Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine
While the last decade has been the era of the superhero movie, there has remained a clear distinction between the live action and animated entries in the genre. Live action superhero movies have become the biggest show in town, genuine four-quadrant blockbusters designed to appeal to an audience much larger than just comicbook fans. The animated superhero movie, on the other hand, has maintained more of a niche status, tending to be released straight to video and remaining the property of the devoted comicbook audience. Sony Pictures’ latest attempt at rebooting their Spider-Man franchise, the aesthetically original and undeniably cinematic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, is the first animated superhero movie to really challenge that distinction.
When thirteen year old Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is bitten by a spider while graffitiing a subway tunnel he starts to develop abilities which mirror those of Spider-Man (Chris Pine). But surely there can’t be more than one Spider-Man? And when Spider-Man is killed thwarting King Pin’s (Liev Schreiber) plot to open up an inter-dimensional portal, Miles must come to terms with the idea that maybe there is only one Spider-Man, and it is him. However, something went awry in the closing of the portal and Miles soon encounters Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) a slightly schlubbier Spidey from an alternate universe. He is followed by Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), a young female Spidey, Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), a black and white hero from the 1930s, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime girl with a robot companion powered by a radioactive spider, and, most peculiar of all, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a porcine hero who goes by Peter Porker. If they are to stop King Pin and return these spider-people to their own universes, it is going to fall to Miles, the only novice among them, to play a central part.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ventures confidently into a part of the comicbook world that blockbuster adaptations have yet to dare, the multiverse. Where recent superhero movies have focused on the maintenance of overarching narratives, comicbooks have for a long time been open to the possibilities of alternate time lines and stand alone stories giving us multiple versions of the same characters. Where the previous six Spider-Man movies have all been Peter Parker stories, and have all told much the same story of that character, this film opens up the possibilities of who Spider-Man can be, or rather, who can be Spider-Man. While Miles is our protagonist, the Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s screenplay is careful not to suggest that any one of the various Spider-people is the ‘true’ Spider-Man, or woman, or pig.
This relatability is important because that has always been one of the keys to Spidey’s popularity. For most readers, Bruce Wayne the billionaire was just as unrelatable Bruce Wayne the caped crusader. Peter Parker, on the other hand, was a normal kid struggling to maintain a normal adolescent life around his crime fighting commitments. He suggested anybody could be a superhero. Further barriers to engagement were stripped away when Miles Morales, the mixed-race son of an African American cop and a Puerto Rican nurse, was introduced into comics as a new Spider-Man in 2011. The choice to build this film around him rather than Parker continues the recent diversifiying of the big screen superhero.
Rather than the traditional Spider-Man credo of ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ the message of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would seem to be ‘with great opportunity comes great obligation.’ Miles is a reluctant protagonist, presented with opportunities that he did not ask for, whether they be the gaining of superpowers or his admission into the fancy private school he doesn’t want to go to on a scholarship. While he has no expectations of himself, he is surrounded by people whose expectations of him are great (a notion that is reinforced by his having to do a book report on Dickens’ novel).
The embracing of comicbookiness extends to the film’s striking animation style. Unlike anything you’ve seen before, its highly stylised aesthetic feels like it exists somewhere in between 2D and 3D. While obviously digital, its line work and dots make it feel like you’ve jumped into a hand-drawn comicbook. It takes a moment to settle into the style – and you may initially wonder if you have wandered into a 3D screening without collecting your glasses – but once your brain has been trained how to read the screen you can sit back and feast on some really stunning images.
Imaginative in its look and narrative, playful in its acknowledgement of the Spider-Man films that have come before, and very funny – the fingerprints of producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) are all over it – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is arguably the best of the various Spider-Man films. It is definitely the most ambitious. The film also finishes with a touching tribute to Spider-Man co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who both passed away in 2018.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.