Typically, when we picture Oscar-nominated animated films, we think of Pixar films, anime epics, or heartfelt narratives that force us to reach for a box of tissues.
A film based on a comic book franchise hardly seems worthy of an Academy Award in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. When even critically acclaimed mega-blockbusters like the explosive Avengers: Infinity War usually aren't up for consideration in non-technical categories, how could we ever expect an animated adventure to be?
It's simple: Make it really, really great. Like, amazing.
Enter Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The 2018 film has courted an unbelievable amount of positive press from critics and moviegoers alike, with a 97 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and major wins for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Golden Globes, Critics' Choice Awards, and the BAFTAs. The Post Malone and Swae Lee duet "Sunflower," featured in the movie, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Social media is alit with people praising the film, and it's been making a lasting impression on essentially everyone who's seen it. It's also up for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, making it one of the first animated comic book flicks to be considered in the category.
Into the Spider-Verse is up for consideration alongside competition like The Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, Mirai, and Ralph Breaks the Internet. Of these films, only one is anime (Mirai) and Isle of Dogs adopts a unique animation style unlike any of the other films nominated. But like we mentioned before, they're a good mixture of Disney, Academy favorites Pixar, anime, and more mature tales. That's why it's so surprising for some to see a superhero flick in the mix. But as anyone who's seen the movie will tell you, it's no ordinary superhero tale.
Put simply, it transcends the simple trappings of what we believe a comic book movie to be. Rather than relying on bluster and spectacle, it weaves a maelstrom of action, eye candy, humor, and heart to reach out and wrap comic fans in a warm, loving embrace. This isn't a movie about impending disaster or how hard it is to be a hero. It's a celebration of heroism, the Spider-Man franchise, and even more broadly, diversity.
It's a homogeneous mixture of everything that's ever gone into making the character great, right down to the visual details. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a film that simply actually feels like a comic book. We've seen movies and TV shows attempt this in the past, much like the campy '60s Batman series with "BIFF!" and "ZOT!" flashing onscreen as Batman gave the day's villains the ol' one-two. The monochromatic aesthetic of Sin City tried its best to emulate the original comic's stark illustrations. But nothing has ever truly come close to bringing fans into a world so vibrant, lush, and yet totally believable. When the movie begins and you meet young Miles Morales for the first time, it's almost like you've opened the pages of a fresh issue of Spider-Man and are curling up with a fresh cup of coffee, waiting to be whisked away to another world.
Into the Spider-Verse accomplished this striking look by using a never-before-seen mixture of hand-drawn, 2D, 3D, and digital animation techniques to bring Miles Morales and crew to life. It's stylized where appropriate, and realistic when it matters. Art styles from cutesy cartoon drawings to anime and even noir are represented here, all melded together in a way that would look unnatural if it were any other movie. From the fluid way the characters move about in the world to the frenetic action scenes that look as though they were torn from the pages of your favorite issue of Spidey, halftones and all, it's the most accurate portrayal of a living, breathing comic we've ever seen.
It was time for a superhero adventure beyond the trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beyond the grimdark tales of the Avengers, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, tempered by comedy and weathered by sinister overtones. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse took the all-important step forward out of that box into newer, unfamiliar territory. It isn't a story where you sit around wondering who's going to die next, or what ultimate evil will befall humanity. Sure, there's the overarching threat where all realities could be destroyed, but it never feels heavy-handed or depressing. There's still time to save the world and laugh about it, too. That's an unfamiliar concept for most comic book movies, and it's refreshing territory here.
But despite its refusal to stick to the familiar, it doesn’t shy away from what many would call fan service, as it combines Spider-Man incarnations from throughout the character's entire history, going places we never thought it would. And it’s the first piece of big-screen Marvel media to do so on such a large scale outside of the comics themselves and the video game Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. Who would have thought we’d see a universe featuring Miles Morales, Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Gwen and even the weirdest Spidey of all, Spider-Ham, coming together at once? While it could have been a confusing mess even for comic vets, Into the Spider-Verse pulls it all off spectacularly.
Finally, rather than retelling the story of Spider-Man for what feels like the hundredth time, Into the Spider-Verse tackled a new narrative — one that introduced audiences to various versions of Spidey himself that felt like an homage to all the previous movies and a nod to what’s to come from the current MCU continuity. True, in many ways it’s still an origin story (at least for Miles) but it isn’t bogged down by the trappings of the introductory narrative we’ve seen time and time again since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and all the reboots since then. Instead, we're given enough background on the characters to let them breathe, and subsequently shine in their own ways. And shine they do.
With all this in mind, it's easy to see how Into the Spider-Verse earned its Oscar nod. And whether you're a comic fan or simply curious about the culture in general, you'd do well to watch it come to life on-screen regardless if it takes home an award this weekend or not. It's an important step forward for comic book movies and geek culture in general. It single-handedly changed what we expect from the genre in 2018, and we're already clamoring for a sequel.