Look, I understand how you might be feeling. This is the seventh Spider-Man movie since 2002 and the fourth reboot. Your base instinct is to ask if another Spider-Man movie is at all necessary. Well in this case, the answer is unequivocally yes.
From Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – the minds that brought you 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, and theoretically parts of the Solo movie – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a movie that threads the needle between being a comic-book nerd’s wildest dreams come to life (like me) while also appealing to the rest of those who would rather see the genre die a swift death.
Most of this movie’s success is due to the very wise decision to make this an animated feature. While it has no doubt been exciting to see superheroes come to life in live-action form, Into the Spider-Verse is a wonderful reminder that comic-books are first and foremost a visual medium. From the offset the movie fills the screen with colors and hues that the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes can only dream of while the art style, evoking the texture of a comic book page down to the dot-matrix backgrounds, brings a vibrancy that actually evokes the look and feel of a comic-book rather than merely approximating it. The advent of computer animation should have theoretically opened the door for the infinite possibilities of using medium – but for the first two decades most computer animated movies have more or less borrowed from the Pixar playbook. Into the Spider-Verse represents one of the first movies to truly take the medium in a new and exciting direction.
It helps that after six Peter Parker-centric installments the latest movie focuses instead on the origin of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) – a half-Black half-Latino Spider-Man who was introduced in the alternate “Ultimate” Marvel comic universe in 2011. Like Parker before him Miles is a nerdy high-schooler who isn’t entirely comfortable in his own skin and gets bitten by a radioactive spider (a seemingly common creature in this universe). But that is where their paths diverge as Miles, as he has to juggle with the problems of being a bright kid on whom both parents (neither dead and played by Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez) have laid enormous expectations on while his cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who is the one person Miles is comfortable being himself around and the person Miles looks up to the most, turns out to be a disappointment in tragic ways.
Without a mentor to lean back on and with his newfound powers barely under control, Miles finds himself thrust into a quest to save the world from the diabolical Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) whose presence here simply reminds us how much his character has been missed in the other Spider-Man features. Kingpin’s builds a super-collider that opens a portal of sorts into multiple dimensions for his nefarious purposes – easily the trippiest evil plan concocted in a superhero movie. Tangentially it provides the chance for multiple Spider-Mans from multiple universes to arrive just at the right time to help Miles discover who he is and save the world (again).
This includes Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), the most recognizable version of Spider-Man except that he is jaded, morose, depressed, recently dumped by Mary Jane, and overweight. It falls on him to be Miles’ mentor and Johnson strikes the perfect balance of making this Parker both relatable as a person and hilariously unsuitable as a mentor. He is quickly joined by three more unlikely Spidey-people, each of whom provide their own version of their origin story that openly mocks just how well-worn the Spider-Man origin story is in modern Hollywood to great effect. They include Spider-Gwen/Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) who turns out to be the one who originally discovers Miles’ powers; Spider-Noir (an excellently game Nicolas Cage), a hard-boiled detective who exists in a world where everything is literally in black and white; an anime-inspired Penni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who is joined by a spider-robot that is psychically connected to her; and Peter Porker (John Mulaney), a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig which is still perhaps only the third weirdest anecdote about his character.
Yes, it is a dizzying plot to keep up with. And all of those comic-book fans who have been gaslit into believing superheroes and realism should go hand-in-hand are bound to be disappointed. But this is exactly why Into the Spider-Verse feels like a blast of fresh air in an oft-stale genre. The appeal of comic-books, and superhero comic-books in particular, is the infinite possible worlds it can conjure that may approximate our world but more often than not transcends it. Into the Spider-Verse is the first superhero movie in recent memory to truly embrace that idea. The tone and structure of this movie is constantly in flux as our heroes take stage with a background that can and does shoot off in creative tangents and diversions. Their fights happen at impossible angles and with questionable physics, but with such verve and veracity as to make them so much more interesting than the paint-by-numbers CGI-laden slugfests that seem to occupy most superhero blockbusters these days. And the animation affords the filmmakers a chance to sync up the forceful score perfectly with the action, taking the principles pioneered by the Silly Symphonies shorts to devastating effect. The end result is a movie that is a bold and brash riot of storytelling, color, and sound that is simply fun to watch.
There are minor quibbles to be had with the movie with Miles’ own personal journey to taking up Spider-Man’s mantle feeling particularly thin. But these are not things that you notice in the moment because while the individual Spider family members may not have enough narrative heft to sustain a solo movie, together they bounce of one another to produce one of the most distinctive additions to the ever-growing stable of superhero movies.
Like every superhero movie, this one comes with the promise of more to come and for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel weary at the thought of that promise and I for one thoroughly look forward to the inevitable Spider-Ham stand-alone feature in 2022.
Runtime: 117 minutes
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman
Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoë Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathyrn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine.
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