Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest.
As a veteran of the animation industry for over 20 years, I was constantly blown away by every creative choice they were able to get away with during production. Story. Art design. Animation style. And then, story again.
From top to bottom, the film is a masterpiece of art.
And as a Sienkiewicz fan from back in the day, I can’t fully express in words the joy I felt seeing Kingpin’s nightmarish rage portrayed on-screen the way I imagined it some 30 years ago.
The film, for me, was quite literally a dream come true.
Whether the filmmakers took advantage of the fact that they were under an inescapable deadline that would keep Spider-Man’s copyright in the hands of Sony or they’re just that good—it doesn’t matter. We get to enjoy this rare gift for the rest of our lives.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just the best animated film of 2018, it’s the Best Picture of 2018–and deserves to with both Oscars at the Academy Awards this year.
While it may be difficult, and ultimately unnecessary, to pinpoint one reason for this triumphant success, the complete story and solid narrative argument at its core can claim the lion’s share of responsibility.
After all, without a solid narrative you just have a collection of pretty pictures.
And comic books are much more than that.
Instead of the usual deep-dive thematic breakdown found here on Narrative First, we offer this glimpse at the process involved in our analyses.
A screenwriter new to us and the Dramatica theory of story wondered if he could ask us a few questions about the Spider-Man film. Of course, we took the opportunity to make it a learning experience rather than a dictating one, and figured others might enjoy the journey as well.
Writer: Can we break down Into the Spider-Verse?! I have an idea for what it might be.
Jim: I saw SpiderVerse yesterday, and really—there’s no point in doing anything anymore. that was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my entire life. They didn’t hold back on anything.
Writer: OC in Universe (hopefully obviously) …
Jim: And by OC do you mean, Obstacle Character or did you mean OS (Overall Story)?
Writer: Sorry, OS
Jim: :) yes for sure
Writer: Plot… Action, Success Good…and Optionlock?
Jim: Those are gimmes!
Writer: I was on the fence about this… but I think Miles MC is Changed?
and Peter/His Dad grow?
Jim: If Miles is Changed, how do you know that?
Writer: my litmus was that he does something at the end he wouldn’t have done at the beginning
but… i was on the fence because so did Peter/His Dad
Jim: Actually - question - do you want me to lead you through it or just give straight answers LOL - I always find you learn more drawing it out, but just let me know when you want to hit the buzzer :)
Writer: Lead me through so i still learn, haha
Jim: Well who do you want to start with - Miles, Peter or Dad?
Jim: what is the evidence that he is doing differently at the end that he did in the beginning?
Writer: he’s able to use his powers on command
Writer: because he … stopped testing and started trusting? (jumping the gun, i know)
Jim: lol - without dramatica words
Jim: what was his personal issue?
Writer: He took the leap of faith that Peter kept telling him about, which he found by that resolving conversation through the door with his dad
Jim: both Steadfast and Changed characters take leaps of faith - it just depends on what side of the ledge you’re leaping from (or into) - in other words, leap of faith is more a natural result of creating a narrative.
Writer: hmmm… wasn’t his problem from the beginning that like, he wanted to do things his way? Despite his father’s disapproval?
Writer: So maybe he was steadfast in his way of thinking?
Jim: They spend a lot of time on his personal issues in the beginning…
Jim: I guess what I mean is, by wanting to do things his way - that’s the MC’s Throughline - how he “does” things - but what is it about how those things are done that is shown to be problematic? What’s out of balance? What’s giving him angst? (To the exclusion of anyone else’s viewpoint)
Writer: what he wants isn’t what this parents or teachers want him to do
Jim: which creates grief within him, an imbalance of…
Jim: why is what everyone else a problem for him?
Jim: why does he purposefully fail tests?
Writer: He failed the tests because he wanted to go back to that other school. He was trying to get kicked out.
Jim: And how does that approach tie in with his initial meetings with all the Spiders—why does he turn invisible?
Jim: Why does he first go “electric”?
Writer: every time he uses his powers without being able to control them was out of fear, right?
Jim: right - but you see how the spiders talking about him in the basement creates the same kind of emotional angst that he was getting from his dad in the beginning? that’s why he turned invisible…
Writer: they started attacking his abilities
Writer: how he’s unable to XYandZ
Writer: and he got upset, went invisible and left.
Writer: So does that make his problem ability? for good or bad? he’s Ability-ing throughout the movie?
Jim: was the grief caused by his dad a problem of Ability? was the grief caused by his guidance counselor a problem of Ability? were the Spiders gathering together and whispering about him creating an imbalance of Ability?
Writer: No… but I’m not totally sure what they were creating an imbalance of…
Writer: in english, i guess it was a problem of approval? No one approved of him
Jim: that’s good - really good. Approval works great. So then at the end - does he seem still struggling with that - or is he doing things differently? (btw, don’t know if you follow me on Twitter, FB, or IG but you might want to turn them off for the next couple of hours since I already have a post in the queue about his problem! LOL)
Writer: I won’t look. haha
Writer: at the end, he doesn’t need Peter’s approval or even care about it. In fact he turns the tables, saying he won’t let Spider-Man die
Writer: but… he did kind of get his father’s approval through the door, right?
Jim: yes…that triggered it…but you’re totally right - he is doing things differently - whether or not they “approve” of what he does - he doing it anyways…
…which would suggest a Changed Main Character Resolve
Writer: So is it more a self of self kinda thing?
Jim: i don’t know self of self…??
Writer: like, a confidence thing.. confidence in himself
Writer: forget what everyone thinks of him, he’s gonna do it his way
Writer: he doesn’t need spider-man’s permission to be spider-man, or his father’s … he just goes and does it
Writer: the Spiders were all pointing out what he lacked, right? his deficiencies?
Jim: forget what everyone thinks of him, he’s gonna do it his way is ABSOLUTELY the entire thread of the entire narrative - AWESOME!
Jim: yes yes yes awesome job now who then challenges that perspective and does things differently?
Jim: in other words, who is the IC(s)
Writer: Spiders/His Dad
Writer: i would say mainly Peter/His Dad
Writer: so wait, backtracking… you’re suggesting his solution is Permission? In the sense of Not needed it?
Writer: er, his Issue, i mean
Jim: I’d hold off on looking to the chart this early - it’s enough to identify the terms in your own words. Remember that in reality, each of those terms is really just the same four words seen in different contexts — so it’s REAL EASY to get mixed up and focus in on a term that doesn’t mean what you think it means. That’s why the top down approach works well.
How do Peter and Miles’ dad share the same perspective?
Writer: Hmm… well they both want Miles to do what they say. Do things their way, in an effort to protect him
Jim: mmmm…but what is their shared perspective? In other words, Miles turns invisible because of approval - what’s up with his Dad or Peter?
Writer: I guess it’s that they know what’s best?
Writer: both of them have “been there done that” and lived through it all before… they know what’s likely gonna happen and how to likely solve things. The dad has a problem with his brother because he doesn’t approve of his ways (and rightly so, cuz the brother was actually a minion of kingpin who gets himself killed) … and Peter who can literally predict what Kingpin is gonna say… has handled so many cases already he just calls the critical item a Goober, wasn’t it? There’s always some Goober he needs.
Writer: So it’s like… Experience of Knowledge or both
Writer: to use a term that’s probably wrong ;-)
Jim: and so, does Dad change that perspective? does Peter change that perspective?
Writer: Not really, no. Though they do seem to grow a bit
Writer: they put trust in Miles
Writer: Peter exchanges a kind of touche moment with Miles in the end and concedes.
Jim: right (that might be more of a Relationship Story type of thing) - they both Remain Steadfast in their perspectives…awesome! So now you have all the dynamics down…well, wait - Miles Approach and/or Problem-Solving Style…
Writer: approach… and i wanna see Be-er? This element always trips me up
Jim: Take the Author’s point-of-view - where are they positioning Mile’s personal problem - is it the things he’s doing or the things he’s being?
Writer: haha again i’m not sure… is it that he’s “being” caught up in people’s approval/disapproval? or that he’s doing things in response to that?
Writer: This and growth are really hard for me to see
Jim: yes - both are connected, so I can see why you would have that problem!
Jim: let’s skip it for now…you already identified Universe as the Domain of the Overall Story Throughline…which would put the Relationship in Mind. So…LOL…where do you see Miles’ Main Character Throughline - Physics or Psychology?
