Visually stunning, laugh-out-loud funny, and utterly dazzling, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a reminder of what superhero movies can be when handled with love and care. Bustling with energy, humor and action, Into the Spider-Verse is the Spider-Man film you’ve been waiting for.
Superhero movies, by their very nature, are fantastical. They tell far-out stories focused on impossible characters engaged in extraordinary tasks. And yet, for the last decade, superhero cinema has settled into a formula. A routine. A paint-by-numbers approach that can be predicted before we’ve even watched a single frame. Even the frequently fun-loving Marvel Cinematic Universe succumbs to monotony. An occasional MCU film will splash some color across the screen to energize things, but more often than not, these films slather on a color palette akin to that of a Walmart parking lot. Does that make all of these films bad? No – some are quite enjoyable. But almost all of them are predictable. And when you’re subjected to multiple superhero movies a year, predictability comes close to sounding a death knell.
So when the rare gem like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse comes along, it can feel as if emergency room doctors have just shouted “Clear!” while discharging a defibrillator straight into your heart. No hyperbole here: Into the Spider-Verse is the best superhero movie of the year, and it might just be the best Spider-Man movie ever made. And that’s saying something – there have been a lot of Spider-Man movies. Sequels, reboots, and more, all essentially telling the same story over and over again. One of Into the Spider-Verse’s many strengths is that it manages to tell that similar story one more time – and make it feel fresh and exciting.
The world of animation has freed Into the Spider-Verse from adhering or realism, or drabness. While most Marvel films feature aliens, robots, monsters and more, they tend to adhere too firmly to the real world. Indeed, ever since Christopher Nolan unleashed The Dark Knight upon the world, filmmakers have been unabashedly copying his formula, asking: what if superheroes existed in the real world? But Into the Spider-Verse has no use for the rules of reality. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman embrace the medium they’re working in, and by extension, embrace the weird, the wild, the wonderful. Events that unfold in Into the Spider-Verse could never take place in the real world – and the movie is all the better because of it.
Cooked up by LEGO Movie team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, with a script by Lord and Rodney Rothman, Into the Spider-Verse is a whiz-bang, ultra-stylistic, hyper-kinetic, over-caffeinated piece of pop-art. Laugh-out-loud funny, bursting with thrilling action, and featuring a genuine heart, it’s everything you’d want a Spider-Man movie to be. Simply put, Into the Spider-Verse is a game changer. You’ll leave the theater invigorated.
In Into the Spider-Verse, we meet Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a half-Puerto Rican, half-African-American teen from Brooklyn trying to adapt to the fancy new school he’s just been enrolled in. Miles’ parents – father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), a NYPD cop, and mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse – expect great things from him, but Miles is torn. He’d rather be more like his super cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who is a bit of a family outcast.
Dealing with teen angst and familial drama is exhausting enough, but Miles’ whole world is about to get turned upside down. First, Miles finds himself bit by a radioactive spider – a bite that gives him superpowers (Sound familiar? Just wait). On top of that, crime boss the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber, going heavy on the New Yawk accent) has been fooling around with a nuclear supercollider, and the end result has opened up portals into other universes.
Those universes collide, quite literally, when several alternate Spider-People end up in Miles’ version of New York. There is, of course, the well-known Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) – only he’s different than the Peter Parker audiences and comic book readers have grown to love. Going by the name Peter B. Parker, he’s been Spider-Man in his universe for 20 years, and he’s grown into a sad-sack – slightly overweight, morose, and going through a divorce from his beloved Mary Jane. Peter and Miles join forces – reluctantly – to stop the Kingpin and get Peter back to his own universe.
The Spider-Duo are joined by other Spider-Folk from alternate dimensions: the graceful, ass-kicking Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld); the black and white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), who talks like a character from a Raymond Chandler novel; Kimiko Glenn as Peni Parker, an anime-inspired young woman from the future who controls a giant robot; and the cartoony Spider-Ham (comedian John Mulaney), a porcine version of everyone’s favorite web-slinger. As the group prepares to battle Kingpin and his gang of goons, Miles must learn to be his own unique, particular brand of Spider-Man – something that clearly won’t be easy. The group is doubtful of Miles’ abilities, and only Peter seems willing to give the kid a shot.
The relationship between Miles and Peter is the heart and soul of Into the Spider-Verse. Moore, as Miles, brings the perfect combination of youthful innocence, exuberant excitement and relatable self-doubt to the part. Within minutes of meeting Miles, he seems like a fully-formed character that we’re more than ready to follow. Johnson, voicing the droll Peter B. Parker, makes for the most entertaining on-screen version of Spidey yet (sorry, Tom Holland). Peter is hesitant to take Miles under his web, but gradually comes to appreciate the situation. A scene where Peter teaches Miles how to web-swing from tree to tree in the Hudson Valley is filled with a joyous sense of wonder – we’re right there, swinging along with the characters, to the point where we can almost feel the wind on our face.
The voice-work here is all exemplary – Cage in particular is an absolute hoot as the fast-talking, hard-punching Spider-Man Noir, and Steinfeld’s work as Gwen Stacy will immediately have you craving that already greenlit Gwen-based sequel. But the real star of Into the Spider-Verse is the direction, and the jaw-dropping visuals. Freed from the constraints of gravity, Into the Spider-Verse is able to throw its characters into swinging, swaying situations, where the camera rushes with them – untethered, perfectly unhampered to go where it pleases. Action in a superhero film has never looked this damn exciting. Adding to the experience is the animation style. Rather than adhere to one solid look, Into the Spider-Verse blends a myriad of styles – bursts of color, blasts of computerized glitches, pixelated panels with dot-based coloring, and thought bubbles pulled right from the pages of a comic book. This could have backfired, and made Into the Spider-Verse resemble cinematic gobbledygook. Instead, the movie explodes off the screen, blasting its way into your retinas in the best possible way.
It helps that the script is abundantly clever, too. The humor works from beginning to end, and the film is unapologetically self-referential and self-aware. It’s so self-aware that it makes Deadpool and its sequel look subtle. But Into the Spider-Verse has none of Deadpool’s forced, phony nihilism. And the jokes here are about 100 times funnier than all the jokes in both Deadpool films (and comics) combined.
Despite all these wonders, Into the Spider-Verse stumbles here and there. A subplot involving Miles’ strained relationship with his father seems trimmed down – there’s clearly a deleted scene or two that fleshes the conflict out more. As a result, the subplot on display in the final cut never quite comes together. The movie also feels overlong by about ten to fifteen minutes – a few earlier scenes could have easily been trimmed for the better.
Despite these qualms, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the most exciting superhero movies of the last decade, and without a doubt the best animated film of the year. And within this splendid spectacle is a message many people need to hear: there’s something great buried within you, no matter who you are. “Anyone can wear the mask,” Miles says. “You could wear the mask.” What could be more spectacular than that?
Rating: 9 out of 10
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