The Interaction Of Spider-Verse’s Animation and Plot

by Tomi Kolapo

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a landmark in the evolution of mainstream superhero releases. It is both a superhero movie and an animated movie. It exists in the era of live-action superhero films. It proved to be a success by grossing over $375 million worldwide. The unique animation style that mimics comic book drawings resulted in widespread critical acclaim for its visual originality along with its box office success. 

The film is centered around the main character of Miles Morales. He is infected by a radioactive spider. However, unlike other iterations of Spider-Man, Miles is not the only Spider-Man that exists. Instead, he is another one of the multiple dimensions in the world. Miles is the main protagonist of the multiple spider-man. In Miles’s situation, he is given a flash drive by an older Spider-Man as he witnesses the previous Spider-Man get murdered by Green Goblin. The flash drive has the function of deactivating an accelerator that could destroy the city. Green Goblin works for Kingpin. As a result, the rest of the film serves as an adventure to defeat Kingpin and his intentions with the use of the flash drive. This adventure reveals itself to be interdenominational as a result of encounters with different versions of the hero.

The intricacy and complexity of multiple dimensions raise a concern about the plots form, which reveals itself as a strange but unitary piece. However, this singular piece is constructed of multiple ideas, cultures, and races represented by the concept of the multiverse. Thus, the narrative needs to be strong enough to hold these different strands together. However, this narrative, though meticulous in its plotting, has a complicated relationship to the normal three or five-act structure. This can be accounted for by its self-awareness, increased possibilities of animation and its comic structure. It culminates in a  more unique narrative than normal comic book structures. The typical structure allows for a movie more palatable to a wider audience. Even though Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has a complicated structure, it retains a wide appeal. This structure makes it harder to apply traditional act structures.

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The first part is the exposition (prologue). The exposition provides the background information for the characters and setting. The background information in the movie is more explicit than normal. The movie starts off with Peter Parker saying “All right let’s do this one last time.” From here the original Peter Parker explains his backstory leading to the current moment. However, by saying “All right let’s do this one last time” the movie conveys that its aware of the audience’s familiarity with Spider-man origin stories. Therefore, part of the burden of outlining the character’s inherent attributes is placed upon the audience. However, this prologue is in a way deceptive because there are multiple other spider-men from other dimensions. Each gets their own origin explained with a similar set up as the initial backstory. These backstories happen at different points that come after some plot points. Also, these characters prove to be more integral to the story than the original backstory. Therefore, it questions the chronological ordering of the traditional 5 act structure. This seeming lack of agreement with the 5 act structure on the order of the prologue is potentially made further clear by potentially viewing the entire movie as a prologue to Miles Morales’s story. He does not get the setup for explaining the backstory until the end of the movie.

Opening Scene and Peter Parker’s Backstory

The inciting incident occurs when Peter Parker dies and he hands Miles the flash drive to shut down the collider. He gives Miles a purpose to use his newly acquired powers. Also, it is the point in which he first encounters Kingpin and his henchmen. After this, there are many emotional points like the encounter, revelation, and death of Aaron. Also, there is the battle in which they try to infiltrate Kingpin’s facilities. This is while the characters and nature of the story’s world are being revealed to the audience by encountering characters from other dimensions, which is information fitting of a prologue. However, these appear as potential distractions from the real climax, which is the big battle like it is in most superhero movies. It ends with the defeat of Kingpin and the collider being shut down.

The falling action appears partly within the climax. The major supporting characters (the other Spider-men) get a resolution to their story while the battle is happening. It exemplifies how the ambitious nature of the storytelling alludes to the structure. The falling action includes other events like fixing his relationship with his father and capturing kingpin.

The denouement happens as Miles flings through the air and then he gets to explain his own backstory like the other spidermen. Thus, he now has his own prologue. Also, why he does this he explains the message of everyone having the ability to be a hero and that people are not alone when they choose to be one. This is signified by the message he receives from Gwen Stacy at the end.

Denouement

The filmmakers and animators describe a filmmaking process that was well aware of its relative lack of limitations. One of the producers, Chris Miller stated in an interview “we’ll just push it as far as we can until it breaks” and he also states “so we crammed it with as much as we could” when speaking about the multiverse and other plot points (Kaye). As a result, it shows a willingness of the creators to experiment with the form since they were given the opportunity to. The filmmakers did not have the burden of carrying large financial and storytelling consequences. Avoiding strict adherence to normal plot structures is less worrying to executives because its funding is significantly less than its live-action counterparts. The movie cost less than 100 million, while most live-action Spider-man movies this century cost around 200 million. Also, the film did not have the pressure of continuity. For instance, Spider-Man: Far From Home had certain plot limitations since it fed into the larger entity of the Avengers and other stand-alone films. These live-action films have multiple mechanisms working at the same time so it is easier to resolve these potential problems by having films of the same structure. It leads to the avoidance of large disasters with the establishment of live-action movie plot templates.