Writer: I’m thinking because he’s grappling with the thought that he either does or doesn’t need approval, it’s psychology
Writer: (btw, earlier you said every element is really the same 4 repeated. what is that exactly again? that each are really some form of TKAD or PRCO or Uni, Act, Manip, Fixed? What’s the 4 core repeated “things”?)
Jim: The four core elements are Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. Repeated over and over again in every single quad - just arranged differently. This is why the model is complete - it’s looking at every possible combination in order to understand where the true source of conflict is coming from within the mind.
Jim: So Miles way of thinking is out of balance? And his conflict centers around Conceptualizing, Being, Becoming, and Conceiving?
Writer: he is the way he is, and that’s creating problems
Writer: from the author’s POV… which i know i’m supposed to think… is it a problem of coming up with the idea that he doesn’t need approval/permisison
Writer: putting it in Conceiving
Jim: rewind a bit back to his personal problem - the issue of approval - is that a Conceiving issue? what kind of conflict does that approval create for him?
Writer: No… it’s more of a Being or Becoming issue… like the first thing i said… Miles is the way Miles is, so
Writer: right? Like… if his angst is about approval… whether or not his dad approves, or his teachers, or peter… or the spiders… it eats at him being concerned with approval… approval of HIM, right?
Writer: like, at the end… he is still doing things his way to a degree. he didn’t ask permission to spray paint the classic suit… he just did it and wore it and became a new spider-man
Jim: so is he doing things differently or being things differently?
Writer: he’s still being himself… he didn’t change who he is, but he did change how he does things, and doesn’t let external forces stop him from being himself.
Jim: So when you’re looking at Doing as a Source of Conflict that means specifically how you Do things is a problem. Like if you’re a swimmer, you’re not taking the right amount of breaths, you’re going under too soon when it comes time to change direction, you’re jumping the gun, you’re not tagging the next swimmer in the relay soon enough - it’s the things you’re doing that is an actual Problem.
And the resolution is to simply Be.
When you’re looking at Being as a Source of Conflict, the pressure is on to be something you’re not. You have to act like you’re OK with something, pretend that you don’t know the answer to questions, and act like you long for something you don’t have. But it isn’t answering the questions wrong that is difficult, it’s the actual act of BEING - of trying to pretend to be something you’re not — that is the focus on conflict within the narrative. The Being is problematic.
And the resolution is to simply Do.
which one of those sounds like what the Authors were exploring with Miles?
Writer: Hahah, i mean you dropped some really obvious clues… The latter.
Jim: So if Miles’ Source of Conflict is Being, that would mean for the narrative to be balanced out appropriately, Peter’s Source of Impact would be Doing - the things he does would be creating conflict for Miles. Same with Dad.
How do you see that?
Writer: Well for Peter… he already IS Spider-Man, he does all the tricks, knows all the things the bad guy is gonna say and do, knows just how to solve the problem, and aims to set out doing it with or without Miles. Doing it without him because of his knowledge and experience (or… wisdom)
Writer: and for the dad, he knows what it’s like to run with the bad crowd.. tag up subways, etc… and that creates conflict for Miles because the things his Dad does either prevents Miles from getting in with that bad crowd… or like, publicly humiliating him for an “I Love You”… they all challenge what Miles is trying to Be
Writer: and both Peter and Miles’s Dad come from a place of Wisdom
Jim: they all challenge what Miles is trying to Be
Jim: which would suggest an Influence Character Concern of Being
Writer: so… then not that?
Jim: publicly humiliating him to say “i love you” is not an Influence Character Concern that says “you need to do it this way”, it says “you need to be this way”
Jim: “doing it this way” would be all about HOW he is actually physically doing it. How he says I LOVE YOU, his skill with actually saying the words and his level of familiarity or experience with saying it
Writer: so is the IC then actually in Psychology?
Jim: What is it about the pot-belly Peter that is so striking? How can he BE the Spider-man? He’s more interested in bagels and burgers. He’s depressed (Psychology) because he made the wrong choice with MJ.
It’s not the things he DOES that creates conflict - it’s how he is - who he is, who he is being.
