Over the years, the comic book movie has changed immeasurably. Prior to the year 2000, you could basically count the successful superhero movies on one hand and the only heroes able to really break through were Superman and Batman. This meant Marvel was completely shut out despite feeling like the hotter publication for a long time. That company’s forays into the world of cinema were largely terrible and the only semi-successful venture was probably The Incredible Hulk television series.
Now though it seems like anything Marvel wants to send to the big screen is a massive success. It’s not that surprising that X-Men eventually worked or that Spider-Man could become a big player. Captain America? That one is pretty surprising considering how lame he was when I was a kid. Basically everyone associated with The Avengers had been pushed aside. Those were the heroes your parents might have read about, but us 80s and 90s kids wanted mutants, pouches, and clones, damn it! We once thought that in order for these movies to be successful they needed to be more grounded than a comic and basically not look like one. Drab costumes for the X-Men, realistic villains for Iron Man, and so on. Now we’ve learned that doesn’t matter. Bright spandex is in, heroes leave the planet, and a big, purple, bad guy can lead one of the most successful movies of all time.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse pushes the super hero movies even closer to the world of comic books. It’s a bold movie on the part of Sony Pictures and Marvel, though considering the budget for this film is far less than what is spent on a typical live-action super hero film it’s perhaps not perceived as being a great risk. Spider-Verse is a film aimed at the longtime fans of Spider-Man. It’s not really made for those who liked Spider-Man comics as a kid and then moved on, or simply know the character from his other films. This film is modern, it contains references to the old Peter Parker who fell in love with and married Mary Jane Watson, something Marvel has undone. It also references a Spider-Man who divorced MJ, a Spider-Man who is actually a woman, and a Spider-Man who is black. Only in comics could all of these different, yet all valid, versions of one character exist and this film seeks to throw them all into one movie. It’s a transdimensional gathering of Spider-People (and animals) which is the type of story usually reserved for the world of comics as comic fans are used to differentiating from Earth-616, Pre-Crisis, Ultimate, etc. It sounds complicated, and it kind of is, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ends up being far more accessible than it has any right to be.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is based on a screenplay from Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman directed by Rothman, Bob Persichetti, and Peter Ramsey. It’s a computer-animated film that seeks to emulate the look of a comic book. Movement is intentionally janky as a low frames-per-second was utilized to make sure that basically every moment of the film could work as a still image from a comic book panel. It’s the careful planning of the screenplay and the direction that allows the viewer to ease into this one as it slowly peels away layers making the plot more complicated as it goes along without becoming overwhelming.
The movie focuses first on teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Morales is a young man who is an only child to police officer Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and nurse Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez). His father is african american and mother Puerto Rican, and even though he shares a last name with his mother, his parents are a couple and they all live together in Brooklyn. Miles though is sent to a special academy for schooling which functions like a boarding school. He doesn’t like it, but his father insists it’s for his own good. His mother is more sympathetic to his concerns, but not enough to interfere on behalf of her son. Miles is quite smart and apparently gifted, but he desires to be what he feels is normal. As a result, he has a kindred spirit in his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles’ preferred form of expression: tagging. Aaron and Jefferson apparently had a falling out of some kind and aren’t on speaking terms, so Miles has to sneak around to hang out with him.
It’s partly through sneaking out with his uncle that causes Miles to run into Spider-Man (Chris Pine). While tagging a tunnel in the subway, Miles is bit by an odd looking spider. The next day, he feels off and finds he’s sticking to everything and unable to make sense of it. When he returns to find the spider that bit him he encounters Spider-Man, who is battling with a massive, monstrous, version of the Green Goblin who is working for Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber), also known as The Kingpin. Kingpin also employs The Prowler and Tombstone and they’re trying to prevent Spider-Man from destroying a particle accelerator. He will be unsuccessful, and it’s the turning on of that particle accelerator that opens up a rift between the various dimensions which causes other versions of Spider-Man to enter Miles’ world.