Removal of these unnecessary burdens and expectations reveals awareness of the limitations of animation. This is an unintended example of applying the modernist perspective that Clement Greenberg describes in “Modernist Painting.” Modernism as Greenberg conceives of it, recognizes the limitations of a medium (Greenberg 5-10). In this instance, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse shows an appreciation for animation as a unique format.  Animation will always have an obstruction from completely mimicking reality since it is not real, but computer-generated. Spider-man recognizes this and embraces the absurdity of animation. It takes full use of animation’s ability to use a wide variety of colors and shapes that are rare, unusual or impossible in reality. As a result, ridiculous plot elements like a multiverse fits in without sticking out as unusual. The plot cannot escape the animation that creates it.

 

When Splitting Up a Narrative Gets Dicey

by Eric Chang

Now that we have transitioned to studying Hollywood’s narrative tradition from the perspective of screenwriting guides, it is important that we understand that our analyses focus on just that: tradition. In the paradigms advanced by Syd Field and Kristin Thompson, both models of Hollywood-style narration are based on the then-historical body of work produced by Hollywood cinema. Thus, I view the following discussion as a matter of discerning which model is a more faithful representation of a fixed set of cinematic work rather than a matter of discussing the merits of non-tangible theories regarding ideal narration structure.

Syd Field’s book Screenplay, published in 1979, proposed the “three-act structure,” where the majority of Hollywood’s films could be divided into three distinct acts: the setup, confrontation, and resolution (see below). These acts are divided by major plot points and would take up 1/4, 1/2, and 1/4 of both the script and the film’s run time respectively. Since its publication in Screenplay, this model of the prototypical Hollywood narrative has become a staple in both film production and analysis.

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However, in 1999, Kristin Thompson, in her book Storytelling in the New Hollywood, proposed a revised version of Field’s model, citing problems arising from the Field conception of a narrative. According to Thompson, Field’s model shifted the focus of screenwriters and film analysts away from the dramatic logic of cinema scripts to the page number and minute-count of each film’s separate acts and their respective partitions. In reality, the demarcations between Fields’s three acts were arbitrary – each film could be divided into infinitely many narrative acts. Thus, a total and rigid allegiance to Fields’s three-act model should be seen as the misguided transformation of a helpful and flexible framework into a hindrance. Furthermore, by having a lengthy and ambiguous middle act in the “confrontation,” Fields’s model caused difficulties for screenwriters to fill the section (comprising of over half the film’s script and screen time) with action that had both a clear direction and natural exigence.

As a result, Thompson proposed her own four-act model for traditional Hollywood narratives. By inductively studying a large sample of Hollywood films, Thompson observed that the majority of films could be broken into four main acts: setup, complicating action, development, and climax (see below). By functionally splitting Fields’s “confrontation” act in half, Thompson’s model created four acts of equal length while also identifying a crucial “central turning point” wherein there exists a clear break between the complicating action act and the development act. These turning points are indispensable in understanding Thompson’s model. According to Thompson, these turning points provide functionally-crucial transitions between acts and can be easily spotted. Some main examples cited by Thompson include the articulation of new goals, a shift in the protagonist’s tactics, the introduction of a new premise or goal, etc.

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Taking a step back from the heavyweight cinematic analysis showdown between Fields and Thompson, it appears that the major difference between their two models is that Thompson’s model functionally adds an extra partition in the middle of Fields’s model. While this may seem arbitrary and self-defeating given Thompson’s claim that films can be divided into innumerable acts, each with their own functional differences, there is a very real and beneficial consequence resulting from this change. Calling back to Thompson’s identification of the protracted and difficult task of writing such a long middle act in Fields’s model, what Thompson’s “complicating action” act and “development” act provide is more structure. With Thompson’s description of the “complicating action” act’s necessity for a new situation for the protagonist to face followed by the “development” act’s description as the bulk of the protagonist’s struggle towards their goal(s), there is a clear difference in the two parts that now constitute Fields’s amorphous middle act.

Thus, Thompson’s revised model provides advantages for screenwriters and screen-watchers alike. For screenwriters, more structure allows for an easier way to ideate and capture the “dramatic logic” so important to an interesting and engaging screenplay. For screen-watchers, this four-act model allows for clearer expectations regarding traditional Hollywood films, which can translate to heightened awareness and easier identification of important plot points and segments, increasing audience engagement and information retention.

This latter result is directly relevant to Thompson’s focus on the Hollywood cinema consumer: the audience member. According to Thompson, the very basis for the need for narrative models is so that films can be more engaging to audiences, with each segment of the narrative achieving what is hopefully an optimal length to prevent both the shortchanging of information provided to the audience and the boredom wrought from unnecessarily-drawn out plotlines. With Thompson’s newly-enumerated middle acts, this can be accomplished much easier with clear guidelines that can keep a movie’s plot moving along at both a concise and engaging pace.

