SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE Review

In the sixteen years since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man first debuted we've had seven different Spider-Man films featuring four different incarnations of the webslinger. And while each of those incarnations have their own unique qualities that make each effort commendable (even the less successful ones-I'm a fan of the Marc Webb Amazing films, even), with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse we get something that would seemingly be the nail in the coffin as far as originality in blockbuster cinema goes. I mean, "Seven Spider-Man films in sixteen years? That's a new Spider-Man every four years and didn't we just get a new Peter Parker last summer? Why do we need another Spider-Man let alone another Spider-Man movie?" These are all valid questions and concerns, but somehow-rather than being the tipping point that sends audiences over the edge into full-on superhero saturation directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman have crafted a superhero film that does the complete opposite and reinvigorates the genre over and over again with its brisk two-hour time frame. What Spider-Verse does to separate itself from the past incarnations of the character is not only introduce a new Spider-Man in the form of Miles Morales (DOPE's Shameik Moore), but to also offer a completely new origin story that also offers a new perspective on what it's like to be a superhero. The movie, which comes from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 and 22 Jump Street) with Lord getting a sole screenwriting credit, knows exactly what it is and if you've seen any of Lord and Miller's previous work then you know how aware and how smart they are about recognizing the genre they're operating within, completely lampooning that genre, and then creating an experience of a movie that exists within that genre that is somehow simultaneously one of the best examples of that genre. For instance, if you were to pool this year's list of superhero films (a very strong year to boot) Spider-Verse would still be among the very best of them despite the fact superhero fatigue and references to past missteps in the series are explicit within the film's DNA. By executing the tropes audiences have become accustomed to in such expert fashion and placing this fresh twist on our expectations of the genre, Spider-Verse is able to stake claim in the fact that while viewers have seen plenty of superhero movies before, they've never seen one quite like this.

From left: Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Gwen Stacy (Halee Steinfeld), Peter Porker (John Mulaney), Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) all team-up in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Photo by Sony Pictures Animation - © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Full disclosure: I'm absolutely unsure as to how much of what is on screen in Spider-Verse is based on the Miles Morales run of Spider-Man comics thus far, but as someone who read Spider-Man comics growing up and came to love the character through that nineties animated series that ran from 1994-98, there was admittedly some trepidation going into this new realm of Spider-Man knowing that it was going to potentially, significantly alter the Peter Parker I grew up knowing and loving. In trying to be a human being that doesn't always fear change though, but rather embraces it-Spider-Verse begins by introducing this unassuming kid who couldn't imagine himself being further from the prototype of what a traditional superhero looks and acts like. Herein lies the kernel of the main idea that the film is doing its best to convey without lathering on like an after-school special: there is no pre-defined template for what makes someone a hero. Rather, it is the qualities one is willing to look inside themselves for and conjure up that determine whether or not they are worthy of taking on such a mantle. This message is summarized perfectly in the Stan Lee quote that graces the screen in a mid-credits tribute; the saying going, "That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed, without a doubt, a real superhero.” While we're on it, yes, the Lee cameo here gains a fair amount of weight and significance due to the comic book titans recent passing, but that it is his sentiments that seem to be living on the most through this work is what is all the more impressive and heartening. Moore's Morales is a teenager barely past puberty who has recently transferred from his school in Brooklyn to a more prestigious boarding school known as Visions Academy (which I feel like probably has some significance in the comics that I'll have to learn about later) and is not adjusting well. Morales is somewhat the nerd Peter Parker was, but he's definitely not an outsider. Morales is a nerd in the vein that he isn't necessarily comfortable talking to girls yet, but while he's very clearly book smart he also has a passion for creating art-more specifically, in the realm of tagging and graffiti art-that nod to Banksy is pretty great-and is someone who finds solace in the company of his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages such creative outlets whereas his police officer father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), couldn't feel less supportive of who his son wants to be while seemingly being concerned with nothing other than who he wants Miles to be. While out with his Uncle one night and contemplating his own "great expectations" of himself, Morales is bitten by a spider that he quickly brushes off and thinks nothing of. Of course, the next day when his clothes no longer fit and he begins sticking to everything it becomes apparent quite quickly that something in Morales' world has gone awry.

