‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Takes the Webslinger to New Heights

Spiderman Into The Spiderverse poster

Alongside Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is one of my most favorite comic book characters. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager before he got bit by a genetically modified spider, and from there he was gifted with super powers anyone would be envious to have. But in the process, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and this includes leaving the love of his life, be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy, at a distance in order to keep her safe from his devious enemies. While it must be very cool to be Spider-Man, it is also a very lonely existence as he needs to keep the people he is closest to in the dark as their safety will always be at risk once his identity is revealed to all.

One of the real joys of watching “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is realizing Peter Parker’s existence is not as lonely as we believed it to be. While attempting to thwart the efforts of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is using a particle accelerator to access parallel universes in an effort to bring back his deceased wife and son, we learn there are many different versions of Spider-Man here, there and everywhere, and there is something very reassuring about Peter realizing he is not the only one of his kind.

The main character here is Miles Morales (“Dope” star Shameik Moore), an African-American teenager who is at ease in his inner-city neighborhood, but struggles to fit in at the elite boarding school he was enrolled in following a well-received essay he wrote. Miles wants to fulfill the expectations of his police officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his nurse mother Rio Morales (Lauren Valez), but he looks to his beloved uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) to encourage his creative side more than anyone else.

As you can expect, Miles also gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the superhero he admires, Spider-Man, but he is of course not the least bit ready to take on such a part. Who would be anyway? But when the real Peter Parker is eliminated with extreme prejudice by Kingpin, Miles has no choice but to take his place even as he passes off the changes in his body as being a part of puberty. If such things were easily explainable, the realm of adolescence would be easier to live through.

Miles does however get help from Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), but being a Spider-Man from an alternate universe, he is not the equivalent of the one portrayed in previous movies by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. This Peter has gained a lot of weight and is hopelessly alone after a painful divorce from Mary Jane, and he is not quick to help Miles on the superhero journey he himself has taken, but he slowly becomes enamored at Miles’ spirit and determination to where he ends up helping him put an end to Kingpin’s evil and selfish reign.

With the many parallel universes exposed, we get introduced to the different incarnations of the webslinger which include Gwen Stacy and her spunky alter-ego Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker and the gleefully animated Spider-Ham (the hilarious John Mulaney), the young Japanese girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who hails from an anime universe where she pilots a biochemical suit with a radioactive spider, and the dark and monochromatic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage in a truly inspired voiceover). Seeing them all interact with one another here adds more heart and laughs to an already highly entertaining film.

The late Stan Lee, who does have an animated cameo here, once said Peter Parker should always be white, but that he wouldn’t have minded if the character were originally “black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else.” What this movie shows us is how anyone can be Spider-Man, and there’s something truly inspiring about that as superhero roles can at times feel ridiculously limited. It also helps that this animated movie comes on the heels of the brilliant “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” as the role of superhero is no longer, and never should have been, limited to one gender or ethnicity, and this was especially the case when it came to battling Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I was not sure what to expect when walking into “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as the thought of an animated “Spider-Man” seemed a little far-fetched and seemed like another attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a cinematic universe a la “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and we all know how that one turned out. In a way it is satirical as it plays around with many comic book tropes and has fun dealing with the web-slinger at his best and worst. The filmmakers even take a hilarious dig at the character’s emo-dance from “Spider-Man 3” which Peter Parker is quick to distance himself from (can you blame him?).

But what makes this movie so good is how deeply it invests us in this particular Spider-Man’s life. Miles Morales is not just another Peter Parker clone as he still has his mom and dad, and he is forced to live in two different worlds the same way Amandla Stenberg’s character had to in “The Hate U Give.” While I have long since grown tired of origin movies which deal with a superhero’s beginning as we know they will eventually accept their anointed role, this one rings true emotionally as we watch Miles be understandably hesitant about becoming the next Spider-Man, but his transition from someone blaming his body changes on puberty to a young man eager to save his universe from the devious acts of Kingpin is never less than compelling.

