Superhero movies are a dime a dozen these days. We’re reaching peak fatigue, thanks to at least half a dozen comic book adaptations being dished up every year. Marvel Studios has found its formula, which, for better or worse, they’re bluntly sticking to. DC is still finding its way with a mixed bag of recent films that succeed as often as they fail (cue the wrath of DC fanboys). At this point, any superhero film that dares step outside the box feels like a rush of adrenaline to wake us all up. Earlier this year, DC broke its mould with Teen Titans GO! To the Movies, a deliciously self-deprecating and meta-aware riot that shook up the solemn worlds of Batman, Superman et al. Now it’s Marvel’s turn, and, good lord, have they delivered a doozy of a film.
Acknowledging the rich (and exhaustively cinematically covered) history of one of Marvel’s most beloved icons but wisely pushing towards a daring new future that’s long overdue, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes the web-slinger to new heights. With an emotional core that’s so often lacking from superhero films, this animated flick packs a hefty dose of heart amongst its irreverent humour and sensational thrills that will undoubtedly leave a giant smile on your face. Throw in the year’s most stunningly original animation work, a glorious and diverse voice cast, and a narrative that consistently keeps you guessing, and you have the year’s finest animated film. And perhaps, dare I say it, the greatest Spider-Man film to date.
Unlike every other cinematic adventure of Spider-Man, Spider-Verse (let’s just shorten it, for your benefit and mine) wisely does not centre on Peter Parker. We’ve done that enough, haven’t we? Instead, we meet 13-year-old Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a half-black, half-Latino Brooklyn teen who finds himself gifted a scholarship at a stuffy private boarding school. Much to the chagrin of his overbearing yet caring police officer father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), Miles spends his free time hanging with his effortlessly cool yet suspiciously shady Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Late one evening, the pair are practising graffiti art in an underground subway system when Miles is bitten by a glowing radioactive spider. We know where this is going.
When Miles awakens the next day, he’s grown several inches, developed a keen sense of hearing and that infamous “spidey-sense,” and he can’t stop sticking to everything he touches, which is just a tad awkward in the halls of his school. With nowhere else to turn, Miles tracks down his idol Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Chris Pine), in the hopes he may mentor the youngster through the “change.” After stumbling upon the superhero in an epic battle with nefarious crime boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) as he attempts to initiate his dimension-opening device, Miles is forced to watch helplessly as Spider-Man is killed in a brutal fight. Inheriting the mantle of the web-slinger by default, Miles vows to avenge Peter’s death and bring Kingpin to justice.
With the world in mourning over the death of Spider-Man, Miles visits the grave of the fallen hero to pay his respects where he accidentally bumps into an alternate-universe version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), only this one is somewhat older, entirely jaded, and a little out of shape after eating his feelings to cope with his beloved Mary Jane dumping him. It seems Kingpin’s interdimensional experiments have pulled this alternate Peter from another dimension, and he’s not the only one. As the pair quickly form a close bond, they soon meet a whole host of alternate universe Spider-people who’ve also been sucked through Kingpin’s wormhole.
There’s badass punk-chick Gwen Stacy aka Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), stoic black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), futuristic anime-girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her Spider robot, and, strangest of all, Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), an ordinary spider transformed after a bite from a radioactive pig. Yes, you heard that right. Joining forces to create one giant Spider-group, the alternate versions of Spider-Man band together to bring down Kingpin (plus a few other classic Spider-Man villain cameos) and find a way home, while also teaching Miles the ways of the web.
Many have questioned the very need for the existence of another Spider-Man film, given how successful and beloved the latest Tom Holland incarnation is proving. With Spider-Verse, Sony Pictures have deftly silenced all criticism and few will walk away still questioning the validity of this movie’s presence in the Spider-Man landscape. By crafting a unique visual style that genuinely looks and feels like a comic book, the result is an animated film that’s as dynamic as it is dazzling. It takes a little getting used to, particularly for those unfamiliar with the visual techniques and methods synonymous with comics, but once you’ve settled in, this daring mix of 2D and 3D animation styles becomes a gorgeous feast for the eyes. It’s unlike anything the animated genre has delivered this year, gifting its audience something refreshingly new and bold.
With its overloaded character roster and complex plot, it may seem as if Spider-Verse has bitten off more than it can chew. But thanks to the ingenious screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, the film sensibly maintains focus on Miles at all times. It never loses sight of the fact this is entirely his film and his story, which is somewhat of a miracle, given the presence of so many bombastic characters that could derail the entire project. That’s largely thanks to Miles being such an interesting and complex character, not to mention incredibly endearing and engaging.
We’ve become so accustomed to following the adventures of Peter Parker, but there’s something so intriguingly different about the challenges and obstacles Miles must overcome on his journey to becoming Spider-Man. His uneasy relationship with his father and his devotion to his Uncle provide complications and dilemmas for this character Peter simply didn’t have. His insecurities are crippling and the responsibilities he’s taken on are immense, crafting a new hero that’s as strong as he is vulnerable. The screenplay takes great care in fleshing out Miles into a fully-dimensional character. You don’t quite expect that from animation outside the world of Pixar, but there’s a deep devotion to characterisation here, and the film is stronger for it.
Much like Teen Titans took a hot poker to the DC universe, Spider-Verse takes full advantage to make fun of the Spider-Man franchise. There’s plenty of shots fired at the saga’s highs and lows (yes, that emo dance scene from Spider-Man 3 cops it) and a swag of references to the strangest of pop culture moments Spider-Man has found himself a part of (Christmas album, anyone?). With Lord behind the screenplay (and his cohort Chris Miller in one of the five producers chairs), it’s no surprise there’s a hefty dose of self-aware humour flowing through this film’s veins, and not just found within gifting us a swine version of Spider-Man.
There’s silly physical humour that will delight younger audiences, but numerous humorous strikes are aimed directly at the adult viewer and elicited huge laughs from my audience. What’s most pleasing about this film is how practically every element feels so downright surprising. There are some minor quibbles to be had with the narrative playing to a few familiar tired superhero genre tropes, but whether it’s the visuals or the action sequences, everything else appears entirely fresh and lively. An infectious spirit streams throughout Spider-Verse and it’s hard not to be carried away by the whole experience.
Enormous fun for young and old, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is thrilling, hilarious, heartwarming, and fabulously entertaining. With action sequences that dazzle and a whole host of characters to fall in love with, this is a worthy new chapter in a franchise we suspected was already too full. It’s enormously ambitious in its scope. This could have been a collosal disaster. But thanks to its near-perfect execution, it achieves every goal in its sights. Another huge leap forward for diversity in the superhero genre, there’s so much to celebrate about this film. The late, great Stan Lee (yes, he has a cameo that will bring cheers and tears) would be proud of the expansive, dimensional-bending world presented here. Against the odds, it all just works.