Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Sony and Spider-Man have had a rocky relationship over the years. Despite 2002’s Spider-Man setting box office records as one of the films that really blew open the superhero blockbuster genre, and Spider-Man 2 arguably being the best film of any of the modern superhero fare, things have gone precipitously downhill since then. Spider-Man 3 was marred by studio interference that saw Sam Raimi leave the franchise, and the two Andrew Garfield-led films did nothing to move the needle other than allow Sony to make sure they held onto the wall crawler’s rights. Attempts to launch their own cinematic universe died on the vine, and before long they came to Marvel Studios, tail between legs, and struck a deal to bring him into the MCU with Captain America: Civil War. They kept the rights, but Marvel got the control. It seemed like everything was settled.
But apparently that wasn’t enough for Sony, who continued to develop Spider-Man and Spider-Man-related properties outside of the Tom Holland films. First came Venom, a movie utterly derided by critics but surprisingly successful at the box office. Venom made no mention of Spidey, so you would think Sony would specifically stay away from using that character on their own, but it seems they had the exact opposite idea. Why have only one Spider-Man when you can have seven? Thus, the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was born.
The star of this film is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, of Dope fame), a young kid from Brooklyn attending a charter school for gifted students at the behest of his police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry), though he identifies far more with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). As is inevitably the case, Miles has a run-in with a radioactive spider and soon develops similar powers to Spider-Man (Chris Pine). During a run-in with the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber, with a wonderfully blocky character design) that Miles watches from afar, Spider-Man discovers a particle accelerator the Kingpin is using to delve into an alternate universe in order to be reunited with his deceased wife and son. Despite his best efforts, Spider-Man is defeated. But the accelerator was in operation long enough to pull an alternate universe Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), into Miles’ world. As a schlubby, middle-aged and disillusioned version of the hero, he’s not exactly the best role model for the young Miles, but they know that they need to stop the Kingpin before he tries to run the accelerator again and threatens to destroy the world as they know it. Soon enough, they discover more Spider-People made it through the time-space rift, including Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Japanese-American future Spider-Woman Peri Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and Gwen Stacy Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld). Though Miles struggles with his powers and his ability to be a hero, they’ll all have to come together to stop Kingpin and return to their own dimensions.
Perhaps most initially striking about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is its visual style. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rothman put together a design that’s a seamless combination of 1960’s silver age comic books and modern sensibilities. They recreate the Ben-Day dot style for much of the coloring and mix it with bold, contemporary artistry, but as the universes collapse onto each other, it’s represented by explosions of abstract art. Each alternate universe Spider-Man comes with their own distinct look, whether it’s the throwback Double Indemnity black and white style of Spider-Man Noir, the Chuck Jones zaniness of Spider-Ham or the anime feel of Peri Parker. It’s a beautiful look overall, marred a bit by some projection issues with my screening that led to some blurring on some close-up shots.
The design embraces comic book conventions and aesthetics in possibly the most successful way in cinema history; we’ve seen other movies attempt to integrate comic panels (Ang Lee’s Hulk) or straight up using the comics as storyboards (the Sin City movies, quite a bit of Watchmen), but none of them have worked as well as it does here. Narration boxes pop into frame alongside inner monologue and 60’s Batman style sound effects. Panels are used, but sparingly and judiciously. The melange of styles really gives it a comic book anthology feel, like there’s a new artist with each turn of the page. Most importantly, that visual feel works in concert with the film’s themes of diversity, acceptance and inclusion, showing how all of these visual styles and disparate characters can find something in common and the bonds that grow out of that. No one bats an eye when Spider-Man is a teenage girl or a kawaii anime kid or a pig (okay, maybe they bat an eye at the pig). Sure, Spider-Ham is played for laughs, a Looney Tune in the middle of these high stakes, but even he gets some real moments. Anyone can be behind the mask. It’s the great equalizer.
It’s safe to say that this ain’t your daddy’s Spider-Man. The opening makes some passing references to the Raimi trilogy (and, presumably very intentionally no references to the Andrew Garfield films), but that sense of nostalgia is dead and buried about as quickly as the original Spider-Man is. The script, from Phil Lord (of Lord and Miller fame) and co-director Rodney Rothman (who also co-wrote the deliriously entertaining 22 Jump Street), balances its themes deftly, crafting a classic Spidey story (Miles is, after all, an awkward kid going through some rough high school years who has a crush on someone named Gwen Stacy) and keeping that in the forefront even as the story spirals into the surreal and embraces a fiercely modern and often post-modern outlook. Lord and Miller have made their careers spinning questionable material into gold, and while Chris Miller isn’t a credited writer or director (though he is a producer), the duo continues to prove that they’re some of the sharpest minds in movies today. Every angle is covered with poise and sincerity and humor (the Deadpool films wish they could be even a quarter as funny), but it’s the depth of character that shines through.
It’s so easy to take the superhero formula for granted. Marvel has honed it into a fine point, establishing their approach to the hero’s journey formula with a heavy does of irreverence and humor. On its face, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse follows many of the same beats, but it feels like a breath of fresh air. Sure, certain superhero films rise above the rest, whether it’s The Dark Knight or Iron Man or X-2: X-Men United or Black Panther, but it’s rare that a big superhero movie feels as surprising and joyful as this one does. Marvel Studios has been making these movies for ten years, but none of them feel as exciting as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does. Everyone, from the writers to the directors to the animators to the cast to the (fantastic) soundtrack works together to create a beautiful symphony. Every year is a big year for superhero movies these days, but a movie like this deserves that little extra bit of oomph. This is a special one, folks, as good as the absolute best of the superhero genre. Don’t let it pass you by.