And he’s always taking that Leap of Faith — which is why letting go of Miles hand is just a reaffirmation of his Steadfast perspective - as is showing up at MJ’s house
Writer: Ok cool yeah, I see that. Therefore making the activities Miles does the overall problem… the cheating to fail on his test… tagging stickers all over town.. etc.
Jim: He has to BE the one to stay behind, because Miles can’t DO it.
Writer: well when you put it like that, it seems glaringly obvious
comically simple (excuse the pun)
Jim: Yes! Tagging stickers, sneaking out at night, turning invisible but not sure how he is DOING it, unable to turn invisible or shock people on command - those are all personal problems. And when he can’t DO—when he can’t get up—because he’s afraid of approval—he disappears, turns invisible, and doesn’t want to be seen.
Writer: so that sounds like not fully understanding his Doing, right? He reaches an impasse when Peter asks him to do those things?
Jim: Peter’s Knowledge, what he Thinks of Peter, his own Abilities and talents, and his love and longing for MJ (Desire) that’s where Conflict emanates from his perspective.
Miles’ sneaking out at night to be with his criminal uncle is a dumb move (Wisdom), his instinctual understanding of the universe makes him stand out (Enlightenment), his tripping over his own shoelaces (Skills), and his age and inexperience (Experience) show where his Conflict comes from.
Yeah. He can’t Do what people want him to do. Or doesn’t think he can do it. Or doesn’t want to do it. He can’t do that Leap of Faith.
Writer: so it seems like both of those, respectively, then stem from Peter’s Desires and Miles’s lack of experience
making those each their issues
i mean, we meet Peter crying in the shower… i feel like Desire is a major source of conflict for him
Jim: yeah for sure
if you look under Experience in Doing, you’ll see it’s comprised of Accurate, Non-Accurate, Expectation, and Determination - which one of those sound like Miles’ problem?
Writer: So the question is… within his problem of lacking Experience… what specifically is causing conflict within that lack of experience?
Jim: theoretically yes….but you don’t always have to make that connection - the fact that those Elements are under Experience will make that connection apparent anyways. Hope that makes sense - in other words, you don’t have to make the connection between Issue and Problem explicit in the Storytelling - they can be connected or they cannot - one is not a function of the other - one is a smaller divisible part of the whole.
In other words - what’s his Problem?
(p.s. you’ve already identified it….)
Writer: haha… probably ages ago before i started second guessing myself
i’m gonna say expectation
Jim: well, it took a while for you get it, but his Personal Problem is all about his personal problem…
Writer: what’s expected of him?
that’s where you see the approval imbalance
Writer: and then when he “talks” with his dad… he starts to flip.. becoming determined to do things his way
“i see that spark in you” that’s why I do these things is Determination
Writer: so, just to look at Peter… is problem is Ending?
what is driving him to be a complete slob?
Writer: that he and Mary Jane ended
and he “took it so well”
he’s got a problem with that being over
Jim: yes. and where is he at the end as a Steadfast character?
Writer: so …. and this is going to sound like i haven’t been paying attention to any of your teachings… haha… Solving for the IC is really like solving for “another MC” with his own personal angst
and it’s not so much ME vs. YOU…
Jim: No. It is YOU. Another MC would be another MC (another narrative). The impact from Peter is Being because of Ending…
Be careful trying to create some logical connection between the IC perspective “changing” the MC perspective - they balance each other out. There isn’t a direct Linear connection
Writer: ok, i think that’s the hangup
but that’s kind of what i meant about “another MC” … like, he’s NOT related so directly to the MC
he’s another, individual perspective with its own unique problem
Jim: yes - EVERYONE tries to make that connection. Because they think these are real people. They’re not - they’re perspectives. And they’re not individual perspectives - they’re I and YOU perspectives which are totally different
Peter, as IC, is all about the Impact created because of that perspective
Writer: ahh yes… because it’s all just about one inequity… looking at it from different POVs
Writer: man.. that urge to connect them… wtf.
how do i lose that?
Jim: time. and awareness
Jim: Dramatica helps because it forces you to think in terms of perspective, but it takes time to stop seeing them as real people.
