Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse shouldn’t work. It should be a shameless money-grab as Sony perfects its grandiose plans to build its own cinematic universe on the back of the well-known webslinger. It shouldn’t have a beating heart. And yet, surprisingly, the film justifies its existence with a unique perspective, a playful attitude and a surprisingly warm heart.
The film centers on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) a young lad from Queens who won a scholarship to a prestigious STEM-focused boarding school. He is overworked, but his father, the improbably named Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), won’t hear any of it. He believes that is when men must work the hardest. As it happens, the only sympathetic ear in his life is his uncle Aaron (Mahersala Ali), who leads a questionable yet exciting life. When Miles sneaks out of the school to spend time with Aaron, he is bitten by an unusual — and visually curious– spider; granting him all the powers of a spider-man.
Sure, you’ve heard this story before, you’ve even heard Miles’s story before, but Into the Spider-Verse offers a few unique twists on the Spider-Man mythology which prove beyond a shadow of the doubt that the concept works beyond Peter Parker. But speaking of him, he does exist in Miles’s world. In fact, he plans to spend a lot of time with Miles when he discovers the two have spider powers. Unfortunately, plans go sideways, but Miles still finds a mentor of sorts in an older Peter (Jake Johnson) from another dimension.
And the entire movies lives and dies by how willing the audience is willing to take that premise on board.
Luckily, the film is pretty savvy with its presentation of a multiverse; introducing it only after viewers are invested in Miles. But as soon as it does, it also introduces the older Peter as the most singular presentation of the character ever to hit the screens. This Peter has been ground down by the stresses of adult life and his one last insecurity. It is fitting, then, that the plot would bring him into contact with Miles, a lad who really needs a more understanding father figure.
As it happens, the relationship between Miles and Peter takes up a lot of the film’s runtime. In some ways, it is own movie while the main plot takes a back seat. Watching them bond is quite satisfying nonetheless, and ultimately sets up a third story once Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Spider-people from realities make themselves known to Miles and Peter.
That said, the stop-and-go nature will leave some viewers looking at their watches. At a runtime of nearly two hours long, the film will feel longer than an animated movie should despite the fun and innovative things happening on screen. But considering Miles had to be introduced before Peter and the other Spider characters, it seems the pace is unavoidable.
In exchange for sitting through a slightly overlong movie, audiences will get a spectacular feat of animation. Combining 3D animation with a more traditional 2D aesthetic, Into the Spider-Verse looks unlike any other animated movie released this year. At times, it will remind you of cell-shaded video games, at others, a classic comic book. It also plays with the freedom animation affords to utilize and comment on comic book conventions. Thought captions come to hilarious life. “Thwip!” is both a sound and visual component of the world. Backstory is told with the panels-and-gutters pace of a comic page. Scenes end by flipping away in a very successful imitation of the pure comic book experience.
The mix of various styles and conventions from other mediums never feels anarchic. Instead, the precision with which the different styles is employed is almost an event all its own. This become doubly true when Miles, Peter and Gwen meet Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Each come from worlds with very pronounced visual aesthetics. Even in the nominally real world of Miles’s New York City, Penny’s anime lines, Spider-Man Noir’s shadows, and Spider-Ham’s cartoon wildness remain vivid parts of their personalities and their aesthetics. Characters even comment on the strange visual incongruities. In fact, the clever script from The Lego Movie‘s Phil Lord plays with the underpinnings of making an animated film as often as it plays with the conventions of a Spider-Man story.
But that’s just a long way of saying Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse is fun. It does really clever things — like its reinvention of Doc Ock — and uses comic book grammar in a way filmmakers have sought for decades. It also manages to tie a touching story together with its seemingly disparate Spider-people and leaves you hoping Miles will get a movie all his own in the years to come.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse is in theaters now.