Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

by Andrew Parker

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will be a lot of different things to a lot of different people in exceptional, unpredictable, moving and refreshingly unpredictable ways. First and foremost, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is both the best looking and executed animated feature of the year. That distinction handily makes it one of the most satisfying and intelligently crafted studio blockbusters on the year. It stands shoulder to shoulder with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther as the finest and most progressive superhero flick in recent memory, and depending on your tastes, it’s probably the best film – animated or live action – to feature the world’s most prolific and often rebooted webslinger. It’s a film made for people of all ages without talking down to the intelligence, wit, or experiences of anyone in the audience. Much like the film’s overarching message that anyone who puts others before their own selfish needs can be a superhero, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the only film released in 2018 that stands the best shot of entertaining, captivating, and engaging with every viewer equally.

New York teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is having some trouble adjusting to the new private school he’s been transferred to by his mother (Luna Lauren Velez) and overly doting police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry). He’s having difficulties making friends his own age, so he spends most of his free time honing his tagging and graffiti skills with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). After one such artistic outing in the bowels of the subway system, Miles is bitten by a mysteriously multi-coloured spider and starts exhibiting many of the same wall crawling abilities possessed by Spider-Man, a.k.a. Peter Parker (Chris Pine), whose exploits are well known and documented in comic books and the press.  Returning to the scene of the bite for answers, Miles uncovers a dangerous plot perpetrated by the nefarious crime boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to open up alternate dimensions with a super collider in a bid to bring back his deceased wife and child. While there, an understandably freaked out Miles watches Spider-Man attempt to shut down the super collider amid a battle with Kingpin an a couple of other supervillains. In the chaotic throwdown, it appears as if Spider-Man has been killed in the line of duty, but not before Peter entrusts Miles with a computer key that can shut down Kingpin’s operation.

But just as Miles is about to mourn the loss of a New York legend, another Spider-Man with the slightly different name of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) shows up with little idea how he got there or what he’s supposed to do. It turns out that the collider, which has already dangerously altered the city, has summoned and transported Spider-Folks from different alternate realities to team up and save the multiverse. There’s Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a Spider-Woman; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a black-and-white, Nazi punching gumshoe; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her Spider-Bot sidekick, Sp//dr, emissaries from New York in the year 3145, and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a wisecracking swine with outlandish, cartoony fighting methods. They’re all seasoned crime fighters of varying temperaments (yes, even the pig), and even though the shift in realities is damaging to their health, they seem up to the task of shutting down Kingpin’s plans. Miles is keen to join in the fight, but his skills need a lot of work, and Peter B. Parker turns out to be a pretty terrible teacher and mentor.

There’s a lot going on in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – both narratively and visually – and it’s a testament to directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, co-director and co-writer Rodney Rothman, co-writer/co-producer Phil Lord, co-producer Christopher Miller and their entire cast and crew of artisans that it holds together as captivatingly and dazzling as it does. Lord and Miller, as many might know by this point, were the minds behind snappy, witty, and self-reflexive bits of entertainment like 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (not to mention television’s beloved and dearly missed Clone High, which gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual shout-out here). But while Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will be endlessly referential and comedically decadent for fans of the characters and their respective comic book arcs, the team behind this latest deep dive into Marvel’s convoluted mythology has focused instead on character, form, and function. It’s a lot to take in, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes some getting used to, but it never comes across as overwhelming or unnecessarily rushed.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is at its most meta and self-referential whenever it comes time to toss off the origin stories of the various visiting heroes. They’re rattled off in rapid fire fashion, coming back to important character details later whenever appropriate or necessary, but the only story that matters here is Miles’, and the focus never wavers. Miles Morales, much like Peter Parker, is awkward, likable, and talented. Much like his fellow do-gooders (and even Kingpin’s villain), Miles’ goals are born from tragedies, set backs, and shocking revelations. He feels the need to use his powers to do right by his loved ones, even though his father detests Spider-Man for being a vigilante. Unlike the first Peter Parker to pop up in this universe, who was a great superhero that was a bit too caught up in his own celebrity, and the newly arrived Peter, who’s a sarcastic burnout with a beer gut, Miles’ hasn’t become cynical or disheartened as a hero. That also might be the young man’s biggest weakness.

In a subtle, but not noticeable way, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse asks viewers young and old to question what exactly it is that they like about superhero narratives, and the film suggests that there are no wrong answers as long as the story in question makes them feel something. Do they prefer a wisecracking, confident, and affable hero or someone who’s awkward, humane, and flawed? Should these stories be serious and brooding, or should they be lighthearted and fun? These settings don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might be the only comic book movie that can leave serious genre fans and casual observers equally satiated.

