You know the story by now. A nerdy, unassuming teenager gets bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers. They struggle with their place and identity, finally embracing the responsibility that comes with their powers, and work tirelessly to defend their city from threats both mundane and extraordinary. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as comic books. Or is it? The prismatic, exhilarating animated film Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is here to put a new, very welcome spin on an overly-familiar story.
Our teenager this time is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an aspiring artist who’s overwhelmed by the elitist private school he just got enrolled in and the expectations of his parents. After he gets bitten by that radioactive spider, he discovers a plan by underworld boss the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to open a dimensional portal using a supercollider. During the collider’s first run, it doesn’t go according to plan and ends up depositing an entire squad of alternate dimension Spider-People into Miles’ Brooklyn, including a 40-something Peter Parker (Jake Johnson); a spider-powered Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld); and anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). It’s up to this Spider-Team to stop Kingpin from reactivating the collider and potentially destroying every reality everywhere.
That plot might sound fairly standard for a superhero adventure. Reluctant hero. Big bad villain. My super-weapon will destroy everything you know and love. Great power, great responsibility. Bing, bang, boom. End credits. But the action-plot of Spider-Verse isn’t the main attraction here. Rather, it’s a fundamental exploration of the qualities that not only make up Spider-Man as a cultural icon and comic book touchstone but the elemental nature of Stan Lee-sized superheroics itself.
The film subverts our expectations right out of the gate by opening with narration by the Peter Parker of Miles’ dimension, voiced winningly by Chris Pine (and thereby making all four of the Holy Chrises heroes in the Marvel universe). Even Parker himself is bored by retelling his own origin story, which recreates nearly every famous scene from the original Sam Raimi trilogy — including the infamous dance sequence from Spider-Man 3 — and goes on to show him as a fully-merchandised and widely-beloved media sensation. Then 30 minutes later, after trying to stop Kingpin’s collider, he’s dead. For reals.
That’s not totally a spoiler; it was revealed in several teases and clips online prior to the film’s release, including a post-credit scene in Venom. And it’s necessary for Miles to begin his quest to become his own Spider-Man. It’s also very, very necessary to demonstrate the film’s commitment to exploring the qualities of a hero. New York is seen in collective mourning for Spider-Man’s loss, and it’s this sense of abandonment that inspires Miles to become more than he is and to seek out a place for himself in the world beyond the low expectations he had set for himself.
This is where the other Peter Parker comes in. Older, wiser, a little wider, and definitely more cynical, he’s like a commentary counterpoint to Miles’ too-perfect idea of what Spider-Man is. In fact, every one of the Spider-People involved comes at their job from a different point of view, even if all of them have remixed versions of the same origin story. In a brilliant metatextual running joke, each hero gives a slightly different version of the original Parker’s narration in their own unique style and visual palette.
The film’s strongest asset beyond its emotional core, and the thing that helps sell this emotional core beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, is it’s innovative, immersive, and fully-realized visual style. The entire film is designed to resembled a classic comic book. Fields of ben-day dots, the occasional blurry or double-exposed background shot, and even narrative boxes highlighting Miles’ inner monologue combine to throw the viewer/reader into a heady, hypnotic four-color trance. The film’s approach might seem off-putting or over-reaching at first, but it takes no time at all to get sucked into its giddy headspace.
What’s even better is that Miles himself seems aware of those narrative boxes, and as the film goes on and the dimensions bleed into each other thanks to Kingpin’s collider, those comic book touches become a more natural part of the flow of Miles’ reality. Whereas films like the Scream franchise or Deadpool break the fourth wall to offer utterly sarcastic but ultimately respectful shade to their genres, Spider-Verse does so to celebrate the nature of its source material in every way, shape, and form. This isn’t a comic book film adaptation so much as it’s a literal comic book film.
But an animated film often lives and dies by its voice cast, and Sony has assembled a near-perfect team of talent to bring this ‘verse to life. Shameik Moore makes for a sympathetic and engaging hero, ensuring that Miles Morales’ first big-screen outing is a complete success. He plays well off of Jake Johnson’s snarky Spider-Man and Hailee Steinfeld’s Spider-Gwen, who’s too-cool vibe is tempered by Steinfeld’s warm approach to the character. Likewise, Brian Tyree Henry does an excellent job as Miles’ police officer father, balancing a stern exterior with a vulnerable heart.
The remaining Spider-People each get their own visual style that’s matched by the most appropriate voice actor possible. Peni Parker is an anime schoolgirl with a spider-mech who’s kawaii look is complimented by Kimiko Glenn’s bright vocals. Spider-Noir is a black-and-white, hard-boiled detective voiced with campy, self-aware precision by Nicholas Cage. But the scene-stealer is John Mulaney as Spider-Ham, who’s drawn as a Saturday morning cartoon and operates completely within those mechanics. During the final battle, he even drops an anvil on a bad guy. Mulaney approaches the role with a comedic deadpan that ends up being a surprisingly serious take on a very not-serious character.
And the villains? Well, they’re just as good. Liev Schreiber is a perfect Kingpin (sorry Vincent D’Onofrio…still love ya), with any trace of his own tough-guy acting persona subsumed into the character. Kingpin himself is written as a more complex villain than might be expected in an animated film like this, and Schreiber seems to understand all aspects of his motivation. He’s almost outdone by Kathryn Hahn as Olivia Octavius, known to her friends as Liv and to her enemies as Doctor Octopus. Liv is a daffy sociopath, a heartless antagonist who’s nonetheless made disarmingly charming by Hahn’s quirky, clearly-having-fun approach that recalls the best animated super-villains.
The film’s only real fault lies in its greatest strength. While it tells a story of how to become a hero very well, this is still a story we’ve heard a dozen times before, no matter how many ways it gets spun. Its beats are quite predictable, and the final act is a bit drawn-out and from a narrative standpoint is basically on autopilot. It’s broken up by some genuinely thrilling and creatively-staged combat sequences and head-spinning visual tricks that make Doctor Strange’s folding cities look like child’s play, but it can often be too active and too ambitious for its own good.
That shouldn’t be read as a huge criticism, though, because by that point any viewer should have become lost in the film’s brave and bold visuals and its commitment to examining in the most emotional terms what comic books and comic book heroes mean to us as a collective culture. A mid-credits moment highlights a quote from the late Stan Lee: “The person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed and without a doubt, a real superhero.” That’s the message of this movie, the message of Spider-Man, and the message of Marvel. As the six Spiders here show, heroes come in all forms, all shapes, and from all places. We’re all Miles Morales. Or Gwen Stacy. Or Peter Parker. We’re all heroes in the end, and we need a reminder of that now more than ever.
FBOTU Score: 9 out of 10 / A