Stan Lee

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

12/12/18

That unwieldy title notwithstanding, this is a genuine treat. For those who are wary of watching yet another retread of a tired and over-familiar concept, let me assure you that this doesn’t so much as reinvent the franchise as grab it by the neck, tear it to pieces and start all over again. The result is one of the most exciting slices of animation I’ve seen in a long time.

Troubled teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is struggling to fit in to the straight laced Brooklyn high school where he has recently enrolled. His father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a New York cop, a disciplinarian and a vociferous Spider-Man critic. Miles finds himself gravitating towards his mysterious Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who is an adventurous sort, prone to bending the rules. One night, when Miles and Aaron are indulging in a graffiti-art session in a deserted stretch of subway, Miles is bitten by a robotic spider and, shortly afterwards, begins to experience major changes to his mind and body.

Understandably confused, he returns to the subway, just in time to witness regular Spider-Man villain, Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), opening up a portal to a whole series of alternate realities and, for good measure, enacting a murder that will have all staunch web-heads shrieking ‘Noooo!’  at the screen. Kingpin’s meddling with reality is an attempt to reconnect with characters from his past, but his machinations have unwittingly invited five different personifications of Spider-Man to leave their own dimensions and head for present-day New York. I won’t list the alternate Spideys in detail but suffice to say: two of them are female and one is a cartoon pig called Peter Porker. The thing is, does Miles, still coming to terms with his new abilities, have the necessary stuff to join up with them?

Phil Lord’s plot may be bat-shit crazy, but it doesn’t matter one jot because Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse careers along at such a breakneck pace there’s never any time to question the absurdity of it all. What’s more, the eye-popping animation is so extraordinary that it virtually dazzles the viewer into submission with levels of ingenuity and chutzpah rarely witnessed in this genre. There’s a whole riot of styles thrown into the mix, with individual frames freezing momentarily to do homage to veteran artists like Steve Ditko and John Romita, and more experimental sequences that break new ground entirely. It’s fabulous stuff. Oh, and  just wait till you see what they’ve done with Doctor Octopus!

Purists may not approve of some of the liberties that have been taken with the source material, but the fact is that the Spider-Man franchise has already been pretty thoroughly milked (yet another live action movie is due to land early next year), so if you’re going to slip into that distinctive red and blue outfit, you’d better have something different to offer. And believe me, this film has that in abundance.

Oh yes, and this features one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever (voiced by the man himself, of course), which, given his recent demise, makes it all the more poignant. Here he plays the owner of a cheap novelty shop, selling knock-off Spider-Man outfits and pointing to a sign that says ‘No refunds.’ Priceless.

There is only one other viewer at the afternoon screening I attend, and that’s a shame, because here’s one superhero movie that actually deserves closer investigation. Don’t let it swing over the horizon without giving it a spin.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Thor: Ragnarok

27/10/17

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I usually tend to steer clear of superhero movies – and of all of Marvel’s extensive franchise, the Thor movies have long been anathema to me. So why did I make an exception this time? Two words. Taika Waititi. The New Zealander helmed two of my favourite films of last year, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows. Surely, if anyone can put a rocket up the Norse God’s backside, he’s the one?

The good news is, he’s been pretty successful on that score. Thor: Ragnarok is played mostly for laughs and, once you get used to the idea, it really works. Chris Hemsworth is clearly enjoying himself as Thor takes on a whole new persona – clumsy, vainglorious and full of witty one-liners. I actually find myself enjoying large sections of this film, which I really didn’t expect. Waititi even has Stan Lee give Thor a haircut, lopping those infamous blonde locks off once and for all and you know what? It’s an improvement. Waititi makes an appearance himself, supplying the voice for a character called Korg, and he’s one of the film’s ace cards, supplying the kind of much-needed comic relief that Baby Groot delivered in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

After some adventures on Earth, Thor (Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find that things have changed drastically in the land of the Gods. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has gone missing and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has installed himself as ruler in the old man’s absence. Thor insists that Loki takes him to find his father, who has been unceremoniously dumped in a retirement home on Earth but, when they do eventually locate him, he announces that his time has come and that he is about to shuffle off the old immortal coil (apparently even gods can go past their sell-by date). Then Loki somehow manages to unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett) the evil sister that he and Thor didn’t even know they had. Turns out she’s the goddess of Death and she’s intent on ruling Asgard and… ah, you know what? It’s pointless recounting the plot, because it’s basically the usual old nonsense, but this time out it’s nicely written, beautifully presented nonsense, which really helps. It’s interesting to note that a lot of fans have objected to Waititi’s modifications. It’s as though they think that a story about a buff Norse god with a magic hammer needs to be approached with po-faced gravity. Really? Trust me, this works a whole lot better.

Okay, so as I said earlier, Waititi is only partially successful with his approach. The usual tropes that I have come to dread still apply: there are overlong cosmic punch ups, the insertion of as many Marvel characters as possible to trade in on the ‘Marvel Extended Universe’ – here it’s The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who make guest appearances – and, as ever, the feeling that the storyline is utter nonsense. It’s almost as though… well, as though the whole thing’s been based on a comic book.

Hardcore fans will want to know that there are a couple of post-credit sequences here but the second of them, after you’ve waited patiently through what seems like an eternity of scrolling text, barely seems worth the wait.

Good – but not Marvellous.

4 stars

Philip Caveney