Most normal people probably don’t know this but DC Comics, the folks behind Superman and Batman, has been playing second fiddle in the comic business for over 50 years. Marvel Comics, the Spider-Man/X-Men/Avengers crew, has been beating DC’s brains in on comic book sales for decades. The Editor-in-Chief of Marvel during the 1980s once boasted that the worst-selling Marvel comic outsold the best-selling DC book.
The general public doesn’t appreciate that partly because DC ruled the roost in the 1940s and 50s, cementing their characters in pop culture consciousness long before anyone ever heard of Stan Lee, and partly because DC spent decades beating Marvel’s brains in when it came to TV and movies. While DC was causing a national sensation in the 1960s with the “Batman” television show, dominating the world of cartoons from the “Super Friends” of the 1970s through “Batman: The Animated Series” in the 90s, and bringing super-heroes to the big screen from “Supeman: The Movie” (1978) to Tim Burton’s “Batman” flicks of the late 80s and into the 90s, Marvel’s Hollywood output was pathetic by comparison.
THIS is Spider-Man.
From the dawn of the Marvel Age of Comic in the mid-1960s through the 1980s, just about the best Marvel could come up with was an Incredible Hulk TV show that was a blatant rip off of “The Fugitive” where bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno only showed up as Ol’ Jade Jaws twice an episode. The rest largely ranged from momentary and forgettable to outright embarrassing. Then the 1990s heralded an explosion of Marvel cartoons, the early 2000s saw the dawn of the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” film franchises, and “Iron Man” (2008) kick started the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has set historic standards for box office and critical success.
DC struck gold with Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy but found itself on the Hollywood highway staring at Marvel’s tail lights pulling father and farther away, and their efforts to catch up have mostly been as awful and humiliating as anything Marvel ever crapped out. DC is still trying to get to where Marvel was a decade ago in Hollywood while Marvel is doing things in movies no comic book fan would have ever imagined possible. And that’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will examine as we pit a new Marvel flick that almost seems like the company trying to prove it can make anything work against a new DC flick the company desperately hopes won’t be a huge disaster. It’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) vs. “Aquaman” (2018). Let the better adjective-man win.
THIS...no matter how many times they say otherwise...is NOT Spider-Man.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is something that emerged out of the gawd awful 1990s comic book industry implosion and just kept mutating. Marvel started a comic called “Ultimate Spider-Man” which began retelling the story of Peter Parker and his crime-fighting exploits but with modern sensibilities and free from decades of established continuity. Then they killed off that Peter Parker and replaced him as Spider-Man with a black teenager named Miles Morales. Why? Ours is not to reason why. Ours must just get woke or die.
Anyway…”Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” supposes a reality of infinite dimensions with an infinite variety of Spider-Men. In Miles Morales’ dimension, he gets bit by a science-altered spider and stumbles into his universe’s super-popular and super-successful version of Spider-Man (Chris Pine) trying to stop the Kingpin from using a reality warping device that could destroy New York. That version of Spider-Man….SPOILER ALERT!!!....dies, but not before Miles (Shameik Moore) promises to triumph where Spider-Blonde failed. A whole bunch of alternate dimension Spider-Folk then show up to help Miles accomplish that task, primarily a middle-aged and paunchy Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) who most closely resembles the classic wall-crawler we all know and love.
Sure, why not rip off Iron Man while you're at it?
The plot of the film is, bluntly, such a piece of self-referential nonsense that it makes it all the more amazing when “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” turns out to be one of the best made super-hero flicks you’ll ever see. It is visually fabulous, consistently hilarious, and outside a dead zone about 3/4ths of the way through it is an incredibly fast-moving and tightly constructed adventure. A lot of thought and a lot of care went into making this movie and it supplants “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) as the new best version of the character to ever make it onto the silver screen.
And by character, I mean Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Both versions in this film will remind you of everything you’ve ever loved about the Web-Head and why he’s been the most popular individual comic-book character of the last half-century. You’ll love them so much, you won’t even mind that the movie literally and figuratively sacrifices them to try and make you care about Miles Morales. Which you won’t. Care about Miles Morales, that is.
Oh, look! A female character who is much smarter and more together than any of the male characters. That's not a tired cliche. Not at all.
