Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
2018, PG, 100 min. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman. Voices by Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoë Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 14, 2018
Peter Parker is dead. Technically, he's not our Peter Parker, because that's the Peter Parker of Earth-616. This is Peter Parker of Earth-1610 and ... OK, let's back up.
In 2000, Marvel Comics realized that they were getting a little stale, and the continuity for their interlocking universe of titles was unbelievably complex, so they created a parallel line called Ultimate Marvel, rebooting the characters and putting superheroes in as realistic a light as possible. In 2011, the powers that be saw that what was supposed to be contemporary now felt a little dated, and they pulled the trigger and killed off Peter Parker, the original Spider-Man. His successor was no nerdy white orphan from the suburbs, balancing school and a job: Miles Morales was a 13-year-old kid from Brooklyn with an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother.
If that sounds like comics arcana that audiences don't need to know before watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, then yes and no. First, it shows that it's been a different man under the mask. Second, it's that the character has always been bleeding edge. It's always tried to be contemporary and grounded about the struggles of being New York's favorite superhero when you aren't a god or a super-scientist or a war hero. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse remains true to the legacy, and only builds upward.
Just as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man II caught the classic 1960s Spidey, so the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is exactly the Spider-Man movie we need now. The New York of Miles (Moore) is vibrant and splashed with color – some of it from his own graffiti as his ne'er-do-well uncle Aaron (Ali) encourages his creativity as a tagger. That's all to the chagrin of Miles' father Jefferson Davis (Henry), a cop who just wants his son to fulfill his potential. What nobody expects is that his potential is expanded after being bitten by a mutated spider that gives him superpowers: And handily so, since the original Spidey just got beaten to death by the Kingpin (Schreiber). He's busy ripping a hole in the space-time continuum for his own reasons, but fortunately that same rift provides Miles with the allies he needs: the Spider-persons (and in one case, pig) of other dimensions.
Most of the drama comes from Miles trying to live up to the expectations of Peter B. Parker (Johnson adding his patent brand of schlubbiness to the older, tubbier, divorced Peter) and Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Woman (Steinfeld), aka the cooler, more experienced teen Spidey. Of course, cramming six Spideys into one film doesn't allow for too much character development, so the remaining three (Glenn as mech-assisted Peni Parker, Mulaney as the Looney Tunes-esque Spider-Ham, and Cage continuing his hot streak as Thirties throwback Spider-Man Noir) are mainly around for excellent comic relief.
Throw in the family drama, and this could seem overloaded. But directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman have shepherded an extraordinary take on the Marvel universe that's gritty and lush, shadowy and colorful, epic and intimate – kind of like Miles Morales' NYC. The trio build in so many glorious details that there's never a lull or dull moment, and the rapid-fire script keeps up with the raw visual ingenuity. They also know and embrace the source material: It's not just in deep-cut nods that fans of the comic will get (if you think that's a Bill Sienkiewicz take on Kingpin, you're absolutely right), but in the way that, when characters lean into close-up, you can see the dots from the old four-color printing presses. It's easy to link this to the kinetic fury of the equally groundbreaking The LEGO Movie (also produced by Chris Miller and co-writer Phil Lord), but the end result is closer to one of the modern anime masters (Mirai director Mamoru Hosoda and/or The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl's Masaaki Yuasa leap immediately to mind) in how it mixes the personal and fantastical at breakneck, stunning speed.
It all comes back to the heart of the Spidey story, the old adage that "with great power comes great responsibility." It's tough doing the right thing, and sometimes it's thankless and can come with a lot of pain, but it's still the right thing, and that's why you do it. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse always comes out swinging.