It is at this point in any seasoned movie-goers mind that the story would begin to go down the rote route of Morales learning to adapt to his powers while at the same time someone close to Morales would also begin a character arc set on a different, more villainous path so that they might be pitted against one another in a final confrontation for the ages. Some of this happens, some of it doesn't, but what is most important is none of it happens in the order or in the way in which said viewer will expect it to happen. Shortly after acquiring his powers Morales runs into the current Spider-Man in his universe as is portrayed by Peter Parker via Chris Pine (I love Pine, but would have loved for this to have been Tobey Maguire if, for nothing else, so that he would have given the film's opening monologue). In this quick meeting of past and present Spider-Men Parker acknowledges that Morales is like him and promises to train him while we, the audience, deduce that this new radioactive spider that bit Morales seems to have come from Wilson Fisk's (Liev Schreiber) laboratories where he-in association with the Green Goblin-is currently testing a particle accelerator in order to access parallel universes so that Fisk may re-connect with alternative versions of his wife and son. While Parker's Spider-Man attempts to disable the accelerator the efforts of both Green Goblin as well as Prowler cause the accelerator to only malfunction rather than completely disable thus still opening up whatever time space continuum there might be and allowing access to these parallel universes for a flash of a moment. Spider-Man is severely injured by the accelerator malfunction, but hands off a device or "goober" that can disable Fisk's machine to Morales for safe keeping. When Morales is left to his own devices to figure out how he might stop Fisk from opening up any more gateways though, he must figure out what it takes to be his own version of the wall-crawler. Morales is then unexpectedly joined by other Spider people who fell into his world from other dimensions when Fisk opened up the portal including an older Peter Parker (Jake Johnson, truly a national treasure) who is having something of a mid-life crisis and needs to get his act together, Spider-Gwen AKA Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Pig (John Mulaney) all of which will band together to help Morales stop Fisk and his evil goons (which also includes Kathryn Hahn's iteration of Doc Ock) so that they too might make it back home. Seriously though, Johnson is so good as a jaded Peter Parker who is more or less serving as the voice of the viewer who thought they were done with superhero movies that it almost makes you want to see a whole series devoted to a meta-commentary of the genre through the eyes of one of its most iconic characters.

Miles Morales becomes his own Spider-Man through the course of exploring the multi-verse.
Photo by Sony Pictures Animation - © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Beyond introducing a pretty ambitious story endeavor that I don't know has been attempted in a feature film before, but is typically reserved for long-form television series' a la the "multi-verse" Spider-Verse poses a story so outlandish and ridiculous at times that the style in which Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman have chosen to tell it is seemingly the only way it could have been told in what is both a credible and incredibly cool way. The visuals contained in this thing are beyond entrancing. It's like the first time you saw computer animation or a Pixar film and knew that it was going to be something revolutionary, something special in the way that it was the birth of a whole new way of conveying a story. In what now seems like the logical next step in the animation evolution, Spider-Verse combines traditional hand-drawn animation with computer generated animation that is layered in the textures of familiarity as if it were an actual comic book that has been read and re-read countless times by enthusiastic adolescents. The animation is both perfectly flawed yet possesses this true to life smoothness where the characters don't look or feel like special effects; they are real people that cross an authenticity barrier not typically associated with animated films. Furthermore, once Morales is bitten by the spider the comic book effects and facets really begin to amplify themselves making it feel all the more as if this is truly what it looks like were a comic book to come to life on the big screen. Everything about the movie is just cool. From the animation style to the color scheme, to the way the characters dress and carry themselves, to the thumping beats featured on the soundtrack-even the abbreviated Daniel Pemberton score is funkier than it has any right to be-down to the ways in which the script flips certain trademarks of the Spider-Man lore on its head, "With great ability, comes great accountability." The movie just exudes this effortlessly cool factor that, even if it wanted to, it couldn't shake. And then there is the story that so delicately balances all five hundred things going on at once and yet makes all of them feel intrinsic to the arc of Miles Morales. Everything about Lord's screenplay is so perfectly symmetrical in that everything it sets up it perfectly pays off-from Kingpin's family, the love of graffiti and the design of Morales' own suit, even down to a bit about something called "the shoulder touch"-it all lines up in this perfect fashion to create a narrative that's not only easy to invest in, but appropriately moving as well. In other words, to quote Cage's Spider-Man Noir, "This is a pretty hardcore origin story," and by hardcore I totally mean that it pushes the envelope, breaks all the rules, and as a result will create a movement in the worlds of both animated films and the superhero genre that I can't wait to see the ramifications of.