'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse': Turning the comic book movie on its head
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an animated film with a plot mashing up alternate-universe characters -- two open-door elements that allow it to do anything it wants. And nearly everything it does is remarkable.
The film’s key image inverts the camera as Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore), the new iteration of Spider-Man, “falls” upwards into a purple-hued New York cityscape. It’s not just Miles’ world that’s turned upside-down -- he’s a recent convert to the superpowered, webslinging game -- but the stagnant formula of modern superhero movies being upended. With style. So much style. And heart. Heaps of heart. And bravery and audacity and inspiration and playfulness and many other superlative things.
“Spider-Verse” is a bold antidote for comic-book-movie ennui, an assertion I don’t make lightly. The genre is comfort food these days -- even when the movies are good, they’re often a familiar, safe choice for moviegoers, a direct result of box-office success feeding creative conservatism. The “Spider-Man” franchise has seen two reboots in less than two decades: The delightful original trilogy directed by Sam Raimi struck the perfect tone (2004’s “Spider-Man 2” is a genre classic). But a pair of subsequent films by Marc Webb misfired, yielding the character’s incorporation into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and relatively fertile ground, because what maniac doesn’t want to see Spider-Man in the same movies as Iron Man, Black Panther and a couple dozen other heroic types waging war for truth and justice, even when all those movies tend to look and feel the same after a while?
So we’ve had our fill of conventional Spider-Man escapades, and that’s why “Into the Spider-Verse” is such an absolute joy. It’s engineered to slake the thirst of the weary -- those who yawn in the direction of another conventional narrative, and especially those who are tired of seeing male Caucasian heroes enjoying incommensurate screen time. “Spider-Verse” has no use for timid tradition. If it wants to have a Latino/African-American Spider-Man, it will. If it wants a female Spider-Person, it will. If it wants to introduce us to something as ludicrous as Peter Porker, the spectacular Spider-Ham, it will. And if it wants to kill the old familiar Spider-Man in the first reel to make room for all this, it will.
And that’s exactly what it does. (This isn’t a spoiler; the headstone is in the trailers.) Peter Parker (Chris Pine) meets his fate in a scene that reminds us how change can be challenging, and potentially quite upsetting not just for seven-year-olds, but 40-something types who spent hours and hours and hours of their adolescence reading comic books. (I resemble this person.) But the world needs a hero, and Miles is the kid of color destined to don the mask.
The deadly incident ties to refrigerator-shaped millionaire mobster Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), attempting to bridge parallel universes in order to reunite with his dead wife and child. It’s the type of thing that never goes well, of course. A quantum rift brings multiple Spider-beings into Miles’ reality. As if starting in a new school, beefing with his tough-love cop dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and not knowing how to talk to girls isn’t hard enough, he has the likes of the anvil-wielding Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), the brooding Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage exclamation point!) and anime-girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her Spider-bot to further warp his brain.
Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) is his stumbling point. She’s a schoolmate who needs a jagged chunk of hair shaved off when Miles’ newly sticky spider-hands brush her blonde locks and won’t disengage. “It’s just puberty!” Miles splutters desperately, his palm freshly adorned with a shock of hair. Take that symbolism as you will.
Most important to Miles’ new development is the arrival of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a recently divorced and thoroughly depressed alt-Spidey who’s let himself go, and forgoes tights for sweatpants to accommodate his sagging waistline. He’s a hoot -- and Miles’ reluctant mentor. Peter B. teaches him how to properly websling while they quest to derail Kingpin’s reality-warping plans, fight a female Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn) and get all the other Spider-Whatnots back to their own slivers of the multiverse.
How bold is the film’s defiance of canon? A recitation of the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” -- the Spider-Man mantra, birthed in his 1962 comics debut -- is clipped before it can be finished. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah blah blah. Tell me something I don’t know, right? “Spider-Verse” acknowledges its origins, but clearly craves progress. And that’s why we have a story about a kid with a Puerto Rican mom and black dad donning the mask with the skewed-teardrop eyes, coming to grips with what makes him special, and digging deep to find the hero within. With this film, the familiar “Spider-Man” message of responsibility becomes inclusive and universal.
Visually, “Spider-Verse” is slavishly devoted to its funnybook origins in ways other films are too frightened to embrace. Colors are composed with the mechanical pointillism of old-school printing, and narrative blocks float on the screen around characters’ heads. That’s the stuff from the silver age of comic books. Yet its clever-but-not-too-clever self-awareness, rousingly mashed hip-hop soundtrack and occasionally trippy, psychedelic imagery is thoroughly millennial. This is the film to bring Spider-Man into a vibrant and promising future, not kicking and screaming, but with the joy of a newfound ability to cut through the air on a string, then another, then another, then another.
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’
MPAA rating: PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Voice cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Run time: 117 minutes