Tragic news for anyone who’s sick of superhero movies: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” completely reinvigorates the genre, reaffirms why it’s resonating with a diverse modern audience that’s desperate to fight the power, and reiterates to us how these hyper-popular spandex myths are able to reinvent themselves on the fly whenever things get stale. Just when it seemed like “Infinity War” might be the culmination of a cultural phenomenon, that Stan Lee’s death could symbolize the end of an era, and that “Turn Off the Dark” was always going to be the silliest possible subtitle for a Spider-Man adaptation, along comes a delirious postmodern spectacle to remind us that these movies will exist for as long as people need to see themselves reflected in them. Sometimes, that can feel like a threat. Watching “Into the Spider-Verse,” it’s more like a promise.
An eye-popping and irreverent animated experience from the marvelous comic minds who brought you “21 Jump Street,” “The LEGO Movie,” and roughly 75 percent of that misbegotten Han Solo movie, “Into the Spider-Verse” is somehow both the nerdiest and most inviting superhero film in a long time; every single frame oozes with fan service, and yet the entire project seems optimized for people who were rooting for Thanos to snap the Avengers into oblivion and put us all out of our misery.
This is an origin story for viewers who didn’t think they could stomach another origin story; it’s an origin story about how empowering origin stories can be. However much fun it might be to watch Captain America save the world for the umpteenth time, the most basic thrill of these movies is the idea that anyone can become a superhero (an ethos that Spider-Man has always personified) and “Into the Spider-Verse” stretches that idea to hilarious new dimensions.
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From a flashy opening title treatment that feels like it was inspired by “Enter the Void,” to a color-frenzied climax that looks as if it takes place inside of an old iPod commercial, this clearly isn’t the Spider-Man you’ve seen on screen before. Screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman (the latter of whom is also one of the film’s three co-directors) are more than happy to remind you of all the Spider-Men you have seen before, as things kick off with a funny meta-textual prologue that gently mocks the character’s propensity for being rebooted (“Into the Spider-Verse” is almost as self-aware as “Deadpool,” and considerably more clever about it).
It doesn’t take long for the film to put its money where its mouth is, as Peter Parker is brushed aside altogether in favor of 13-year-old Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), the son of a black cop (the delightfully ubiquitous Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles is more popular and self-assured than Peter ever was as a kid — and both of his parents are alive! Still, he feels suffocated by his parents’ expectations, and he’s yet to find his place at the fancy new tech school where he’s being groomed for greatness. As far as the film is concerned, that grooming process begins and ends with reading “Great Expectations,” because subtlety is still every superhero’s greatest weakness.
Miles only feels at home when he gets to graffiti the subways with his cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who might be a little more conflicted about their relationship than he first appears. Needless to say, the tension between Miles and his various family members is exacerbated further after he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, and entrusted to stop the sinister Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from using his nuclear supercollider to collapse several alternate universes onto our own and kill every single person on the planet. That’s a lot of responsibility for a kid who isn’t even old enough to watch Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of “Great Expectations.”
Lucky for Miles, he’s not on his own. Kingpin’s big death machine keeps drilling little holes in the space-time continuum, pulling Spider-Men, Spider-Women, and Spider-Animals from other dimensions into Miles’ world. Chief among them is a pudgy, divorced, 40-year-old Peter Parker who’s bored of the whole superhero thing and bitter over being dumped by his Kirsten Dunst-esque Mary Jane Watson. Voiced to curmudgeonly perfection by “New Girl” star Jake Johnson, this Peter is a wonderful foil and mentor for Miles, and it’s terrific — even poignant — to see them both grow to inspire each other. The subway-driven set piece where the two web-slingers first meet is the best of the film’s many terrific action sequences, as well as a kinetic illustration of how “Into the Spider-Verse” captures the nature of New York City better than any previous movie in the greater Marvel universe.
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That might be surprising, given that “Into the Spider-Verse” has been animated to resemble an unclassifiable cross between “The Incredibles” and “Waking Life,” with some anime flourishes sprinkled on top for good measure (the neon-soaked NYC nightscapes strongly resemble the futuristic megalopolis of Niihama from “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”). But the film’s wild and contradictory aesthetic — elements of which clash against each other like some kind of dissonant cartoon jazz — dazzlingly explodes the outmoded idea that superhero movies have to look a certain way. That’s an idea that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only helped to enshrine. Even a game-changing blockbuster like “Black Panther” contributed to the strict codification of genre norms, as its afro-punk stylings comfortably fit inside the glossy world of a larger franchise.
“Into the Spider-Verse,” on the other hand, plays by its own rules. Hand-drawn effects mesh with half-tone dots and a stilted frame-rate (images are held for 12 images per second, as opposed to the industry standard 24) to create a comic-book feel that’s further heightened by intense panelization and an array of dialogue boxes to express Miles’ inner monologue. Sometimes, the soft-focus backgrounds make it look as though you’re watching an old 3D movie without the proper glasses. That may not sound like much of a strength, and the overall vibe can sour whenever its careful equilibrium is disrupted — a treetop fight set against the orange leaves of the Hudson Valley is stunningly beautiful one moment, and garishly artificial the next — but directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and the aforementioned Rothman have managed to create a moving comic world that still allows your eye to focus on one individual moment at a time. It’s an animated world where anything is possible, and everything can co-exist.
If superhero movies don’t have to look a certain way, that means superheroes don’t have to be monolithic, either. As Peter tells Miles: “What makes you different is what makes you Spider-Man,” and “Into the Spider-Verse” delivers on that point at every turn. In other words, Spider-Man doesn’t have to be white (racist fanboys need to steel themselves for a story about a white man bequeathing his place in the world to a person of color). He can be black, or — in the case of Spider-Man Noir, voiced by a brilliant, Bogart-inflected Nicolas Cage — he can literally be black-and-white. He can be she, as proven by the sleek Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), or an anime schoolgirl (Kimiko Glenn as Japanese pre-teen Penni Parker who fights with a giant robot that’s piloted by an adorable little arachnid), or even… a pig (enter John Mulaney’s slobbering Spider-Ham).
All of them have their own strengths and burdens, and all of them are at their best when they’re on screen together. “Into the Spider-Verse” lifts into the stratosphere when these heroes assemble in the second act, and the bits where they play off each other are as sweet and electric as the Avengers have ever been. In fact, these sequences are so delightful that the rest of the film tends to suffer in comparison, with the script never finding the right angle to approach the bizarre family triangle that forms between Miles, his father, and his uncle. That’s a huge issue, even if the wistful kinship that forms between the Spider-Team is almost weirdly affecting enough to forgive the movie its flaws. Filmmakers may never recapture the magic of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2,” but with “Into the Spider-Verse” it seems a few of them have finally realized that they don’t have to keep trying.
Sony Pictures will release “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” in theaters on December 14.