It really feels great to see Spider-Man on a roll right now. Following the much-too-soon reboot known as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the webslinger made a terrific rebound in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and had one of the most achingly emotional moments in the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Infinity War.” In a time where the franchises of “Star Trek” and “Halloween” seek to alter the timelines of their iconic characters to take things in another direction, it’ll be interesting to see where Spider-Man will go from here. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is arriving in theaters next year, and I imagine we will see him again in “Avengers: Endgame.” Whatever the case, it puts a smile on my face to see Peter Parker and his alter-ego continue to be infinitely popular in pop culture as this is a hero blessed with super powers as well as with the foresight of the importance of responsibilities. Regardless of whoever takes on the role of Spider-Man, we come out of this movie with the solid belief said person will take it seriously, and we have to be thankful for that.

And yes, there are post-credit scenes for you to enjoy and, like “Once Upon a Deadpool,” this one features a thoughtful tribute to Stan Lee. May his legacy never be forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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David Gordon Green Captures an Authentic Reality in ‘Joe’

Joe movie poster

One of 2014’s most underrated and overlooked movies was “Joe.” Directed by David Gordon Green, who just directed the incredibly successful reboot of “Halloween,” it stars Nicolas Cage in one of the best performances as Joe, an ex-convict and a foreman for a small tree removal crew in Texas. One day, Joe is met by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old drifter who has just moved into town with his wayward family, and he ends up giving the young man a job on his crew. However, Gary’s father is an alcoholic bastard who beats up everyone and anyone in his path, and this presents Joe with the choice of finding redemption in his life or meeting his maker by putting an end to this vicious situation Gary has been tragically caught up in.

For Green, “Joe” represents a return to his independent roots where he made his mark with films like “George Washington” and “All the Right Girls.” As a result, he ends up capturing a reality of life which is not easily captured in other movies as we watch characters native to the state they live in trying to get by in life. Green ended up hiring non-actors to play certain roles as he wanted to capture the realism of the environment these people live in.

I was lucky enough to attend the press junket for “Joe” held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the website We Got This Covered, and I asked Green what it was like capturing the authenticity of these people and where they live. More importantly, I was interested in finding out if capturing this authenticity was easier or harder to accomplish in this day and age where we are bombarded with an endless number of “reality shows.”

David Gordon Green: That’s a good question. We live in a world with reality television so it’s less surprising to see a camera on the street corner to see a production. Certainly, a lot of us who frequent the Los Angeles area don’t even bat an eyelash at some production that’s closing down a street and taking us on a detour. I kind of like that the production element can be that much more intimate because the mystery has been dissolved a little bit. When I was a kid you would watch a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a movie and it would blow your mind learning the steps of folly and the art form behind it. Now I think everyone has a good, clear concept of that. There’s not that obsession with that. It’s also a world where people know where the lines of documentary, reality TV and fiction/narrative filmmaking are starting to blur a little bit. I actually think there are a lot of values there. Some of the great performances are documentary performances. You see a movie like “Grizzly Man” and you’re like, if only I could take Timothy Treadmill, I could make an amazing script for him. In that way it’s become a lot easier and it’s just about trying to market a film to be appealing to an audience. Trying to get a movie that emotionally connects with an audience and invites them into a world that does have an authenticity. It does take you to difficult places but has enough of an emotional honesty and levity to be able to be something that you want to look at and an attractive quality within the cinematography and music that brings you in and makes you feel fulfilled. All of these technical elements that come in make it a rewarding experience and not just the dramatic hammer coming down to tell you their melodrama, but really to open up insight into the characters and their revelations to each other.

With those comments, I hope audiences take the time to discover “Joe” as it is a movie deserving of a bigger audience than it ended up getting in 2014. While many think Cage makes nothing but bad movies these days, this one reminds you of what a great actor he can be given the right material.

‘Left Behind’ is as Cinematically Atrocious as Movies Get

Left Behind movie poster

The 2014 version of “Left Behind” received quite the critical smackdown upon its release, and this made me all the more interested in seeing it. How many times do you get the opportunity to say you were one of the handful people who got to see such a god-awful motion picture on the big screen which notoriously flopped at the box office during its incredibly short time in theaters? There were a few people who proudly wore t-shirts signifying they saw “Gigli” while it was in theaters, and some wear it like a badge of honor.

