I’ll admit, I wasn’t too keen on seeing the latest Sony/Marvel animated feature “SpiderMan: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) for two reasons; (a) I’m getting just a little sick of cinematic superhero movies, and (b) because Spider-Man has already been rebooted several times in the last 18 years.
That sentiment may seem a bit strange coming from a once-fan of 1970s Marvel SpiderMan comics as well as the animated 1967 series reruns. I even had the Mego action figure. But the onslaught of big-budget Spidey movies convinced me that there was nothing new up SpiderMan’s suit sleeve anymore. That was my attitude as of only a few days ago.
Well, the me of a few days ago was dead-wrong.
Thanks to my wife’s (legal) screener copy, she and I watched “SpiderMan: Into the Spider-Verse” last night from the comfort of our living room. Now, after seeing the film, I wish that I’d seen it on the big screen first…in fact, I plan on doing just that as soon as the holidays are over.
Young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is an underachieving high schooler who hides true smarts from the teachers at his private school. Miles only grudgingly attends this academy through the prodding of his cop dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mother Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), who live in a modest New York apartment. His less-upstanding but loving uncle Aron (“Moonlight” Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) is also a strong influence in Miles’ life.
Aron takes Miles on a midnight sojourn into the colorful nooks and crannies of the NYC underground, where Miles has a fateful encounter with a radioactive spider (yada, yada, yada…) which makes him go through what he believes to be a very awkward second puberty (sweatiness, growth spurt, very sticky palms). Miles soon discovers that he has certain abilities very much like his idol, NYC’s own Peter Parker (Star Trek’s Chris Pine).
While following his hero, Miles unwittingly stumbles into a colossal and epic showdown between Spider-Man and several villains (Green Goblin, Doc Ock, the Prowler) who are instantly recognizable to fans of Spidey lore. Parker and Miles find their way into a subterranean super-collider which causes a dangerous, freakish fracture in the fabric of reality.
While attempting to stop supervillain William Fisk, aka “Kingpin” (Liev Schreiber) from further using the multiverse-manipulating device (for a very unexpected purpose), Peter Parker is killed. As the city mourns the loss of a hero, the presently-existing fracture allows several Spider-folk to fall into Miles’ own universe.
The diverse group includes the older, more bitter Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Gwen/Gwen Stacey (“True Grit” star Hailee Steinfeld), 1930’s-era Spider-Man noir (Nicholas Cage), futuristic Japanese anime-inspired Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and the wonderfully nonsensical, 2D animated ‘Spider-Pig’ named Spider-Ham (comedian John Mulaney).
Peter B. takes Miles under his middle-aged wing as a bitter mentor, with each of the Spideys using their unique skillsets to try to fix the fracture in reality and get back to their respective universes…all while aiding Miles to realize his potential as this universe’s true Spider-Man, following the loss of its own martyred hero.
The climax is a dizzying, surreal ride through a heady mix of realities and visual stylings, and that’s really as much of it as I care to spoil for this review.
The film is dedicated to the recently deceased Marvel titans Stan Lee and Steve Dikto. Oh, and be sure to stick around after the end credits…
“Into the Spider-Verse” is unique in that Miles is a teenage, non-white Marvel superhero who doesn’t live in some mythical African nation. He is portrayed as a (very) regular kid; awkward, hormonal, underachieving (despite innate mental gifts), and easily distracted. He’s very likable because he is so relatable.
It’s also interesting to see other supporting heroes and villains recast in unconventional ways (Kathryn Hahn voicing the tentacled classic Spidey villain Doc Ock, reimagined as Dr. Octavia). There are so many sly subversions to expectations sprinkled throughout the movie that to list them would ruin a few genuine surprises.
Stan’s still the man.
Before his death, Marvel creator Stan Lee shot multiple cameos back-to-back for future Marvel movies, and there is one in this film as well. But even that moment defies expectations a bit with a sly wink at Marvel’s own commercialism (“a real superhero doesn’t wear his own merch”).
The movie is a wildly meta-collision of universes and visual stylings that easily matches the surreal, dream-like visuals of 2016’s “Doctor Strange.”
“Into the Spider-Verse” continually rotates animation formats depending on the mood or focus of any given scene; near-photorealistic CG for more traditional moments, Ben Day-dot matrixes, 16 bit retro video-gaming for selected action scenes, anaglyph-blurring to depict fracturing realities (which made me rub my eyes a bit), and a funkier, looser look for a sequence beneath NYC.
There are also homages to black/white 1930s noir (like the “Batman” or “Spirit” comics), colorful Japanese anime and even Warner Bros. “Looney Toons.”
The training sequence among the golden fall foliage of New York reminded me of something inspired by Japanese animation maestro, Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away” “Princess Mononoke”).
You’d think such a diverse clashing of styles would create chaos, but directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman keep Phil (“Lego Movie”) Lord’s story on track with elegance and excitement. At no time does this visual medley feel awkward or ill-fitting. It’s a surreal ode to animation, though the style never outweighs the substance.
Summing it up.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a witty, dizzying & dazzlingly stylish adventure that never loses its grip on the fallibility and relatability of its young hero, Miles Morales…he is the Spider-Man for a new generation.
At this point, I’d be perfectly fine with Peter Parker forever hanging up his cinematic tights in order to see Miles Morales swing into action yet again…in animation or live-action.