The onus is on every new superhero movie to delineate itself from the pack by sidestepping the plethora of genre cliches. It’s almost assumed they have something fresh to say about superheroes with their origin stories, self-actualizations, inner demons, and ultimate ascension to defeat the enemy. We have Marvel and to a lesser extent DC to thank for these loaded expectations.
I speak for myself in admitting that I’m weary of this brand of story. Spider-Man is a prime example with now three iterations comprised of three different actors with 7 films and counting. Tom Holland might be dead in Infinity War Part I but heaven forbid he miss out on Far From Home. He’s just getting started. However, yet another interpretation on top of this would seem nothing short of monotonous.
The brilliance is how Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse by no means spits on its traditions. In some miraculous sense, it’s able to have its cake and eat it too. Because the worlds occupied by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland have their place but everything is funneled through the original vision of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko while being rejuvenated by new minds.
The trends continue with Spider-Man receiving another very simple facelift in the form of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) while still keeping him planted in comic books. Here is the film’s greatest asset. It is immersive in the best sense as we get a feel for the tactile world our protagonist exists in through music (including the instant earworm “Sunflower”), bustling NYC streets, and even graffiti subculture. But it does well to meld styles and techniques so the experience never feels flat or stagnant.
Again, with Marvel’s laundry list of entries, everything else has been presented through live action and in practical terms, it removes these characters from their true element. This animated work more closely realizes and adheres to the comic book format and maintains a suspension of disbelief, splitting the difference between our universe and the colorful collages of retro Ben-Day dots.
The subsequent explosions become an aurora borealis of trippy pyrotechnics. They prove as beautiful as they are psychedelic but this is an element the canvas of comic book animation allows. The Spider-Verse uses it phenomenally to tell a story of vision and verve. The sheer possibilities of it all stagger the imagination.
Nevertheless, it’s also full of real-world touches. A roommate might have an instantly recognizable Chance The Rapper album on his wall and yet a battle scene at Aunt May’s house (Lily Tomlin) plays out more like a round of Super Smash Bros. Brawl than any fight we’ve seen prior.
Like The Lego Movie before it (from Phil Lord & Christopher Miller), it does not fudge on the entertainment and nothing is lost by deigning to be a movie welcoming to the whole family. In fact, it probably gains something in the process by welcoming a wider cross-section of the viewing public and bringing moral dilemmas to the fore.
I’ve realized with increasing clarity why Spider-Man was one of the easiest superheroes to connect with from the get-go. It comes with the fact he exists in territory we can readily understand, whether it be navigating high school, maintaining relationships with parents, or even coping with personal loss.
In Miles’ case, he has recently been transplanted to a high-achieving charter school across town at the behest of his father who is a local police officer. Although his dad does harbor some reservations about Spider-Man’s tactics, both he and his wife nevertheless are loving parents. It feels like a normal situation. Even as it gets complicated by extraordinary circumstance, Miles still finds himself befuddled by adolescence seeking some kind of solace in his reprobate uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Instead, he is forced to look for role models elsewhere.
The conceit of parallel universes is a risky endeavor. In the case of The Star Trek reboot it can feel like mere convenience, but in this storyline, the multiverse pays heavy dividends. Far from being a gimmick, such possibilities allow this story to be far more robust. It has to do with this glorious mishmash of characters because they are necessary for this empathy to build up but in the most basic terms, they are satisfying extensions of the world — glitches and all.
If Miles is the unrealized, conflicted talent nervous about taking a “Leap of faith,” Peter Parker (Voiced by Chris Pine) is the fallen hero and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) is his regretful alter ego. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) starts as a love interest with a chill disposition only to be promoted and hoisted up as someone even more intriguing. The simple novelty of such sideshow attractions like Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glen), and Peter Porker (John Mulaney) wears off and manages to develop into something meaningful when it comes in the context of an ensemble. They are all necessary cogs even if Miles is at the center of this web-slinging collective.
To echo my praise of Black Panther, Into The Spider-Verse does well to layer its villains so there is a depth and true threat afforded them. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is not necessarily an extraordinary antagonist but his motives are clear. For him, these parallel universes are the one last hope he clings to in order to get his family back. Likewise, Doc Oc is not only an imposing opponent but loaded with killer intellect. The Prowler, for his part, strikes close to the heart of our story. There is weight to each character challenging Miles.
However, for the first time, it feels a superhero has true community because The Avengers never quite cut it. However, these people share the closest life experience you could possibly ask for. So although Miles has to make his own decision, he’s by no means alone. This feels like an utterly unique circumstance because masked vigilantism is normally an isolating venture. It’s strange to even admit, but here it feels like something galvanizing and full of mentorship and camaraderie.
It readdresses the core message of The Lego Movie though tackling it with a different protagonist. The bottom line is Spider-Man now being promoted as a universal concept, further championing a message of cooperation, acceptance, and selfless sacrifice. This is not new. The trick is executing it in fundamentally inspired ways, juggling all the expectations for thrills, laughter, and poignancy. Spider-Verse does it beautifully. It might just blow your socks off.
Though the late, great Stan Lee was the most visible, Steve Ditko, his partner in crime, also past away in 2018. Thus, it seems fitting to end with the quote dedicated to both of them at the end of the picture. There are no more applicable words than these:
“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real SUPERHERO.”