Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most sublime superhero film of 2018
By my count, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the eighth major theatrically released superhero film of the year (Aquaman next week will bring us to nine), and the third animated one, which is one reason this year is so unusual. Only one of them has been an outright dud (sorry Deadpool 2) and even that wasn’t as bad as films we were getting over a decade ago. We’re still living in a Golden Age, and I am not yet convinced we’re at its peak. But if we are, Into the Spider-Verse will certainly be one of the tallest points, because it not only manages to tell a story that would feel fresh in any medium, but it also pushes computer animation in a bold direction.
Into the Spider-Verse focuses on what it is like for a young kid to become Spider-Man, especially in the shadow of not only his parents, but also the fact that there is already a Spider-Man. That kid is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn-born-and-raised son of a cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and a nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). He attends a magnet school, but doesn’t feel like he fits in, and feels like a typical teenager in most regards. One detail about Miles that I love in this film is that he doesn’t need an Uncle Ben to issue the “great power and great responsibility” credo because both of his parents are professionals at helping people. As Spider-Man, Miles is following not only in Peter Parker’s footsteps, but also his parents’. It isn’t even remarked on in the film, but it’s a great example of how well these details reinforce the other ways Miles’ character is communicated to us.
And while we may be a bit tired of superhero origin stories (especially Spider-Man origin stories), going through Miles’ version is justifiable since it helps us to get to know his character. Not so much when it comes to the various other Spider-People in the film. The Peter Parkers of Spider-Verse all get abbreviated introductions (not unlike the references to past films in The Lego Batman Movie) that help distinguish them from the originals. While prominently featured in the marketing, these other versions don’t show up until deep into the second act, which reinforces that this is Miles’ story.
These other variations are: Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a dishevelled, cynical Spider-Man, Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), who easily seems like the most competent Spider-Person, but doesn’t want to get close to anyone, Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), who is from a black and white universe, Peni Parker (Kamiko Glenn), who has a psychic bond with her robot SP//dr, and Spider-Ham, aka Peter Porker (John Mulaney), who is from a Looney Toons-style world. Each of these characters get a moment to shine, with Peter B. and Spider-Woman having the biggest impact on Miles broadening his perspective on what it means to have these powers as well as self-confidence. And if you don’t come out of this film loving Spider-Ham, I can only imagine you were rooting for Thanos.
And if anything, self-doubt is the main villain here. Of course, our Spider-Friends are tested by The Prowler, (Mahershala Ali) and other enforcers for The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber)–looking like Despicable Me’s Gru swallowed Knickers the cow–as the crime boss tries to rip open the multiverse in order to reunite his family. But that isn’t the main focus of the film. When Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko created Peter Parker, his ordinary nature made him stand out among other superheroes, and that has also been key to the character’s long-term popularity. Miles’ struggle in this film, while amplified by the craziness of his circumstances, is ultimately one about his place in the world and who he wants to be.
The story and mild deconstruction of the superhero genre is a stellar version of well-trod ground, but this film’s visuals set it apart from anything else I’ve ever seen. I don’t fully understand the technology behind it, though Sony believes it deserves to be patented. What I do understand is that, in sharp contrast to the Disney/Pixar style of computer animation, the techniques used in Into the Spider-Verse echo the minor imperfections that can seemingly be created only by human hands. While it’s become a tad cliche to refer to films as “a comic book come to life,” that feels true in a brand new way for this film. But the influences aren’t just ink and paper, but street art as well. And the details here don’t stop at the character moments, as each Spider-Person is animated in a slightly different style, to show that they come from a different universe.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse combines every ingredient a superhero movie should have: great characters, a love for the source material (without being beholden to it), and a keen sense of visual style, and then some. And further proof that strong design and style trumps “realism” any day. This movie is at its best when all of those elements are colliding inside the Kingpin’s reality-ripping machine, filling the space with Jack Kirby-style energy blasts, colors from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and enough Spider-People to keep the jokes and sense of fun soaring through the chaos. Truly sublime.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens in Philly theaters today.
Want more Spider-Verse? Here’s my reading list and the comics origins of all of the characters!