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In 2004, The Incredibles brought superheroes into the world of 3D animation in an event film that seemed like it would usher in a new age of superheroics. Yet, in the years since, superheroes have taken over the live-action space, while 3D animated films in the genre have been few and far between.
That’s what makes 2018 noteworthy, as it has two major 3D animated superhero films: Incredibles 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But it’s the latter that represents perhaps the biggest step within the 3D style since 2004, as well as the biggest reason for further exploration.
From the animated acrobatics of action sequences to simply even Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) walking through a Brooklyn neighborhood, the film is brimming with hypnotic color and dynamic motion in ways that live-action superhero films simply could not. Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman are reaching into comic book worlds.
The stories that can be told with 3D animated films are just one aspect of what makes them different than their live-action counterparts. Consider 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie. Its style opened up the opportunity to tell a more comedic, satirical story. The Dark Knight trilogy and the Tim Burton Batman films have doses of humor that worked. But with Batman in Lego form, director Chris McKay was able to poke fun at various aspects of Batman, such as his backstory, his relationship with villains and even his previous depictions in film. While Christopher Nolan digs into the darkness of the obsession between The Joker and Batman, McKay exploits that obsession for comedy, as the 3D animation allows for a clear subtext that a live-action film wouldn’t get into and — for the silliness of it all — can also land visually.
While Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice offers a rather dark version of Batman shut off from the world, paranoid and fearful, McKay plays that solitude to a comedic extreme, isolating Batman so intensely — for example, through the absurdity of how Wayne Manor and the Batcave are envisioned in animation — until the story becomes a clear deconstruction of toxic masculinity. In a way, 3D animation brings Batman back down to the basics, bringing the property to a self-aware, self-deprecating perspective.
On a similar level, plenty of Spider-Man films have been organically comedic due to the nature of Peter Parker, an awkward teenager. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 make use of classic high school story tropes (though Peter is largely in college in these films). And Spider-Man: Homecoming is a sort of contemporary update on that influence.
But Spider-Verse does nearly the same thing that The Lego Batman Movie does, in that it strips down the character of Peter Parker to his basics in order to portray him in a self-aware, self-deprecating way. The film goes so far with that to a point where Peter, now an aging slob, is no longer the main character, because he doesn’t need to be.
And just as the film flashes absurdity, it extends the drama of Spider-Man in a new way. Spider-Man films have always been about growing up and maturing, about confronting a world with new responsibilities to consider. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse amplifies that. Peter Parker has faced immense hardship in films time and time again, but his perspective has remained that of a kid. Just as Spider-Verse pokes fun at Peter Parker, it simultaneously brings him across the threshold into a true adult perspective, especially the idea of having to look after someone for the first time — his young protege Miles.
The presence of all of the Spider heroes drives home the idea that anyone can wear the mask. That doesn’t take away from Miles’ story, though. It’s all those masks that make the coming-of-age journey of Miles Morales more powerful, as he learns and grows to a point where he can teach Peter lessons of his own.
The 3D animation of Spider-Verse introduces a Spider-Man not seen in film before. Miles’ creativity involves hip-hop and street art, things the animation renders wondrously larger than life, particularly a scene where Miles graffitis a subway wall with his uncle. While the live-action films feel limited in the scope of style they can depict, Spider-Verse infuses that creativity (and the emotions that come with it) into how Miles’ Spider-Man is edited and animated — exemplified by the upside-down wide shot of Miles jumping off of a building. In this film, anyone can wear the mask because anyone can be heroic, and Miles is a new kind of hero.
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