Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t sound like it can possibly work. Columbia and Sony Pictures produces an animated Spider-Man film that is not connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but instead deals heavily with “the Spider-Verse”, an infinite collection of realities each with their own specific Spider-Person hero. Who does movies that are their own thing anymore? What is it, 1999? Well, these guys do. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman directed the film from a screenplay by Phil Lord and Rothman. Uh oh, so many people, so many companies involved, such an odd choice in setting. It must be a disaster, right?
Wrong. It’s a masterpiece. It comfortably belongs in the conversation of the best animated films and best comic book films of recent memory. In a cinematic landscape where every horizon seems to offer another version of the same old thing, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a welcome breath of fresh air.
At its heart, this Spider-Man story is pretty simple, focusing on a different Spider-Man than we’ve seen before: the teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore, Dope). Miles goes to a fancy new school, has cool parents (even though his policeman dad gives him a hard time), and likes to hang out with his uncle Aaron and spray paint sweet murals. Miles is bitten by one of those spiders like always seems to happen, but there’s already another Spider-Man! There’s where the complexity is added: “real” Spider-Man dies trying to stop Kingpin from opening a portal to another dimension (he has his reasons), and in the process makes Miles promise that he will take up the mantle and make everything right, all the while managing his new school and home life.
That’s where the other Spider-folk come into play. Multi-verses are weird like that.
First, we’re introduced to another Spider-man (Jake Johnson), this one a little old, fat, and down-on-his luck. Then, there’s a Spider-Woman version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). Then, a noir Spider-Man from the 1930s, a cartoon pig named Peter Porker, and Peni Parker, a teenage Japanese-American girl who co-pilots a biomechanical suit along with a radioactive spider with whom she shared a telepathic link. Pretty standard stuff.
The voice acting is very strong in this film, especially from Jake Johnson, Shameik Moore, and Hailee Steinfeld. Johnson lends the sadsack Peter Parker a casual-feeling smartness, but also a sense that he is just over all of this Spider-Man nonsense. His life in his universe didn’t really go as planned, and he wears his mistakes and failing on both his sleeves. Moore is perfect as Miles. I’ve loved Shameik Moore ever since Dope, and he was an ideal choice for Miles. He’s smart-alecky, determined, but still clearly a teenager in over his head. And Haliee Steinfeld can do no wrong. She can even turn a Transformer movie a critical darling. Here, she takes on the mentor role from a different and surprising direction, and she’s able to instill Gwen with quite a bit of emotion just through her fabulous voice-acting. The tremendous acting doesn’t stop with these three (the cast is a who’s who of awesome talent), but they are the most notable.
We’ve gotten pretty far into the review without talking much about the most characteristic feature of the film: its animation style. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sports an animation style unlike any other film before it, though it borrow techniques from many. It’s an amalgam of CGI, traditional 2D line work, painting, and other comic techniques, plus a few other cool things. This style allows the movie to be a “comic book film” in a way that few other films have accomplished before: it actually feels like you’re watching a comic book come to life (think Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim film as a reasonable comp). If scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are living paintings, then scenes from this film are living panels. It’s wonderful, fresh, and astounding, an absolute pleasure to view and experience.
The movie is also pretty funny. There is a meta element to the humor, a little like Deadpool, but overall the tone of the humor is both clever and consistent. The characters feel fleshed out and their dialogue is sharp, always ribbing each other and acting smart. Quite a bit of the humor is self-referential and repetitious, to the point that I think there were six or seven different “intro” scenes, each as pithy and fun as the last. You can tell that the creators had fun with the different Spider-folk styles as well. The exaggeration is pretty easy to establish when a cartoony pig is fighting alongside a Japanese mech.
Though I’ve gushed all over the look of the film and the construction of the plot, the thematic material in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be the most impressive single aspect of the film. We all know the themes that accompany Spider-Man. Power and Responsibility, duty, protecting the ones you love even if it means your own infamy, etc. But, this film simply exists on another level thematically. I’m not sure how, but despite the off-the-wall construction of the world and the goofy humor, this film sports a seriously powerful collection of thematic material. Delving into specifics risks spoiling key plot points, but suffice to say that there is more going on in this film than in the standard live-action Spider-Man films we’ve seen in the past.
Without a doubt in my mind, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the best animated film and the best comic book film of 2018. As impressive as the structure of The Avengers was, this film coherently organized a multiverse. As polished as the animation from Pixar or Disney looked, this film innovated and dazzled with its style. As powerful as something like Black Panther was from a thematic standpoint, this film delivered even more potency. I don’t care if you’re tired of Spider-Man, superheroes in general, animation, or whatever – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the rare film that can be recommended without reservation.