Throughout its storied comic book lifetime, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man has seen its fair share of adjectives prefixed to the titular hero’s name on comic book covers. Amazing. Spectacular. Superior. Ultimate. And now for the first time ever, across 16 years and four different on-screen iterations, we have a Spider-Man feature film that is actually fully deserving of all of those descriptions.
It’s easy to say Sony’s jaw-dropping animated thrill-ride Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before, but it’s actually the inverse that’s true. What co-directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman have done is revel in the freedoms granted by animation, using a combination of modern CG and hand-drawn 2D elements with half a dozen other graphical touches, to give us the most comic booky of comic book movies. With its halftone shading, yellow speech boxes, frantic movement lines and even colour bleeding, you would be forgiven for wanting to reach out to the screen to turn the page. In a time when comic book movies often get accused of being creatively homogenous, Into the Spider-Verse blazes its own storytelling medium-blending trail. This is the dwarfing imaginations of comic book gods Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, once confined to the flat prison of the page, brought to life on-screen like… well, like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
That holds true for the star of this rollercoaster as well, as Into the Spider-Verse offers the first big screen introduction of Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino teenager who took on the mantle of Spider-Man in Marvel’s Ultimate Comics imprint when the Peter Parker of that comic book alternate universe died tragically. The film follows the same beats, as we get introduced to Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore), a typical New York urban teen who just wants to spend his time listening to music and tagging public spaces with his graffiti art, the latter of which he’d much rather be doing than nodding off in physics lectures at the exclusive upmarket high-school his loving cop father Jefferson (Bryan Tyree Henry) and nurse mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) have him enrolled in.
He feels out of place at the swanky educational institute, his only escape his time spent with favourite uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), the black sheep of the family who encourages Miles’ creativity. It’s while sneaking off to do some graffiti work in the subway tunnels under Alchemax Labs that Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider and subsequently, after exhibiting abilities that mirror those of the Spider-Man of his world, walks right into an explosive slugfest involving none other than the wall-crawler himself, the villainous Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) and some giant sci-fi machinery.
This Peter Parker, ever the heroic ideal, realises that he and Miles are two arachnid peas in a pod and offers to train him in his abilities. An offer that is rapidly smashed to smithereens when he dies under the clobbering meat-slab hands of the Kingpin. Deeply affected by Parker’s passing in front of him – the hero using his dying breath to task Miles with some great responsibility on which to use his great power – Miles considers taking up the mantle of Spider-Man but has no idea where to begin.
Luckily, Spider-Man can help him with that. No, not the dead Spider-Man, a different Spider-Man as Kingpin’s machinations have ripped open a pathway in the multiverse and sucked in Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), the dishevelled, pudgy, past-his-prime Spider-Man of an alternate universe who wants nothing more than to eat a cheeseburger and go home. And he’s not alone for this Spider-Verse tour, as we also have the plucky Gwen Stacy aka Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), gloomy Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime-tastic Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her SP//DR mech, and the slapstick cartoon Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) all dragged here by Kingpin’s machine.
Together, they will help Miles become the hero he’s destined to be, and along the way their journey will also put most other comic book movies to shame. With more than half a dozen Spider-People of various ilk, a gamut of Spidey villains, and a smattering of support characters, Into the Spider-Verse would easily be mistaken for being overstuffed. The script by Phil Lord (who developed this feature with his The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street partner Chris Miller) and Rodney Rothman gives every character their due in a masterful display of economic storytelling, helped along by seriously game voice performances from the cast led by Moore as the infectiously likeable Miles and Johnson’s pitch-perfect effort as an over-the-hill dadbod Spider-Man.
The story swings through a full spectrum of emotion from riotous, self-aware gags poking fun at the Spider-Man movie franchise to heavily pathos-laden introspections of character, with moments of triumphant joy and shattering heartache. Kirby crackles of energy leap off the screen in wildly kinetic action beats that fling the camera through this highly stylized animated comic book world – which gets especially trippy in its eye-popping finale – with gleeful abandon as Daniel Pemberton’s score, combining orchestral chest swellers with contemporary pop hits, powers everything along.
Most other movies would collapse spectacularly under the weight of all those character introductions, plot points, tonal shifts and other filmmaking miscellanea (including several Easter eggs). The DC Comics movies famously got flayed by critics and fans for trying to do too much all at once instead of following the tried and tested Marvel method of long-game storytelling. However, Lord, Miller and their trio of directors expertly show that there’s still a freshness to be found in this genre – and especially this now well-worn movie franchise – and it’s all in the execution. And damn do they ever execute this masterfully.
Simply put, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best Spider-Man movie ever made. Hell, it’s even better than that. It’s the best comic book movie of the year (or just about any year) in a year when Thanos ripped out the hearts of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans worldwide. Luckily, Miles Morales is here to replace that wildly beating engine of creativity and life with one of the greatest on-screen tales of spandex and superpowers we’ve ever seen.
PS: Make damned sure you stay seated until the very end of the credits for what is arguably the best comic book movie post-credits scene ever made.
Last Updated: December 5, 2018