An interesting question posed by Thompson revolves around just how Fields’s three-act model came to be such commonplace in Hollywood films’ narrative tradition. Thompson has two theories. The first possibility is that the three-act model is truly the most optimal segmentation for Hollywood films, where less-optimal segmentation methods have been phased out and selected against through years of the optimality of Hollywood films being judged by the reviews of critics and the revenue generated from moviegoers. The second possibility is that the Hollywood academic tradition of learning how to screen write from watching past films has created a positive feedback mechanism, wherein the current prevalence of three-act model narratives is simply the result of its popularity in past films and not evidence of its innate optimality.

Personally, I believe that both theories are not mutually exclusive and that both have played a part in the modern prevalence of the three-part narrative model seen in so many Hollywood films. I also do not see Thompson and Fields’s narrative models as mutually exclusive. In tandem, it seems very possible that both models will continue to be perpetuated and popularized by both the academic tradition of Hollywood screenwriters as well as the easily-digestible, engagement-conducive nature of these structured narrative models.

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Thompson, Kristin, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999

Classical Hollywood Narration and its Limits

By Kelly Mu 😀

In his essay Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedurals, Bordwell seeks to highlight how classical Hollywood narration constitutes a specific and normalised way of representing and presenting a particular story, through manipulation of compositional style and techniques. According to Bordwell, there are three components, or purposes of a narrative: representation, structure and act. Bordwell focuses on the former two to show how classical Hollywood narration (prevalent in American films in the 1960s and 1970s) is able to differentiate itself from other narrative modes.

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A Brief Visual History of Virtual Reality

by Charlie Gallagher

I began trying to understand virtual reality (VR) by looking at its early history. This clarified how VR came to be; however, it left me with more questions than when I started. Chief among them was how to define VR. For this, I turned to the Crerar library and eventually to reading a large portion of the textbook Understanding Virtual Reality, by William Sherman and Alan Craig. While it was an excellent text, it was very vague in defining virtual reality. This led me to investigate how VR works. I began to understand virtual reality as a give and take between the many types of inputs fed to a VR system and their corresponding outputs. While my understanding increased, I was not much closer to a working definition. My goal with this blog is to trace out a brief history of VR to supplement my power-point (link at the end).

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Immersion: How Punchdrunk Moves You

by Ben Ratchford

Punchdrunk is best described as an immersive theatrical experience. It is structured as follows: spectators enter an abandoned warehouse or office space or other such nondescript building, dressed all alike and wearing masks which obscure their whole faces – they are instructed not to speak. After the opening, spectators may find a number of different “scenes” throughout the building, where unmasked actors play out different moments in the story, which move, change, and interact with one another at all times throughout the show, and in which the audience members are, at times, encouraged to participate, either by interacting with the environment, or directly with characters themselves. Thus the audience members, although they must wear masks and cannot speak, have the opportunity to (or, more often, have no choice but to) get close up to developing scenes and engage with the world in front of them.

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Presentation of Cinematic Pleasure

By Hasnat Ahmad

Singer mentions in her paper Toward a Phenomenology of Cinematic Scopophilia that she believes that cinema is a product of capitalism, that it’s a pleasure we treat ourselves to only due to technological advancements we have been able to make as a society. She mentions that psychoanalytic theory is the study of personality organization and the dynamics of personality development. She argues that instead of focusing so much on how our mind reacts to what we see as psychoanalytical theorists have done in the past, we should focus more on the pleasure we get from simply going to see a movie, no matter how good it ends up being, truly “pleasure emerges as a surplus of process over product.”

Singer goes on to explain that movie theaters put is in a certain mindset which prepares us to completely focus on what’s being shown, an “atmosphere of perceptual quietism, serenity, and comfort.” She also argues that we don’t receive pleasure as voyeurs when we watch a movie, but instead due to the contagion effect of being in a room filled with other strangers who laugh when we laugh

I’m going to focus on what Singer calls the “Presentation of Cinematic Pleasure” and the three different films which she mentions in this section of her argument.

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Spirited Away: A Masterclass on Color, Sound, and Silence

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By Paul Chang

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away (2001) tells the story of a ten-year old girl, Chihiro, and her trials through the world of spirits.  Chihiro first appears to be a normal, if a bit sullen and introspective, child.  However, she encounters a series of shocks: her parents are turned into pigs; she cannot leave because the river has flooded; she starts turning into a spirit herself before Haku helps her, and so forth.  Despite these unexpected changes, Chihiro handles the challenges with aplomb.  She persists and earns a job from Yubaaba, the bathhouse witch, then earns the respect and trust of many bathhouse guests by cleaning the river spirit and by taming the No-Face spirit.  Chihiro thus grows through her triumphs and setbacks and emerges with a mature, intelligent demeanor when she finally leaves the mystical land with her (human) parents.

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