole lot to the future of animated films as a whole. And don’t you want to be on the right side of history on that one? Quite honestly, I don’t think I can create a more compelling argument here than what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does in one of its most memorable scenes, in which scene-stealer Spider-Ham pointedly responds to an attempted insult by the Scorpion. Quoth the Spider:

“What are you, some kind of silly cartoon?”

“…You got a problem with cartoons?”

Well…do you, America?


Also published on Medium.

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Written By

Matthew Legarreta is the Editor and Owner of Freshly Popped Culture. A big ol' ball of movie, TV, and video game loving flesh, Matthew has been writing about pop culture for nearly a decade. Matthew also loves writing about himself in the third person, because it makes him feel important (or something.)

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