Writer: so like… before when we were on Concern… it seemed like “Being” WAS affecting MC
the perspective that MC should or shouldn’t BE something
Jim: It was! That’s how the Influence Character perspective operates
It’s not the Main Character’s Concern - it’s what the Author is positioning as the Concern as far as the Main Character perspective is concerned
Writer: but it does affect that POV… ok
that makes sense
Jim: And see, when he shows up at the end to confront MJ - that’s Ending - that’s confirmation of his Steadfast perspective. He’s bringing it to an End - that’s why his perspective is not Changing…it’s growing into, but he’s still about that Ending.
Writer: was he showing up to just apologize and end it? Just make peace? closure?
Jim: all of those work as Ending, so as far as the narrative is concerned. Yes!
Writer: So how exactly does Ending under the IC concerns specifically affect the MC concern to flip from expectation to determination?
Jim: that’s EXACTLY what I was saying about making a direct connection between the two! If you could make that connection, you wouldn’t need a story…
Writer: Son of a….
Writer: leap of faith understanding this eh? Lol
oh, and btw - when a film goes to the effort of literally SPRAY-PAINTING the MC Problem across the screen, you might as well take it LOLOL
Writer: But there is a balancing act with looking at this in equity. Is there something logical in that? Like, we keep having to balance the different perspectives against each other so that each of them work. I know the software starts to limit your choices, but there does still have to be a balance in the in balance
Like, the main character perspective really can’t be determined to be certain elements if it isn’t in balance with the OC and the impact character, etc.
Jim: Yes—that balance is what Dramatica takes care of for you - it’s not so much the individual items themselves that matter as much as it is about the RELATIONSHIPS between the items. That’s why they created Dramatica - to make it easy to hold those Relationships together in one single context (narrative).
Doing it yourself is inherently impossible - because we can’t be both Objective and Subjective at the same time (both within ourselves and without) — which is why you can’t make that connection between the IC’s Problem and why the MC flips from Problem to Solution.
That’s why we love stories so much and why they fascinate us so much — they give us an experience IMPOSSIBLE for us to achieve on our own.
Writer: Crazy! So it’s all just about finding the balance within the imbalance. And h doing so, you showcase that the imbalance could reach equilibrium again… without exactly describing how.
And by doing so
Jim: Yes - it gives the Audience that greater appreciation of how to resolve Problems in their own lives - they can literally see “behind the curtain” - to see what to do the next time they run into a similar Problem
Writer: Super awesome! Thanks for explaining all this
Jim: Yes for sure! And thanks for working through with me as well. Helps to put things into words and concretize some of these ideas. Going to put it up in Subtext!
Writer: sweet! Yeah it’s super educational.. I think I had originally swapped IC and MC’s Domains. Walking through it like we did makes sense. I really just gotta get beaten over the head that these aren’t people.. they’re not connected… and though each has an impact on the other, they’re really totally separate things
looking forward to seeing it on Subtext… mostly just cuz I’ll be able to look at the poster all the time ;-)
Writer: ALSO… i had a story question for you. The Relationship Throughline is where all the feels are, right? So… looking at Spider-Man, and searching for WHY we get choked up. There’s conflict in the RS in the Fixed Attitude>Preconcious>Worry>Trust…. right? And the MC is the only thing that changes, right? So… how does that work? Do we feel something because we see Steadfast characters display Trust even though they’re worried?
Jim: That the Relationship Story Throughline is the only place for “feels” is more of a general statement, rather than a specific reality of things. In truth, you “feel” everywhere depending on the Storytelling - MC, IC, OS - all of them.
The Relationship Story Throughline is just where it feels the most like the “heart” of the story lies.
Again - I would say you’re trying to connect the dots too much, instead of letting the storyform exist as a thing on its own. You’re trying to interpret and interpretation - or a model of the mind at work - and trying to effuse some meaning out of the model - when the model is the meaning…
Writer: I thought you were gonna say something like that… damnit.
One additional thought not covered in the above analysis: frequently, the title of a film communicates the Overall Story Throughline of a narrative. Finding Nemo. Star Wars. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The first two describe a film with an Overall Story Throughline of Physics; the last a film with an Overall Story set in the Universe Domain.
Same with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (especially interesting if you consider that the same screenwriters worked on both Cloudy and Spider-Man): The narrative Element of Universe is an actual part of the film’s title.
Just something to look out for when you’re building your own stories, or seeking to find the unique narratives of other films.