Although it seems like there are way too many characters peppered throughout Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (including a slew of henchmen), all of them have a purpose, function, and wildly different approach to achieving their goals, some of them more constructive and helpful than others. If the point of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is to show how anyone can be a hero, then it equally has to show how all heroes learn from their own vulnerabilities and setbacks to strengthen their resolve and desire to implement change on a world that has put their real-life alter-egos through the emotional and social wringer. Of course, not everyone can shoot webs from their wrists, crawl up walls with only their fingertips, turn invisible, or build up electrical charges to incapacitate their foes, but everyone has the chance to do great things by channelling their pain into something constructive. In many ways, Miles Morales is the perfect example of what “Peter Parker” should be, with the young man’s artistic soul nicely mirroring his goals as a budding hero. “Peter Parker,” as both a concept and a person, should be a friend to all, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse espouses the belief that kindness and determination are the two biggest hallmarks of being a hero.

Sure, it sounds corny if you want to be cynical and jaded about it, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse comes at its surprisingly layered look at comic book heroism from multiple different and unique perspectives. Miles is the product of a mixed race parental unit, and he has a hard time reconciling his upbringing with the privileged school he’s currently attending. Peter B. Parker has mostly given up on himself, but he still feels driven to help others in danger. Peni still has one of her best friends by her side, while Gwen Stacy does everything she can to honour the memory one that passed away. While Noir and Spider-Ham are mostly on hand for some inspired comedic relief, they all have their “Aunt May,” “Mary Jane,” or “Uncle Ben” that makes them do what they do, but often the names are different and their function to the hero isn’t the same.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has created a platform for a slew of new characters capable of sustaining their own series or films, but it also explains how the idea of a character like Peter Parker can be a jumping-off point for grander concepts and themes. At every turn and through every varied character, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a thoughtful look at artistic expression and the creative spirit just as much as it’s a twisty, animated adventure yarn. From a purely critical standpoint, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the few pieces of mass marketed entertainment where every scene and sequence has something worth pondering or parsing from a number of different perspective, and one doesn’t need to be an academic to do it. It’s the kind of film that could inspire a new generation of storytellers, and it’s richer than most critical darlings could ever hope to be.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also has a visual sensibility all its own. Every frame drips with vibrant, sometimes purposefully clashing colours; some of them dotted and shaded to give the appearance of comic book panels. It’s also a spot on aesthetic choice that nicely reflects the creativity of its main character, and even the brief sojourns into the realms of the supporting heroes boast singular creative choices that speak to the overwhelming amount of imagination on hand. One can almost smell the spray paint and newsprint that inspired the look of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and it’s as intoxicating as the film’s eclectic blend of new school and old school pop and hip-hop that finds space for everyone from Post Malone to Black Sheep to John Parr. It’s a bold choice that takes as much getting used to as the frantic, but tightly constructed plotting, and one that grows more challenging, inspired, and breathtaking as it goes on. The climactic showdown between our heroes and the villains is a piece of almost surrealist pop art excellence that belongs in a modern art gallery just as much as it belongs in a cinema. The audacity and daringness required to make an animated blockbuster on such a level is just as worthy of praise as the story’s interlocking characters and increasingly emotional twists.

It’s also so good that I almost forgot to give the voice actors their proper due. Moore is perfect casting for Miles, imbuing the character with equal parts childlike wonder and teenage frustration. Johnson shines at every turn as the uppity, increasingly ineffective Peter Parker in a casting choice that sounds strange on paper, but then again Tobey Maguire, Tom Holland, and Andrew Garfield all seemed like curious choices for the character’s live action counterpart at various points. Cage and Mullaney get to be the scene stealers here, thanks to their characters’ proclivities for puns and bizarre non sequiturs, but they still get some disarmingly serious moments that the actors are able to nail without seeming out of place. Glenn and Steinfeld get the characters one will most want to see more done with in the future, not just because they’re female Spider-People, but because the pieces of backstory glimpsed here are the most fascinating and original of the side characters. Ali and Henry are strong choices for the mirror image male role models in Miles’ life, and Lily Tomlin pops up for an inspired take on the deceased Spider-Man’s Aunt May.

Sony has been trying for years now to create a new and sprawling Spider-Man universe with overlapping heroes and villains, but Into the Spider-Verse is the only example of how such a gameplan can be executed properly for maximum entertainment. With Spidey’s live-action counterpart now a cog in Marvel’s larger Avengers machine (albeit a pretty great cog in its own right), it’s refreshing to see a separate franchise arise that’s just as assured when it comes to creating its own mythology. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t part of a pre-existing machine, but rather a new and self-contained one.The fact that it’s also one of the most inclusive and inviting pieces of mainstream entertainment to come along in years is a tremendous bonus. Sure, there are some story elements that are silly, candy coated comic book fodder (all of which are subverted or gently mocked by the clever, but never annoying script), but that only makes the film’s messages about self-expression and the creation of art as an act of heroism all the more genuine. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is nothing shy of brilliant; the only truly unmissable blockbuster of the holiday movie season.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, December 14, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse:

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