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Pop Culture Corner: The Unmatched Power of Animation

It’s not just for kids

What is the best superhero movie? You’re apt to get many, many answers. The original Superman, perhaps. The Dark Knight. The first Avengers film. Maybe Black Panther, Logan, Wonder Woman. All are great answers.

And yet, they aren’t my answer. I would argue that the best superhero film of all time is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Critics loved the movie, too; it’s tied for the best score among all superhero movies on Rotten Tomatoes at 97%. Following Miles Morales in his journey to become the new Spider-Man after the death of our universe’s Peter Parker, multiple alternate universe Spider-Beings come together to help him on his journey and fight evil. The film grossed $190 million in the United States and $375 million internationally. While a solid performance, it was starkly less than 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, which grossed $390 million domestically (and $1.1 billion worldwide).

While I’m sure Spidey saturation played a part in Into the Spider-Verse’s relatively quiet performance at the box office, it was fighting another fight: it was an animated Spider-Man movie. And not one of those fancy 3-D animated movies either that Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks have mined for so much gold, but one with a more traditional backbone.

Somewhere along the way, animation got a reputation for being for children. This is partially based in reality: animation has been used to great effect in programs that capture the imagination of children, from Loony Toons to Toy Story to Power Puff Girls to any number of Disney classics and beyond. Saturday morning cartoons.

But it’s precisely because of animation that Into the Spider-Verse is so good. The film is a truly unique tour-de-force of animation’s power. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that resembles it even slightly. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, just look at this:

Animation is powerful because it is not limited by reality. It is the vision and product of skilled artisans who create something that is somehow more than reality. Animation can do things visually that live action can’t do, and each animated work has a undeniable and unique character that isn’t found in live action. It’s part of why recent Disney live action adaptations of their animated movies don’t quite work—it’s an attempt to recreate something without what made it itself in the first place.

That’s not to say that live action isn’t or can’t be artistic. It’s not to say that animated films are inherently better than live action. And it’s not to say that Into the Spider-Verse is only good because it’s an animated film. It’s good because of a host of reasons—great voice acting, memorable characters, incredible pacing and payoff, one of the best superhero soundtracks ever.

But it is quite literally impossible for Into the Spider-Verse to be anything but an animated movie, and it’s impossible for a live action film to accomplish what Spider-Verse did. That’s because it doesn’t use animation just to get the interest of them kids. Rather, it leans into animation as its medium and primary vehicle for storytelling.

I’m not the biggest of movie buffs. My film watching is mostly limited to blockbusters, sci-fi films, and things my wife wants to watch that don’t already fall into one of those two categories. But thinking back on what movies have really made an impression on me over the last few years, animated movies make an outsized impact.

First, we’ve got Into the Spider-Verse, which is my favorite superhero movie and probably my favorite animated movie of all time. I think about Pixar’s Inside Out relatively often, and it’s an animated movie that can only exist as an animated movie—it’s wildly creative and extremely poignant. And as part of my toe-dipping into anime, I recently watched Your Name, the 2016 hit anime film. It is singularly beautiful, and its heartfelt story about human connection just hit me really hard in this quarantine season.

Again, to be sure, I’ve enjoyed many recent live action movies. But if you told me to rewatch a movie that came out in the last half dozen years, I’d strongly consider an animated film. I wish more 2D style animation, a la Your Name, was more prevalent. I wish more animated films took creative stances like Into the Spider-Verse. But overall, I wish that there were more animated films in general.

The first film I ever saw in theaters was The Lion King. And one of my biggest early film memories was watching Titan A.E. in the summer of 2000 and gushing about how much I loved it to my dad after we left the theater. Animation holds a special place in my heart, and I hope it does for the next generation of movie watchers, too.

Into the Spider-Verse

Watch it on: Netflix

Length: 1 hour 56 minutes

A good watch for: Spider-Man, Marvel, and superhero fans; animation fans; anybody who enjoys a good ol’ fashioned Campbellian hero’s journey

A bad watch for: I honest-to-God have no idea, unless you just really loathe watching superhero films and can’t stand anything hyper-stylized