What if I were to tell you that one of the most dazzling, innovative, hilarious and poignant animated films of the last few years was a Sony-produced Spider-Man picture that featured Peter Parker as a supporting character, you’d think I was crazy. And yet, here we are – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is infectiously endearing, a much-needed shake-up of the Spidey mythos that honors (and adorably prods at) what came before. Not only that, it’s got a beautiful story at its heart, and an animation style we’ve literally never seen before.
Sure, Peter Parker’s in this one (two of them, in fact), but Spider-Verse
tells the story of Ultimate Universe Spidey Miles Morales (Shameik Moore
), a mixed-race kid from Brooklyn struggling to fit in at his elite, supremely white charter school, living in a New York that idolizes and commodifies Peter Parker’s crime-fighting superhero Spider-Man (Chris Pine
). Miles is torn between the expectations set on him by his policeman father (Brian Tyree Henry
, who’s having a hell of a year) and his troublemaking uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali
, Green Book
), who encourages his love of street art. After he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, Miles has to struggle with all the prerequisite web-slinging powers of Spider-Man, plus a few new ones – he can turn invisible and generate electricity, though he “can’t do it on command.” As if that wasn’t enough, he accidentally stumbles upon a battle between Spider-Man and the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber
) over a dimensional collider that opens a portal to other universes, one which leaves Parker dead and Miles committed to stopping him. Thankfully, he’s not alone – the portal has spat out a number of other Spider-People from other universes to help him, including a middle-aged, loser version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson
), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld
), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage
), anime-inspired mecha pilot Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn
) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney
For a series and a character that’s been rebooted so many times on screen that it’s almost impossible to keep track, Into the Spider-Verse
is such an exhilarating breath of fresh air. The time for a Miles Morales Spider-Man story is long overdue, not just for the sake of some much-needed superhero representation, but to simply tell a different permutation of the story the general public knows by heart. Spider-Verse
is a film that doesn’t just try to overcome its characters’ long history and the public’s understanding of him – it embraces and plays with that history in ingenious ways. The script, co-written by LEGO Movie
legend Phil Lord
of Lord & Miller fame (both produce the film), is a thwip-smart blend of earnest character growth, tight structure, and cheeky self-aware nods to the fans without bogging itself down in the dreaded Mythos. There are some great nods to everything from the Sam Raimi films to the 60s cartoon to modern Spider-Man memes, and none of it feels too cheeky or out of place. This is a universe folding in on itself from other planes of existence; the chaos is embraced.
And then there’s the animation, which is somehow Spider-Verse
‘s greatest innovation to the world of animated film. Living in this curious intersection between stop-motion animation, comic book styling, and street art, Spider-Verse
comes closest to the sensation of reading a comic book. Miles’ world is stippled with cel-shading and dot art textures, our heroes leaping between comic book panels and walking past thought bubbles with giddy abandon. There are even moments of double-vision that approximate that feeling you get when you watch a 3D movie without the glasses, a jaw-droppingly novel tactic for illustrating depth. Not only that, the invasion of these other universes invite even more art styles to the party, from Peni Parker’s bold, simplified anime aesthetic to Spider-Ham’s odes to Chuck Jones. All of these aesthetics blend together into such a delicious melting pot of animation without feeling overly cluttered or incoherent. While some scant moments during the film’s dazzling action sequences occasionally threaten you with sensory overload, directors Bob Persichetti
, Peter Ramsey
, and Rodney Rothman
never lose the viewer in the mix. From a visual standpoint, we’ve never seen the likes of this before.
Thankfully, amidst all the Sturm und Drang of its visual style and the nods to the fandom, Into the Spider-Verse never loses focus on its characters. Sure, there are at least seven versions of Spider-Men to keep track of, but it’s Miles’ story through and through. Like Peter Parker, the development of his Spider-powers coincides with his evolution from boy to man; heck, Spider-Verse has Miles spell out the subtext of the characters’ origins by explaining away his weird behavior as “going through puberty.” And yet, his particular story feels grounded in the experiences of being a person of color, from the heightened tension between him and his policeman father to the code-switching he must do at his elite charter school to fit in. Plus, his family is still alive, making for an achingly powerful dynamic between Miles and his father – we get to see a Spider-Man who exists within a full, healthy family structure, which is just lovely. While he finds kinship in the other Spider-people, especially Johnson’s pudgy, slacker mentor version of Peter Parker, he’s still filled with an adolescent insecurity that holds him back from the man he could be. There’s a lot to relate to in Miles’ journey, from the universal anxieties of having “great responsibility” thrust on him at such a young age to the specificity of life as a brown man in modern America.
In short, Into the Spider-Verse
is an absolute revelation, a beautiful reinvention of the long-running character that also manages to revolutionize the way animated films are allowed to look and feel. To expertly juggle such a challenging visual style with Spider-Men from multiple universes, and craft a heartfelt story about a boy learning to find out who he is, is nothing short of miraculous. The more I think about Into the Spider-Verse
, the more I find new things to love. In the wake of Stan Lee’s passing
, it’s a joy to see one of his most beloved characters given such a beautiful cinematic love letter. (His
beautifully apt cameo, and the film’s dedication to him, is also sure to bring a tear to more than one comic fan’s eye.)