Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Opening Friday, Dec. 14
You’d be sensible to assert that the last thing the world needs is another Spider-Man movie. You’d also be wrong. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a comic book writ large, a multi-layered adventure that manages to honor its source material while also uprooting it. A spirited and irreverent animated update from the minds behind The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street, the film’s eye-popping visuals are surpassed by its thematic ambitions, and both are used to reinforce the thoughtful potential of superhero storytelling.
Like the novel Great Expectations, a not-so-subtle recurring reference throughout the film, Into the Spider-Verse follows a boy’s emotional and moral maturation, from his longing to transcend his predetermined station in life to the challenges that arise after achieving supposed success. But this isn’t the usual Peter Parker origin story. As the movie begins, the friendly neighborhood web-slinger is already an iconic figure in the New York City landscape (though events from past Spider-Man TV show and films are wryly referenced).
In fact, it isn’t a Peter Parker origin story at all. Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is a thirteen-year-old boy from the Bronx, the son of an African-American police officer (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican mom (Luna Lauren Vélez). Miles’s dad drives him to Brooklyn every day to attend an elite boarding school where Miles feels like a fish out of water. He has more rapport with his laidback uncle (Mahershala Ali), particularly when they sneak off to spray graffiti in the subways.
That’s also where Miles is bitten by a radioactive, oddly robotic spider. As he grapples with an array of burgeoning abilities, he stumbles onto a row between Spider-Man (Chris Pine) and Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who is trying to trigger a nuclear supercollider to collapse various alternate realities into one, with motives we only learn later. The confrontation leaves Miles as the last, best hope to save our world. It also leaves fissures in the space-time continuum that pull in other extra-dimensional Spider entities who will disintegrate if they don’t return home in time. Chief among them is Peter B. Parker (New Girl star Jake Johnson), a portly, disheveled divorcee who sports sweatpants with his Spidey top and is disenchanted with the superhero gig. He becomes Miles’s accidental, reluctant mentor.
The script, by Phil Lord (of Lord & Miller fame) and Rodney Rothman (one of the film’s three directors), inverts and updates Spider-Man while democratizing the superhero mythos beyond its traditionally male, white strictures. This begins with Miles and continues with retooled villains like Doctor Octopus, voiced by Kathryn Hahn. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) is Spider-Woman in another reality. Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) is an anime pixie who controls a spider-powered pet robot.
The animation styles are as diverse as the characters, with hand-drawn art sitting alongside computer-generated graphics. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) is a crime-fighting pig drawn like a Looney Tunes cartoon. And Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage!) arrives from the 1930s as a hard-boiled, black-and-white vigilant in the Bogart/Cagney vein. The movie is panelized with dialogue boxes to create a comic-book effect, accentuated by soft-focus backgrounds and a slow frame-rate that, admittedly, takes some getting used to.
Even Uncle Ben’s famous mantra about power and responsibility is swept aside, replaced by a more grounded, alliterative admonition: “With great ability comes great accountability.” The change is subtle but significant, shifting the emphasis from lofty personal altruism to societal checks and justification. It’s an accountability that the filmmakers of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse successfully took to heart.