You could take this motion picture and pretty much any Miles Morales comic book, replace him with a white kid named “Timmy Timmerson,” and not only would it make no difference but no one would even care. Miles Morales is more a marketing stunt than a character. “Ooh! We made a black Spider-Man! Somebody applaud us!” Despite this film’s Herculean efforts to make Miles Morales interesting, it cannot overcome the essentially empty nature of the character. He’s ethnically generic without any unique or intriguing elements of his own. Everything likeable about him is derivative and everything else is cliché or stupid.
I mean, they can’t even get the traditional morality play of Spider-Man right. Peter Parker learns “With great power, comes great responsibility” when he uses his powers selfishly and his Uncle Ben perishes as a result. Not only does Miles always behave responsibly in this film but the family member he loses actually dies while trying to do the right thing and protect Miles. Yes, they actually made a Spider-Man movie where the underlying lesson is “Don’t try and be a hero. It will just wind up hurting the people you love.”
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes a fundamentally terrible idea and make a damn entertaining movie out of it, which only highlights how frustratingly poor a job Hollywood does on so many other projects.
Wouldn't you want underwater armor to be more...steamlined?
Which brings us to “Aquaman.” The first film to come spinning out of “Justice League” (2017), this thing is no “Wonder Woman” (2017) but it’s no “Green Lantern” (2011). It also not like every other super-hero flick out there but it accomplishes that by turning into a Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider rip off in the middle and then ending like “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (2014). It combines the origin of Aquaman (Jason Momoa) as a child with his full-grown efforts to stop his half-brother (Patrick Wilson) from leading the forces of Atlantis in a war against the surface world. Throw in three buttloads of special effects, a secondary storyline where Aquaman creates his arch-enemy Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and a visibly awkward love interest in Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) and the result is an overly long but relatively entertaining addition to the big dumb summer blockbuster genre…though why it’s came out in December, I have no idea.
The special effects are largely excellent, except when they’re trying to make Nicole Kidman into an ass-kicker, but largely numbing. There’s so much of it on the screen that none of it can truly stand out. Jason Momoa is quite good even as the film only scratches the surface of the absurdity of his dude-bro hero getting swept up in these high concept fantasy tropes. Amber Heard acts the hell out of a part that never escapes the limitations of the thankless girlfriend role. Patrick Wilson also give a master class on getting the most out of what you’re given. His King Orm is a poorly written bad guy stereotype that Wilson nevertheless manages to imbue with something approaching genuine humanity…or is that Atlanteanity? And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II masterfully captures the essentially evil yet essentially sympathetic nature of Black Manta. As a whole, this is a great cast elevating a not-so-great film to a level of complete watchability.
"If I knew the costume was going to have abs, I wouldn't have wasted all that time working out."
You can repeatedly tell that “Aquaman” is one of those movies where they decided to make the movie long before anyone had the slightest clue what it should be about. It suffers from the same flaw as other hastily conceived super-hero flicks. Before a single word of the screenplay was written, the studio came up with a checklist of all the elements that simply had to be included and the screenplay spends more time accommodating them than telling a legitimate story. The Trench, a concept just introduced to the Aquaman mythos in 2011, is in this film for the exact same reason Hector Hammond was jammed into “Green Lantern,” former DC bigwig Geoff Johns insisted on it…which is probably why Johns no longer has much of a say in DC’s movie business.
“Aquaman” continues the lighter and more pleasant tone we saw in “Wonder Woman” and avoids ever being as head-scratchingly dumb as “Suicide Squad” (2016) but reminds us why DC remains a long way from challenging Marvel for Hollywood supremacy. It’s a few more baby steps in the right direction and away from the astonishingly wrong-headed efforts of Zach Snyder. This throwdown goes decisively to “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” You won’t feel like you ever need to watch another Miles Morales movie, but you’ll be glad you saw this one.
Yes, stopping everything so we can watch the B-villain assemble his super-suit won't bring the film to a crashing halt. Not at all.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Written By Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman.
Directed by Rodney Rothman.
Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Chris Pine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Live Schreiber, and Stan Lee.
Written by Will Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.
Directed by James Wan.
Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdulp-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Michael Beach, Randall Park, and Julie Andrews.
Wait...if his skin is so tough knives can't penetrate it, how did he get those tattoos?