“Left Behind” looks like one of those so bad it’s good movies, but even on that level it is a complete failure. This cinematic version of the best-selling novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is every bit as hideous as its reputation suggests. The acting is amazingly bland and lifeless, the dialogue is unforgivingly bad, and the direction is beyond incompetent. Upon coming out of this movie, one has to wonder if its best sequences were all left behind on the cutting room floor on purpose or by accident.

The movie opens on Chloe Steele (Cassi Thomson) arriving home from college to surprise her father, airline pilot Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage), for his birthday. Rayford, however, is already set to pilot a flight to London and cannot make it. Also, his marriage to his wife Irene (Lea Thompson) is on the fritz as she has since become a devout Christian, something which drives him and Chloe up the wall. He also has his eye on an infinitely beautiful flight attendant to the point where he doesn’t hesitate to leave his wedding ring in the glove compartment of his car.

Anyway, the family members go their separate ways to do their thing, but then people suddenly vanish into thin air without any explanation, and the world quickly descends into utter chaos. Their clothes and belongings are left behind, but their bodies have apparently disappeared and don’t look to reappear anytime soon. It turns out the end of the world is much nearer than the non-believers ever bothered to realize, and those who believe in Jesus are now under his, or her, protection. As for those back on Earth, they are forced to prepare for the rapture which is certain to kill them off at some point in the not too distant future.

“Left Behind” is actually a remake of the 2000 film that starred Kirk Cameron and which received largely negative reviews upon its release. In a time where every other movie is being remade, this looked like the rare remake which could have easily improved upon the original, but no such luck. For all we know, this remake is even worse than its predecessor, and sitting through it is like pouring salt on an already gaping wound.

Where do we start with a cinematic monstrosity like this? Well, let’s take into account how the story lacks much in the way of drama. Those characters who didn’t go up to heaven are basically condemned to a hellish existence, so where’s the drama? As for what’s going on up in the sky, the characters stuck in the airplane are forced to act stupidly and utter dialogue so silly and inane to where it makes the screenplays of the “Star Wars” prequels sound like they were written by Aaron Sorkin.

The saddest thing about “Left Behind” is watching Nicolas Cage give one of the worst performances of his long career. Granted, Cage has done more bad movies than good ones these past few years, but even he can sometimes elevate a terrible motion picture into something which is, at the very least, entertaining. But here he looks like he is about to fall into a coma like Ben Carson threatens to during his campaign for President as he appears bereft of passion and meaning. What made Cage decide to do this movie anyway? He can underplay a role to great effect in movies like “Joe,” but here he only succeeds in making a terrible movie all the more infinitely pathetic.

The director of this misbegotten disaster is Vic Armstrong who is said to be the world’s most prolific stunt double in movies. He doubled for Harrison Ford in the first three “Indiana Jones” movies, Timothy Dalton in “Flash Gordon” and George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Whatever lessons he gleaned from the directors he worked with on those projects did not translate to “Left Behind.” He should be forgiven for the lousy special effects he had a budget of only $16 million which, for a movie like this, is not nearly enough to, but my sympathy doesn’t extend much further than that. His direction is so amateurish to where I wondered how he got the directing job at all.

There is only so much time one can waste on a movie like “Left Behind” because there are hundreds upon hundreds of other movies out there so much better than this one. It ends on a note of seeming uncertainty as the apocalypse has only begun, but Cage stares at it so blankly as if to say he won’t be around for the sequel, assuming there will ever be one. It’s depressing to see a number of careers hit rock bottom here, but this is what happens here as movies don’t get much worse than this one. Sitting through a Dinesh D’Souza “documentary” is hard enough, but this one is a real endurance test.

For what it’s worth, it is nice to see Lea Thompson here as she always proves to be a very appealing presence in each movie or television show she appears in. What a shame it is that she disappears from this movie far too soon.

½* out of * * * *