The first thing we see after the studio logos in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the “Approved by the comics code authority” stamp. This is not only a great Easter egg that comic book history buffs will understand, but also a subtle and great introduction to the kind of film you’re about to see. You see, this is not just another movie about Spider-Man, or another movie about superheroes, but the closest we’ve ever come to a comic book truly coming to life. As GameSpot wrote in our review, this is “literally a comic book turned into a movie.”
Into the Spider-Verse feels special in more ways than one. Not only is this the first time we see a major superhero of mixed-race on screen, and the first full-length animated superhero film to get a wide release in theaters since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in 1993, but also the first film of its kind that truly feels like it’s telling the story from the perspective of someone living inside of a comic book. The opening scene of the film, where Peter Parker recaps the story of his life, is one we are familiar with by this point, since we’ve seen the story being told over 17 years and 7 Spider-Man movies.
That opening scene feels fresh because it reflects how it would actually feel to live in a world where superheroes are real. Everyone in the MCU knows the real names of Iron Man and Captain America, but we don’t really see how this affects their day-to-day lives or the world around them at a micro level. Sure, we saw those robbers wearing Avengers masks in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the X-Men comic in Logan was a cool Easter egg, but not until Into the Spider-Verse have we seen how superheroes being real affects the popular culture of the film’s universe. Here we get not only a celebrity Spider-Man, but actual comics made out of his exploits–here called “True Life Tales”–Spider-Man cereal, even a Christmas album. Not only is this fun to see in a meta-storytelling way, but it also makes you feel like you are actually reading a comic book with a vibrant and lived-in universe.
It isn’t only through worldbuilding that Into the Spider-Verse pulls you into the world of the film as if it’s an actual comic book, but also the animation itself. From start to finish, any frame that you pause could look just like a comic book panel. Each frame has a CGI foundation in 3D that is then followed by an overlay of 2D hand-drawn art, giving the look of 2D art in a comic book page. In an age where every American animated film is following the Pixar mold of going for smooth and clean designs, this film instead goes for rougher? designs to simulate the look of hand drawings like you would have in a Spider-Man comic. The film even replicates retro comic details like the Ben-Day dots (the inexpensive mid-century printing method that used visible colored dots). Into the Spider-Verse uses the Ben-Day dots in the background of most scenes, to make the frame look like it was printed on a page.
Likewise, the movie uses onomatopoeia and kinetic typography to emphasize sound effects and emotions in the same way a comic book would. An early scene where Miles mixes up having spider powers with hitting puberty is enhanced by the use of kinetic typography and onomatopoeia sound effects, as well as thought bubbles, narration boxes, and even panels that split the screen. These are things familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a comic book, but to see it used in the film enhances the story–by allowing the filmmakers to emphasize and visualize sounds or showing you Miles’ inner thinking–and further blends the comic-reading and film-viewing experience.
Into the Spider-Verse isn’t the first film to do this. Ang Lee’s Hulk also used panels to split the screen into different points of view 15 years ago, but it used it as a means to continuously wink at the audience to remind them that the film was based on a comic book, instead of as a meaningful part of the storytelling. Even worse, the film’s tone and story were so serious that the use of panels took the audience right out of the film because it felt out of place. The last movie to attempt the comic book aesthetic in a major way was Scott Pilgrim vs The World back in 2010, which also used typography to visualize sound effects, as well as other visual nods to comic books and video games like health bars and hit-counters during fight scenes. In an interview for Animation World Network, Edgar Wright described the film as “a normal world of a normal young man filtered through his overactive imagination.”
The hyper-stylization in Scott Pilgrim worked because it’s the filter through which the story is told, which is exactly what Into the Spider-Verse does. The thought bubbles and “BOOM!” “WOOSH!” and “KAPOW!” sound effects are not only used as nods to the film’s comic book roots, but as part of the very fabric of the storytelling. Just as Scott thinks he’s in a video game, Miles knows he lives inside a comic book. A scene in which Peter B. Parker tells Miles his plan to sneak inside a secure lab is told through a series of panels, with the characters commenting on its comic book look and interacting with the panels. This doesn’t feel like a break of the fourth-wall, though, because there is no layer separating the storytelling techniques and the story. When Miles asks, “why are my thoughts so loud?” while looking at the thought bubbles, it doesn’t feel out of place, because on some level he’s aware he is a comic book character, something the movie’s overall aesthetic allows us as the audience to accept.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse truly embraces what it’s like to read a comic book, by making its characters and the tone of the film feel like part of a comic book itself. Deadpool may have known he was in a movie, but this Spider-Man is in an actual comic book, looking up to the audience from the page. This film not only proves how versatile animation is as a medium, but how well the look and feel of a comic book translate into animation. Watching a scene in Avengers: Endgame suddenly be divided into panels would feel out of place, yet watching Miles Morales’s thoughts appear as text boxes floating in the air feels right at home.