Most of the movie will then center around Miles and one of the other Spider-Men, played by Jake Johnson. With Miles trying to figure out his own spider-powers, he turns to Peter B. Parker, but unfortunately for Miles this version of Parker is older, out of shape, and not really a good teacher. They need to steal a code from Fisk in order to destroy the accelerator and return Peter to his own dimension. It becomes apparent that they’ll need help though, and gradually more versions of Spider-Man are introduced including Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) and Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage). Each time a new one is introduced, they get a little 30 second origin story that all utilize the same concept. It’s both informative and amusing and never gets old.
While a lot of different versions of the classic character appear, the film never loses sight of the fact that this is really Miles’ story. He has to deal with disappointing his father and trying to find his footing amongst a group of people that have all been at this Spider-Man thing for quite awhile. He’s insecure, and unsure of himself. He just wants to be a normal kid, and while we see right away he’s a fan of Spider-Man, it’s not really something he necessarily wants to be. It’s a movie of self-discovery, camaraderie, and family. Most of the villains are simply physical adversaries, though some time is given to Fisk, and yet the film doesn’t suffer because of it.
The story in the film is well-told, but the major take-away from the film will be its look and style. It’s computer-animated, but there’s a hand drawn quality to everything present not seen in something from the likes of Dreamworks or Pixar. It’s bright, bold, and unafraid to take chances. There’s a sequence where Miles and Peter are stuck via webstring to a subway car and are pulled throughout New York at night. They pinball off of cars, slam into pillars, and slide across windows. It’s a chaotic, visual, experience that never gets out of hand or hard to follow. The finale is even more ambitious as the heroes battle the villains while the accelerator goes nuts and starts sucking in buildings and vehicles from other dimensions with everything suspended in a surreal setting. The film doesn’t need those tricks to be interesting though as even watching Miles walk down the street or emerge from a subway car is visually engauging. Sony stumbled onto something that really works here and I doubt this is the last we’ll see of this style.
The vocal cast is wonderful with not a bad performance to be found and the music the film turns to is appropriate as well. The film opens with Miles listening to the film’s featured song, “Sunflower” performed by Post Malone and Swae Lee, and the rest of the songs used in the film all sound like something Miles would listen to. It’s heavy on hip hop and R&B, while composer Daniel Pemberton mixes similar concepts within a traditional superhero score. Like the film’s visual, the soundtrack and score meld beautifully with the scenes and characters and it’s hard to imagine the film having a soundtrack that could possibly be more appropriate than what is here.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a technical and artistic marvel in cinema. It’s a film made for the Spider-Man fan, but one that isn’t exclusive to that fan base. The character of Miles Morales is portrayed in such an authentic manner that it’s almost unfathomable to think someone could watch this film and not fall in love with the character of Miles. His journey from typical teen with typical problems to full-fledged Spider-Man could feel too familiar, but the film makes it compelling and interesting every step of the way. It’s also impossible to talk about the film and not mention how important and refreshing it is to see a character of mixed race assume the spotlight in a superhero film. I’m just a dumb white guy, so perhaps my opinion isn’t relevant, but I found it exciting and awesome to see Miles assume the mantel of Spider-Man and make it his own. The message of the film is that a hero can come from anywhere, anyone can be Spider-Man, and it’s a message the film takes to heart. And it isn’t just Miles as we also get a wonderful portrayal of Spider-Woman via the Gwen Stacy character. I’d love to see another adventure from Miles, and I’d also love to see a Spider-Gwen movie because I found her character really compelling as well. Hell, I’d even take a Peter B. Parker movie to see how things turned out for him.
I suspect that given the success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that we’re not done with this setting. I don’t expect a sequel to feature dimension-hopping unless it’s flipped and Miles journeys to help another Spider-Man. I think more likely is that a more conventional plot is scripted for Miles. However it happens, it needs to because Miles is too wonderful to only receive top-billing in a single film. I think most who see this film will walk away pondering if it’s their favorite Spider-Man film or close to it. I want to watch it again, but I think I would put Homecoming ahead of it, but it’s not an easy call. This film may be crowded with Spider-People, but it understands Spider-Man and presents what is a perfect Spider-Man story. It may be animated, but it’s paced like a live-action film and definitely isn’t aiming to lure in children, like many animated films developed primarily for a western audience aim for. If you passed on this one because it’s not tied into the Marvel Cinematic Universe or are intimidated by the plot then you made a mistake. There’s time to fix that mistake though and I urge you to do so.