Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is to superhero movies what Yellow Submarine is to those rock-and-roll movies that were popular in the 50’s and 60’s: a head-spinning, dizzying, exhilarating ride that tosses conventions to the trash heap, showcasing the power of animation to create worlds like none we’ve ever seen before. Producers Phil Lord and Christoper Miller are the Hollywood champions of taking tired or outright stupid concepts that shouldn’t work and turning them into insanely enjoyable movies that succeed by embracing everything, good or bad, about the concept and applying the right blend of reverence and ridiculousness. The LEGO Movie is the quintessential example, but 21 Jump Street and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs are equally good examples. Into the Spider-Verse (where Lord shares a screenwriting credit with co-director Rodney Rothman) shows enough of their fingerprints to get added to the list of their successes.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse begins with Peter Parker summing up his origin story and his life up to that moment in a brief voiceover narration, cleverly winking at the fact that Spider-Man is one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world and that this isn’t his first time on-screen. However, the movie switches gears abruptly to focus on young Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a gifted young teenager who’s a little anxious about the new magnet high school he’s being pressured to attending by his loving but slightly pre-occupied parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez). A freak chain of events gifts him with comparable powers to Spider-Man right before he meets the superhero himself, just as Spidey is engaged in a pitched battle with the Green Goblin during a massive trans-dimensional experiment underwritten by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). While Spider-Man is successful in temporarily halting the experiment, it is not without cost, and soon Miles finds himself trying to adapt to his new super powers while helping to stop the Kingpin from restarting the experiment and possibly destroying multiple dimensions in the process.
I am reluctant to reveal very much more of the movie’s plot, since the sense of discovery is one of the best things about it. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse happily embraces Spider-Man in nearly every medium he’s ever appeared in and in nearly every variation that has ever happened in the nearly six decades since he debuted. This loving incorporation of all things Spider-Man lends Into the Spider-Verse a wild-eyed, insane sense of creativity and fun that keeps surprising and delighting the audience no matter how familiar any individual person is with Spider-Man. I can reveal that two related ideas combine to drive the movie’s extraordinarily entertaining and satisfying plot: that multiple alternate dimensions exist and that many people can have Spider-Man’s powers (and the great responsibility that comes with them). It’s ironic that the movie avoids rehashing the classic origin story by doing at least a half-dozen rehashes of the classic origin story, nicely deflating the importance of the origin in favor of showcasing the characters that resulted from those origins. Origin Stories Suck, and pairing Miles with other Spider-heroes creatively shifts the movie away from a conventional (read: boring, stupid, unnecessary) Origin Story, turning those origins into background noise for an actual plot.
The movie’s embrace of all things Spidey extends to a visual style that is driven by comic book sensibilities and aesthetics. Into the Spider-Verse steps solidly away from traditionally rendered 3-D CGI in favor of highly stylized animation that successfully translates the visual language of comic books into a moving medium. Characters and the space they move in are much flatter than a normal CGI movie, not quite turning into CGI paper-cut animation but definitely echoing comic book visuals. As another example, one traditional film trick to guide the eye to a specific element on the screen is using depth-of-field, keeping one specific thing in focus while everything in front and behind it are out-of-focus. Into the Spider-Verse makes those foreground and background elements look like were misaligned offset printing, with subtle ghosting and color effects. The movie also borrows the caption-boxes-for-thought-bubbles technique of most modern comics, and augments its excellent sound design with onomatopoeia text-effects slipped into the background, adding the word “BANG!” when a pumpkin bomb goes off or the iconic “Thwip!” when a web-shooter is triggered. To my eye, the best thing about this is how Into the Spider-Verse can exploit the late great Steve Ditko’s depiction of Spider-Sense with wavy lines radiating out from a character’s head, exploiting the best visual way to communicate what the power is and when it’s happening without feeling out-of-place and staying true to the overall visual style. The movie pulls out all the stops for the obligatory climactic action sequence anchoring the last act of the movie, succeeding better at this hoary superhero movie trope than every other superhero movie this year. Where both Incredibles 2 and Avengers: Infinity War mostly went bigger, Into the Spider-Verse goes for a vertiginous tour-de-force that drops a slam-bang action scene in a psychedelically strange setting, ensuring that just about anything can (and does) happen. Imagine the end sequence of Big Hero 6 set in the underwater world of Yellow Submarine and you’ll at least get close to the neighborhood.
Shameik Moore anchors a stellar voice-acting cast as Miles Morales, capturing both the exuberance and the insecurity of youth, both of which are made worse by the appearance of his super-powers. Jake Johnson plays his foil as Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, serving as a somewhat reluctant mentor to Miles and staying believable as he alternates between being a jerk and turning sincere and heartfelt, consistently keeping us off-balance by playing one when we expect the other. Hailee Steinfeld is a delight as the new girl at Miles’ new high school, playing the meet-cute moments and her subsequent role in the movie with charm and wit (and making me think that if there is a sequel, I wouldn’t mind if she was the one anchoring her own movie). I’ll also note amusing supporting performances by Nicolas Cage and John Mulaney, and the wonderful sugar-coated menace in the Kingpin scientist played by Kathryn Hahn. Finally, I adore Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez as Miles’ parents. The mark of great film characters is that you are left wishing that they did more in the movie, which means Miles’ parents both qualify.
The superhero movie genre is beginning to feel old-hat, falling into creative ruts that are getting solved by adding scale, somberness, and money, playing the same games except bigger. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse avoids those ruts through a combination of creativity, dazzling visual style, and a playful sense of fun. While movies like Big Hero 6 and the Incredibles movies both succeeded marvelously as animated superhero movies, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a game-changer. I’m reminded of the way that in the early 1990’s, the X-Men cartoon was a decent, conventional animated adaptation of Marvel’s popular franchise, while Warner Bros was rewriting the TV action animation rule book from top-to-bottom with Batman the Animated Series. For all the success of the live-action Marvel superhero movies (financially and among the fanbase, if not necessarily among critics), it’s hard to escape the on-screen reality that adults in vaguely ridiculous outfits are interacting with CGI characters and effects to varying degrees of success. No matter how successful the special effects are, they have to look like they’d fit in a world where Chris Evans is dressed up as Captain America. I’ve long held that one of the greatest strengths of animation is that since everything on-screen is artificial, nothing has to look fake. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a wonderful, insanely entertaining proof of that maxim.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is in theaters now. Don’t forget to stay through the ending credits for the obligatory Easter Egg. Also, check out our coverage of the New York Comic Con 2018 Spider-Verse panel and our press line interviews with the cast and directors.
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