Before animation and visual effects somewhat caught up to our imaginations, comic books were the only place where we could see the impossible play out in front of our eyes. Nowadays, live-action video convinces us that humans can fly, bend steel, stop bullets, read minds, stretch, manipulate time, duplicate, shoot lasers, grow claws, turn invisible, change the weather, spontaneously flare-up, break jaws with self-financed armor to avoid therapy, the list goes on. Yet none of these moments surpass the way our minds fill the spaces between hand-drawn action panels. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gets pretty close by showcasing everything that makes comics and the superhero genre great.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in a Nutshell
The movie starts, as all spider-flicks do, with Peter Parker. This “one and only” Spider-Man – as far as he’s aware – has watched over New York City for a decade. In that time, Peter (a pitch-perfect Chris Pine) seemingly found a healthy balance between work, heroism and his marriage to Mary Jane “M.J.” Watson (Zoë Kravitz).
Meanwhile, we meet another Brooklyn native, a bright kid named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Miles struggles between the expectations of his loving cop stepdad Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and the carefree street art world of his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Then a spider bites Miles as he’s getting his Banksy on. Things start getting beyond-puberty weird from there.
Young Miles crosses paths with Spidey Prime as he fights Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber, in full East Coast sleaze mode). The hero attempts to stop the villain from firing up a super collider under the city. Parker and Morales Highlander each other during the encounter. (“You’re just like me!”) So Peter decides to mentor Miles, only to then promptly exit stage right, but not before making the kid promise him to stop Kingpin. The city mourns a hero and Miles is abandoned with abilities he cannot control.
Reign of the Spider-Men (and Women, and Pigs)
Then Peter shows up again, or rather, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson from Jurassic World). A schlubby, divorced alternate-dimension Spider-Man whose life didn’t turn out as rosy as his deceased Mary Sue doppelganger. He’s not alone, as it turns out, for Kingpin’s collider test brought forth several more alternate-reality webslingers to our realm.
There’s a Spider-Gwen Stacy (Bumblebee‘s Hailee Steinfeld), from a NYC where Peter becomes the Reptile and croaks. Followed by Spider-Man Noir (delightfully eccentric Nicolas Cage), a hard-boiled, monochromatic Philip Marlowe archetype with spider-powers. You have Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a tech-savvy manga pixie girl psychically linked to the spider inside her dad’s robot. Then there’s Peter Porker, the Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). I’d like to point out that all Spideys mentioned here are canonical within the Marvel Comics universe. (Thanks mostly in part to writer Dan Slott’s Spider-Verse storyline on which the movie is loosely based.)
The Spider-Folk, together with a Q-ish Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), must team up to stop Kingpin and his sinister posse. Team Fisk includes the Green Goblin, the Prowler, Tombstone, the Scorpion and a surprise twist on Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn).
A Trippy Delight
Marvel’s Spider-Man IP has been lucrative for Sony Pictures. Naturally, the studio would rather release a sub par Spidey movie than let the rights revert back to Marvel and miss out (now, at least, they play nice together). Still, suffering through a Venom or an Amazing Spider-Man 2 would’ve made sense in retrospect had we known they were being produced to buy the studio time so we could eventually enjoy the well crafted, trippy delight that is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Much of the success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse comes from the sensibility of Phil Lord. The producer and co-screenwriter represents one-half of the Lord-and-Miller directing duo. (The team behind 21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The LEGO Movie.) The script by Lord and co-director Rodney Rothman has that balance of sweet and sardonic that’s a Lord-and-Miller trademark at this point.
This film also shares the technical prowess usually associated with Lord-and-Miller projects. The LEGO Movie used tricks such as missing keyframes to make their characters more like plastic toys. Likewise, directors Rothman, Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey enrich every single frame of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Their details honor not just Spider-Man lore, but the comic book medium itself. Squiggly lines indicate when somebody’s spider-sense is tingling. Facial shadows include parallel lines that recall ink drawings. Textures contain dotted patterns reminiscent of vintage halftone printing for comics and newspapers. Unfocused images appear duplicated, like an old comic page with misaligned inks. Other comic book elements, such as yellow boxes and thought bubbles, pop up during Miles’ inner monologue. This reverence becomes apparent from the get-go, when the film features the Comics Code Authority logo of approval.
Heartfelt and Hilarious
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse could just as well have been an impressive yet soulless technical exercise. However, its well-balanced story and characterizations compliment its frenetic visuals. Everyone involved took care to inject as much heart into Miles’ tale as it could hold. The psychedelic battles around the super collider look like somebody locked Neal Adams and Dave McKean in an editing room with After Effects and LSD. Yet they work because we relate with all the characters. Miles, the Spider-Guys, even the Kingpin, who just wants to undo the mistakes that cost him his loved ones.
Also, and I cannot overstate this enough, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is really funny. The plot plays the most ridiculous elements of superhero lore for laughs, yet never mercilessly. The jokes are fast and intelligent, but never mean-spirited. There’s a great running gag that parodies superhero origin story overkill, in which every Spider-Man narrates how each got their powers, preceded by its own comic book cover. When Peter B. teaches Miles to shoot and swing, little onomatopoeias accompany each web dispersal. (“Thwip and release!”) A visit to late Peter’s secret lair takes shots at toy makers that sell vehicles clearly Spider-Man wouldn’t need. Even the hidden credits scene is a surprise delight that wraps everything up in a colorful bow.
This animated film is the fourth cinematic take on Spider-Man we’ve had in 12 years. This past year alone we had Avengers: Infinity War Spidey, PS4 Spidey and the silly but fun Venom. (Not to mention an engaging Black Panther and a kick-ass Aquaman.) Releasing another spider-flick would seem overkill, more so one with a clutter of spider-people. Regardless, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soars with top-notch mixed animation, a ridiculously fun plot and plenty of soul.
Behind the dazzling whiz-bang of this whole enterprise lie two comforting messages for superhero fans. First, everyone has the potential to “wear the mask” and save the day (let’s call it the Ratatouille/Dark Knight Theorem). Second, every existing version of any fictional character is valid and valuable, regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, species, operating system or even our own individual opinions. Spidey is Spidey no matter if he’s African-American, female, Asian, or an anthropomorphized pig. We need more lessons like these on diversity and creativity in our culture. That Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse delivers it in such a well-crafted, entertaining package, makes it that much more special.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I dare you to sit through the de rigueur Stan Lee cameo without getting glassy-eyed. (We miss you, Stan!)
Now showing only in theaters.
Movie title: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Movie description: A welcome change of pace for Spider-Man films that captivates with its frenetic visual style and wacky sense of humor.
Date published: 2019-01-12
Director(s): Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Actor(s): Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kathryn Hahn, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney, Zoë Kravitz, Chris Pine, Oscar Isaac, Stan Lee
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Animation