Right now, my love for Spider-Man is at an all-time high. Sure, over the 17 years since he made his big screen debut he’s gone through enough reboots and actors to make Batman and Superman’s heads spin off their chiseled shoulders, but each new outing has managed to bring something interesting to my favorite superhero (even if it’s just hilarious embarrassment, Spider-Man 3). With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse we get the fourth version of the character in that 17 years and a fourth leading man behind him – this time switching things to go the animated route – and not only does it prove that there will always be ways to make Marvel’s most versatile hero fresh, funny, heartfelt and amazing all over again, but that you can literally never, ever have enough Spider-people around. Literally, this movie proves he can be a talking pig and it will work triumphantly.
Taking place in a universe that may not quite be our own (the NYPD is called the PDNY, and movies like Shaun of the Dead are called From Dusk Till Shaun), Into the Spider-Verse centers not on the familiar Peter Parker, but on new Spider-Man Miles Morales, a half-Latino, half-African American teen who was given the mantle in the comics for his own series years ago. Much like Parker, he’s a bit insecure, awkward, but posses more style and sociability than the nerdy Parker, high-fiving neighborhood kids and trading out the photography for graphic art. Perfectly voiced by Shameik Moore, he’s an energetic, funny, but no less insecure teen who makes for the terrific modern alternative to Parker, who is still being performed masterfully by Tom Holland in the MCU.
After being bitten by a radioactive spider (how else would one become Spider-Man, after all??), he goes investigating for the insect and stumbles upon a secret lab run by the massive, block-shaped Kingpin (voiced by Liev Schreiber), where the real Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is taking on some classic baddies. A mishap occurs and a massive collider is turned on, colliding this dimension with another, and sending out numerous other Spider-people from different dimensions. Having to team up with a new, veteran, disheartened Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), the anime Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), the 1930s detective Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage doing his best Bogart) and the Looney Tunes-inspired Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Morales must learn to become Spider-Man and save the day – and look stylish doing it.
We’ve been told the superhero origin story time and time again, but the animated approach opens up the story and the environment in freshly engaging ways to make the familiar feel marvelous. For starters, there’s the animation itself. This is a mind-bogglingly animated movie that wastes no time testing the audience to see if their minds have what it takes to stand up to the film. The studio credits for Sony Pictures Animation shift in and out of rainbow colors, cloaked in a psychedelic style like a TV screen going bezerk, all before entering the kaleidoscopic realm of the movie. Headaches will be understandable, and walk-outs possibly forgave, but you’d be missing out on one helluva experience. Meshing 3D and 2D, this comic book brought to life combines typical computer animation with unbelievably complex visuals that look like they could belong in a live-action blockbuster. I can’t count how many times I was floored by the experience, leaving the theater wondering how the hell the animators achieved what they did. I suppose I could google it, but where’s the magic in that?
Then there’s the humor of the movie, which abounds thanks to the script by co-director Rodney Rothman and The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord (who also produces). Like that 2014 gem, the movie is filled with meta humor, self-referential gags (the opening pokes fun at the Raimi-Macguire Spidey movies), with Morales’ internally-voiced insecurities and thoughts brought out with comic book dialog boxes. Then there’s Johnson’s deadpan, sarcastic approach to Parker’s humor, Cage’s tough-guy Noir and Mulaney’s cartoonishness with Ham, meaning there’s more than enough laughs to match the awe-inspiring visuals.
Really, everyone in the cast is great, including supporting players Brian Tyree Henry, Mahershala Ali, Steinfeld, Glenn, and Lily Tomlin as the most badass Aunt May yet. The pathos to come out of Johnson’s Parker and the relationship between Moore as Morales and Henry as Morales’ father is on par with the levels of emotion befitting an animated movie from the likes of Pixar, but living in a world that feels epic like a typical Marvel film. Morales’ transformation into Spider-Man thus feels like an earned moment more than a simple “donning-the-suit” part of the movie, as he’s failed, lost, learned and connected with people along the way. At its core, it uses its story of multiple Spider-people coming from all over space and time to tell a tale about how no matter who you are or where you come from you can be a hero. If you don’t often feel an emotional connection in live-action superhero movies, prepare to leave in tears here.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will surely get comparisons to the other, live-action movies. But, really, it’s hard to rank this outing among the others, because it feels so uniquely in its own league. While it tells a story the honors the characters like Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s other-worldly animation and unique sense of humor make it an experience unlike any web-slinging adventure out there. It achieves things the others can’t and never will. Does it deserve a rank among the best Spider-Man outings? Without question. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is special in ways no other web can touch.