When it was first announced that Sony had greenlit an animated Spider-Man film, I seemed to be one of the few genuinely excited at the announcement. While many were just tired of Sony’s thinly veiled attempts to cash in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (there was even a rumored film centered around Aunt May!), this was an opportunity to present a fresh take on the Spider-Man universe. Animation is just a different animal, able to show us worlds and characters with a fluidity and Grace that is often absent from live action. And now here we are, and I’m happy to report that Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse exceeds my best expectations. It’s truly a film that captures the fun and energy of the Spider-Man character, and it’s success is hopefully a sign of things to come in the genre.
The film follows Miles Morales, a black-hispanic high schooler living in New York. He admires Spider-Man, while his father, a New York cop, hates the vigilante. Miles’ father is a strict, no-nonsense authority figure, who removes his son from the inner city school where all of Miles’ friends reside, to put him in a boarding school much to his son’s chagrin. His father also disproves of the street art that Miles has been making around town. It seems the only one close to Miles that understands him is his uncle, Aaron. Their relationship is one of the joys in the first act of the film, as we see Miles in a comfortable environment where he can let out all his thoughts. Aaron teaches him how to talk to girls, and encourages his artistic instincts – taking him to locations where Miles can perform his art (which is also where he comes into contact with a radioactive spider).
It isn’t long after Miles’ spider bite before his metamorphosis into Spider-Man occurs, embarrassing himself in front of all of his classmates. He returns to the location where he was bitten to find some answers to what’s going on with his body, only to discover a battle between Spider-Man and the Kingpin. For reasons we’ll find out later, Kingpin’s henchmen are attempting to create a device that allows him to access parallel universes – and that’s where our alternate universe Spider-people come into the equation. There’s Spider-Woman/Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn). And to tie everything together, we’re introduced to a middle-aged Peter Parker (Jake Johnson). In this Peter’s timeline, he’s an out of shape slacker who’s opining his breakup with Mary Jane. They’ve all been transported against their will to Miles’ dimension, and together they must find a way to get back to their dimensions while also stopping Kingpin.
While the plot may be a mouthful, the actual experience of watching it play out is a breeze. This is down to clever direction, some of the best editing you’ll see all year, and an array of colorful characters that keep you invested in every scene, every moment. The film is easily the silliest Spider-Man film you’ve ever seen, but the animation medium not only allows it to be, but it would be a missed opportunity if this film wasn’t a ridiculous adventure. All of the different versions of Spider-Man are unique, and I wouldn’t mind seeing films based solely on Spider-Woman or Spider-Noir. The animation is among the best this year, with only Incredibles 2 displaying better action in the genre. This could have easily been a traditional 2D or Pixar-Lite 3D venture, but instead there’s a bit of both here as the film goes for a look that best displays the energy and movement of the comics, while ensuring that your eye is consistently focused on the foreground. The film also utilizes aspects of comic books, like thought bubbles, for great comedic effect.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the comedy is in abundance here. In fact, it’s just as much of a comedy as it is an action movie. For every scene where we’re meant to sympathize with Miles or with middle-aged Peter, there’s like 5 other scenes where they have the piss taken out of them. But unlike the MCU, where many of the jokes don’t land, the humor here has a rhythm and logic to it that’s consistent with the tone we’re introduced to in the opening minutes. There’s self-deprecating humor, there’s breaking the 4th wall, there’s fan service (including one shout out to Spider-Man 3). The freedom on display here is invigorating when so many superhero films feel like they’re on an assembly line. But there’s never been a superhero film like Spider-Verse.
The screenplay was penned by Phil Lord (of the famous Lord and Christopher Miller directing duo) and Rodney Rothman. There’s certainly that Lord & Miller touch present with all the zany humor, but the creators still stay true to the spirit of Spider-Man. For Miles, it’s in having all the abilities in the world, but learning to use them properly because you haven’t figured out how to be an adult yet. For Peter, it’s about accepting failure and learning to get it right the next time. And even for the film’s villain, Kingpin, it’s about coming to terms with whether or not he’s a monster or a redeemable person – and most often this conflict isn’t resolved, and by design. There’s a vulnerability to these characters that feels real and honest, and certainly honors the type of storytelling Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko hoped to establish when these characters were created.
I’m not sure how profitable Spider-Verse will be in the end, although it will certainly be successful. But my hope is that the final box office gross will not only encourage a possible sequel, but also other films in this same vein. For too long, comic book films have sat out the animation game on the silver screen.. There are many direct-to-video films being produced, but theatrical films include the promise of a budget that allows these films to go towards even higher plateaus. And the prospect of elseworld stories involving some of our favorite heroes in films that feel familiar yet innovative is tantalizing. This goes for DC too, as I’m sure Warner Bros is looking at the success of this film and wondering how they can accomplish this for characters such as Batman, Superman, and The Flash. I just hope that any future films that are greenlit in the aftermath of this film strive for the same level of creativity. What this film teaches us is despite all the declarations that the superhero genre is beginning to get stale, there’s still room for the genre to surprise us and amaze us. This is the 8th theatrical film to feature Spider-Man in some capacity, and yet he’s never felt more fresh.