Superhero movies are everywhere. It’s just a fact of the times we live in. So it takes a special kind of movie to break through all the noise and assert itself as something different and worth an audience’s time. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse accomplishes that with great ease. Creating a movie that’s not just the best animated films of 2018, but what may stand as one of the best superhero movie ever made.
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is your average teenage. Or at least that’s how he wants to feels. He’s nudged to attend the prestigious Vision Academy, by his well-meaning (but slightly overbearing) police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry). Instead Miles would like to spend time with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). There he feels unjudged and can work on his art. One night Aaron takes him to an abandoned tunnel under a chemical factor, let loose to tag the walls to his heart’s content. It’s there a glowing spider bites him. You might think you know the rest of the story, but you’d only be half right.
Miles starts to figure out what’s going on with himself, just when the city needs it most. Spider-Man is slain in a battle with Kingpin (Liev Shreiber), after the latter sets off a particle accelerator. The device creates a portal through the multi-verse, one that cosmically calls out to other Spider-folks, needed to save the day. If the heroes of these parallel world’s weren’t differentiated enough by their distinct personalities, how they’re animated helps sell the effect. Hardboiled Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) is all inky blacks and whites, casting shadows in almost any room. Peni Parker and her robot SP//dr feel ripped straight from an anime. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) meanwhile, is the embodiment of a Looney Tunes character. 2D animation and all.
They’re not the only ones who find themselves far from home. Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) arrives as the mirror image of the ideal Spider-Man. Not that he’s evil or anything, rather a burnt-out wreck of an ex-hero. Someone desperately in need of guidance. Almost as much as the young protege he finds in Miles. He may also just be the best take on a superhero in a long long time. Then there’s Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld) or Spider-Gwen. All you know is that she’s unflappably cool. The fact that she’ll also prove to be a figure that little girls want to dress up as, is a wonderful bonus.
Part of what makes this origin story so palpable is the the way the movie is rendered. Using 3D CGI with a layer of hand-drawn textures, to replicate the pop-bubble aesthetic of comic panels, is a stroke of genius. The mind’s eye adapts to the transition quite easily as the fluid movements and text pop-ups feel like a natural extension of the evolving story. It’s not until Mile’s powers start to manifest that his thoughts appear on screen. However contrived it might sound, the visuals on display are truly awe inspiring.
If all that information didn’t border on overload already, there’s just as much going on under the surface. The core of Into The Spider-Verse is the repeated phrase of “anyone can wear the mask”. It’s what they do once they put it on or how they adopt the creed to daily life, that defines them as a hero. Before his transformation, Miles is already wired to do what’s right. Only a fear of failure threatens to keep him from feeling he can live up to the mantle. Specially so when paired with experienced heroes. That notion of impostor syndrome runs throughout the film and makes it all the better because of it. It’s even something extended to the villains. Kingpin’s dogged pursuit to achieve his goals makes him bad, though his desire comes from a place wanting to reunite with family. Adding a rich complexity to his perceived machinations.
What’s almost funny about how well all this works, is that it shares similar themes with Teen Titans Go! To The Movies! While the later may lean more so on comedic trappings, the through-lines are still there. They both succeed in part by subverting and embracing the glut of existing comic book movies. By poking fun at rote storytelling, they open themselves up to look deeper into what makes a superhero truly special. Let alone worth championing. That’s not to say that Into The Spider-Verse isn’t humorous as well. It is, to an impressive degree. Which is to be expected from a feature produced by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, as well as co-written by Lord and Rodney Rothman (22 Jump Street).
Into the Spider-Verse swings by at a neck-breaking speed. One that would be completely undo the film if it weren’t for the steady hands of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rothman. An accelerated pace can be seen as a sign of trying to cover up shortcomings. Here it’s employed because the filmmakers have so much to say. So many ideas to explore, that they can only get through it by rushing headlong without a care. What’s surprising is how carefully it’s all handled. A lovingly measured approach envelops every scene. One could simply view everything through the guise of “yet another blockbuster”, but that’s not what’s happening here. Instead it’s a marrying between tent-pole aspirations and grounded humanity that have helped make Spider-Man one of literature’s most endearing characters. There’s no questioning why the character’s been featured in 8 movies over the past 16 years.
It’s almost impossible to entirely quantify the majesty and wonder contained within Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. Doing so rather easily slips into the realm of hyperbole. That’s simply a byproduct that comes with thinking about the unbridled joy it conjures up in viewers. The bright, poppy and unique visual style mixed with endless bouts of action makes it a solid entry into the world of superhero movies. Yet it’s boundless heart and message of finding, sense of community and message of taking hold of your individuality to become your own hero, is what makes it truly great.