Film Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Into the Spider-Verse embodies the peak of the comic book renaissance
Sony Animation Studios and directors Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, and Bob Persichetti go buck wild with the fantastic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Ditching continuity altogether while still keeping things layman-friendly, Into the Spider-Verse is a rollicking adventure that is equal parts thrilling, funny, and moving. Fast-paced with a lot of heart, the film is refreshingly quirky with a bombastic aesthetic and a charming sense of humor. In addition, the introduction of the Afro-Latino Miles Morales onto the big screen scores another home run for diversity this year. Minor spoilers ahead...
There are no less than 18 different versions of Captain America. He’s been killed and brought back to life multiple times, once as an ineffectual nonagenarian. There is a Soviet version of Superman where his rocket lands in a Ukrainian commune instead of Smallville, Kansas. There is a multi-colored alien version of Batman named Tlano from the planet Zur-En-Arrh. Comic book continuity is deep, complex, and incredibly weird, with almost a century’s worth of stories contributing to persistent realities that are constantly evolving and changing. This is both a blessing and a curse, as most comic book characters have a rich and diverse history ripe for mining; but also decades of baggage, convoluted history, and strange parallel universes that aren’t always elegantly or neatly laid out. Modern superhero films, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, are typically sanitized and streamlined versions of their comic book counterparts, free from the burdens of complicated continuity and tangled backstories. This is mostly a corporate construct designed to appeal to the broadest spectrum of the mainstream audience, in which not everyone knows, for example, that Spider-Man once traded his happy marriage to Mary Jane Watson to the devil to save Aunt May’s life. Yes. That happened.
With that in mind, this brings us to the incredible Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Wanton in its disregard for the mainstream audience’s knowledge or lack thereof of Spider-Man lore, the film tells a fantastically weird story steeped in the strangest corners of the web-slinger’s history, while keeping things as accessible as possible - it’s a balance so delicate that it’s nearly impossible to believe that it can be achieved, let alone successfully. But here we are in 2018 with an animated Spider-Man film where Peter Parker isn’t even the main character, and with a cast featuring the mind-boggling combination of Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham, a Nicolas Cage-voiced Spider-Man Noir, and much more. Sony and the film’s trio of directors take an enormous risk with Into the Spider-Verse, and it pays off handsomely with a film that is the perfect blend of adventure, character-driven storytelling, and fun - one of the year’s best films sure to delight hardcore comic book geeks and casual fans alike.
“…The perfect blend of adventure, character-driven storytelling, and fun - one of the year’s best films sure to delight comic book geeks and casual fans alike.”
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse centers around Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn-raised Afro-Latino teen struggling to fit in at a prestigious new boarding school. A fairly well-adjusted teenager, Miles has a loving but sometimes frosty relationship with his policeman father (Brian Tyree Henry, having a great year), who frowns upon all the time he spends with his caring but ne’er-do-well uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles also admires Spider-Man (Chris Pine), who in this universe, is a 26 year-old Peter Parker who has already been active as New York’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger for over ten years. One night, while tagging an abandoned subway depot with graffiti with his uncle Aaron, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, giving him wall-crawling superpowers. Miles doesn’t even have a chance to get accustomed with his newfound abilities when unfathomable tragedy strikes New York City as the result of a quantum experiment gone wrong. Sponsored by the Kingpin of Crime himself, Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber), the particle accelerator rips open the fabric of spacetime, and several different versions of Spider-Man begin to cross over. The film has a ton of fun bringing over weird versions of Spider-Man as they band together to stop Fisk, but none get more screen-time than Peter B. Parker, a washed-up Spider-Man in his forties and the twilight of his career. Grey-haired and divorced from Mary Jane, Jake Johnson (New Girl, The Mummy) brings laughs, heart, and something fresh to the reluctant mentor role we’ve all seen before. The relationship between Miles and this Peter form the backbone of the story, and their palpable chemistry is a fun and oftentimes moving foundation on which the film is built.
One of the film’s biggest assets is its visual style, a psychedelic blend of traditional animation and CG that separates it from the polished and shiny herd of Pixar and Dreamworks fare; utilizing thought bubbles and text as sound effects, the film literally looks like a comic-book brought to life, and introduces plenty of gags and flourish unique to the style. The animation also plays fast and loose with the frame rate, with a lower frames-per-second that gives movement and action a real jerky dynamism never really seen before in entertainment. The film establishes its own look and voice, and it really wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that the movie is gorgeous - a trippy amalgamation of Benjamin Day, Roy Lichtenstein, and funky rotoscoping that is an absolute joy to behold.
In terms of story, Into the Spider-Verse hits many familiar beats, but somehow doesn’t feel tired or stale as it puts its own refreshing spin on genre tropes. The narrative touches on plenty of themes prevalent in comic book films, and especially Spider-Man tales - power and responsibility, coming of age, and identity - but does so in interesting and surprisingly mature ways. And while the movie may be rated PG, there are some shockingly dark twists involving death and grief that may have parents thinking twice before bringing their young children. The grim moments, however, are balanced out by a witty and oftentimes hilarious script, credited to Rodney Rothman and Phil Lord of The LEGO Movie and Jump Street fame. The whip-smart scripting enables the various Spider-Men and Women to be the charming and beating heart of the film, sure to put an ear-to-ear smile on any adult or child. This ragtag Spider-Team utilizes our familiarity with the Spider-Man story to send an affirming and unique message: it doesn’t matter how goofy and quirky we are, we all have what it takes to be heroes in our own way.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a great film, but a profound game-changer in the world of superhero films: a resoundingly successful experiment that will open countless doors to the weird, wonderful world of comic books. This is the film that proves that the mainstream audience will accept the strange and fantastic, and that studios don’t necessarily have to water down their tentpole properties, as long as the care and effort are put into the characters and story.