Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
What makes you different is what makes you Spider-Man.
As many comic book pontificators have noted over the years, one of the key appeals of Marvel’s Spider-Man is his anonymity.
Sure, all good Marvel Zombies know that the original recipe Spidey is none other than Queens kid Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive yadda yadda yadda and driven to fight crime because with great power comes great so on and so forth.
But when he slips that big-eyed mask on, he could be anyone. Suited up, Spidey is a character bereft of distinct identifying features — hair color, eye color, and race — even, just about gender. The notion that anyone could be Spider-Man makes identifying with the hero that much easier for the audience — it’s not that hard to imagine that it’s you under the cowl, swinging through New York City’s skyscraper canyons, quipping and thwipping and generally superheroing it up.
That’s not the only reason Spidey has been a fan favorite for over 50 years, but it’s a big part of it.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the new theatrical feature from Sony Pictures Animation, not only knows this, it doubles down on it, presenting us with a panoply of no less than seven Spider … people to choose from. Chief among them is newly-minted Spider-Man Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), here making his (non-MCU it should be noted) big screen debut some seven years after he first swung onto the pages of Marvel Comics.
A gifted Afro-Hispanic teen, Miles is bitten by a radioactive yadda yadda and is forced to take on the mantle of Spider-Man when the original webhead (Chris Pine) is taken out by the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber), after nearly derailing the crime lord’s plans.
Yep, Spidey is dead. Or, at least, a Spidey is dead. That would be a pretty major spoiler in any other review except, as the title of this particular film connotes, we’re dealing with multiple dimensions, planes of existence and, you guessed it, Spider-Men (Mans? I dunno). So, yes, while one wallcrawler makes the ultimate sacrifice in the never-ending battle (and is rewarded with a massive outpouring of collective grief and a hero’s funeral), there are plenty more to go around.
How so? Kingpin’s plans involve a big ol’ high tech underground machine that can bridge dimensions. Unluckily for him, what it’s done is brought a plethora of web-slinging heroes to his world who are hellbent on stopping him. There’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), who hails from a world where she, Gwen Stacy, gained superpowers rather than Peter Parker; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, and let’s take a moment to savor that), a monochrome, trench-coat-and-fedora take on the hero; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-flavored incarnation from the far future who has a spider-themed giant-ish robot companion; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic pig with spider powers (technically he’s a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig, but whatever).
And then there’s the other Peter Parker or Peter B. Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson, Jurassic World (2015), who finds himself reluctantly thrust into the role of mentor for young Miles: an older, shabbier, schlubbier Spidey, thick of waist and low on prospects, divorced from Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) and wallowing in self-pity.
This is the best of the arrayed Spider-People, by the way — the notion of a Peter Parker who has kind of succumbed to his never-ending run of bad luck and bum notes is a delicious one and, with his voice acting, Johnson milks it for all that it’s worth, giving us a sardonic, cynical figure who can’t help but reveal, and ultimately revel in, the heroism he’s trying so hard to quash.
Johnson isn’t the only one here bringing their voice acting A game, and while there are showier turns that will attract fannish praise (Nic Cage is wonderful, and Kathryn Hahn’s role as a gender-flipped Doctor Octopus is a delight), it’s Miles Morales and his family that give Into the Spider-Verse its heart. Unlike previous incarnations of the ol’ web-head, Miles isn’t an orphan — his dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop, his mother Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) is a nurse, and his cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more than slightly dodgy. Miles’ key problem isn’t trying to live up to the legacy of a dead father figure, à la Peter Parker, but handling two main role models who are pulling him in opposite directions: his stern but loving father, who wants him to excel academically at the exclusive private school Miles has been admitted to; and his hip, slightly (well, more than slightly) dangerous uncle, who lives in a tricked-out loft, who gives him advice about girls, and encourages his art (Miles is a graffiti artist, and there’s a whole essay waiting to be written about the brilliance of marrying the iconography of Spider-Man with hip-hop culture).
Into the Spider-Verse totally smashes it out of the park when it balances these emotional, relationship-driven themes with the big, free-wheeling four-color spectacle of its overall plot — and you better believe the action in this one is utterly jaw-dropping. The animation is absolutely beautiful, using texture and color and light in a way that live-action cinema simply cannot in order to present us with a film that is as close to a comic book come to life as we’ve ever seen. Into the Spider-Verse melds the conceits of film, animation and comic strips in what feels like a wholly new way, picking and choosing techniques to best effect moment to moment. This is a movie where huge, wide-screen action vistas sit alongside sketched-in, rough-pencil intimate details that look like they were pulled fresh from the drawing table of a Marvel Bullpenner; where sound effects and voice-over narration are written across the screen, where the frame is sometimes masked to mimic the shape and intent of comic panels, where clashing animation and drawing styles sit alongside each other and it somehow works perfectly.
Effectively, what the film does is take the sheer, overwhelming anarchic possibility of the best superhero comics — and certainly the best Marvel comics — and somehow force it into the narrative shape required of a tentpole blockbuster, and it does it in such a way that elevates both, better than any other superhero film we’ve seen before (Infinity War is bloated and bombastic. Search your heart — you know it to be true).
It does this by simply refuting cynicism — a trait common to the works of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, The LEGO Movie (2014), who are the key creatives behind the film (though they’re not, it should be noted, among the three credited directors). Yes, there are cynical characters in the mix (Johnson’s Parker chief among them), but the film goes out of its way to negate their viewpoint. Ironic distance has no place in a movie where a hardboiled detective, a talking pig, and a spider-piloted robot team up to save the multiverse — a hint of snark directed at the premise and the whole thing would collapse in a heap.
It doesn’t, because Into the Spider-Verse is all heart. While the action is spectacular, the really big moments are emotional. They’re Aunt May (Lily Tomlin, and holy hell is that good casting) getting to meet another version of her slain nephew; Johnson’s Peter coming face to face with his estranged wife; Miles finally taking up the mantle of a hero.
… and perhaps the most perfect and heart-wrenching Stan Lee cameo in history.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the real deal. Relieved of the burden of MCU continuity and franchise construction, it delivers the purest, most heart-swelling onscreen distillation of Marvel’s magnificence so far. It’s a big-hearted, big-screen, colorful, climactic paean to all that is good in superherodom, and you should absolutely sprint (or swing, or wall-crawl) to see it as soon as humanly possible.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson