This animated take on the adventures of Spider-Man is so visually and creatively daring, one can’t help but wish that all superhero movies took an equally ambitious path to the big screen. Taken from a popular comic book storyline, the film takes a singular moment in time—when a teenage boy named Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider—and makes it the focal point of a multiverse, where different people in an infinite number of other versions of Earth are somehow turned into a version of Spider-Man, with varying results. By selecting this storyline, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels the most like a comic book than any other superhero movie to date, if for no other reason than it could only exist in a rendered space where a variety of animation styles could be brought together into a truly wild and electric journey.
While finding ways to acknowledge nearly every live-action and animated version of Spider-Man prior to this, Into the Spider-Verse is very much its own entity. We begin in a world where Peter Parker/Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) is trying to stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his monstrous hench-pet Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) from using a piece of unstable tech that is ultimately responsible to opening up gateways into other universes. But during the fight, Spider-Man is killed (oh, should I have said “Spoiler Alert”? Not necessary; stay tuned).
This is also the world where a teenage student named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is raised by two loving parents, mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry), whose shady brother Aaron (Mahershala Ali) secretly mentors Miles and takes him to a place where he is bitten by a different type of spider that gives him powers that are remarkably like those of the recently dead Spider-Man, but with a few extra bells and whistles. Not knowing how to control any of his abilities, Miles attempts to train himself with little success. While visiting the grave of Peter Parker for some inspiration, Miles runs into a slightly older and more out of shape version of Peter (wonderfully snarky Jake Johnson) from a parallel universe, whose exploits might seem somewhat familiar to us. He married a certain Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz), but their relationship didn’t last, and Peter gave up on a lot of things. Still, to find out that a version of him was recently killed is a bit of a blow.
The film brings in old favorites like Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), where several versions of Spidery characters show up, including the older Peter and Miles, but also fascinating variations including Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), who is a black-and-white detective version of the hero who appears to be animated in newsprint; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime creation who works in tandem with a spider-like robot; Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), who has been secretly watching Miles in high school as a fellow student; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a more cartoonish creation that seems more into telling bad jokes than anything, which is not to say he can’t kick ass with the rest of the team. It may sound crowded and confusing, but directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman have created a dazzling and easy-to-follow adventure that combines Peter’s love for science and the unique abilities of these Spider variations.
Some of the best moments involve the older Peter attempting what is essentially on-the-job training with Miles to make him a better Spider-Man. He introduces him to web-spinners and geometry in an attempt to teach Miles how to swing effectively. Each member of the Spider-Verse gets their own moments to standout and shine, illustrating how they have survived and thrived in their own world. But the film’s real magic trick is creating a visual space where universes are on the brink of colliding, as the Kingpin attempts once again to open up other universes in an attempt to save his wife (Lake Bell) and child from dying. With the help of a female Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn) and lesser-known but highly effective mercenary Prowler, Kingpin attempts to keep the heroes at bay as they try to introduce a kill code into the tech.
The animation styles at play in the climactic battle sequence force you to open your eyes wider to let in as much of the image as possible. But there’s also a playfulness at work here, due in part to the inspired choices for voice actors and from a daring and entertaining screenplay from Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Lord and his creative partner Christopher Miller (who made The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and the Jump Street films) are producers on the film, and their ability to know what is funny, thrilling and entertaining is evident on every frame of this movie. Into the Spider-Verse has twists and unexpected elements throughout, and has enough geek-friendly trinkets scattered within each scene that it’s impossible not to embrace this film’s playful spirit. And it ends with perhaps the greatest things of all: the promise of further adventures. The work feels like a dare not to love it; feel free to accept the challenge.
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