Movie Review - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
By Matthew Huntley
December 13, 2018
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a bright, edgy and imaginative adventure—bold, bustling and alive, all in a safe, mainstream-superhero-movie sort of way. From its pulsating first frame, it’s easy to tell the film’s three directors, Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, have only love and affection for the their titular hero and what he stands for, although they also know he should be capable of evolving, and with this inaugural computer-animated version of the legendary figure, they’ve taken what will hopefully be the first step toward a Spider-Man movie that’s everything “Into the Spider-Verse” is only less safe. For now, though, we can bask in this one’s notable risks and many achievements.
The risks I refer to include this being the first Spider-Man movie to feature a non-white and non-male version of the hero, not to mention a non-human. Following “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther,” this may not seem like such a big a deal, but given that Spider-Man is often viewed as the default and most exemplary superhero in popular culture, it makes the idea of them being more diverse all the more common and accepted.
This latest adaptation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s beloved Marvel Comics character, which is cheerfully aware of and recognizes all the previous live-action Spidey incarnations that have come before it, kicks off with Spider-Man/Peter Parker (voice of Chris Pine) giving us a quick recap of how he came to be (promptly summarizing the whole “radioactive spider thing”) and bringing us up to speed on what he’s doing now. At 26, he’s married to Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz); is still saving New York City from utter devastation on a routine basis; has started his own product line; and is still fending off enemies, old and new.
One of his latest haters is a by-the-books, no-nonsense cop named Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), who doesn’t agree with Spidey’s unorthodox crime-fighting methods. The opposite holds true for Jefferson’s son, Miles (Shameik Moore), who will be the movie’s chief protagonist. Miles secretly admires Spider-Man, having read the comics written about his true-life adventures. Deep down, perhaps Miles senses he and Spider-Man/Peter Parker aren’t all that different from each other. After all, both are intellectually gifted yet socially insecure, although to us, Miles may have it even harder than Peter ever did because he’s the son of an African-American father and Hispanic mother (Luna Lauren Velez), which, although the movie doesn’t explicitly address this trait (or its social ramifications), we appreciate as one of the qualities that makes Miles a more unique character.
Despite his academic talents, Miles hates the boarding school his parents send him to, which is just outside of his hometown of Brooklyn. He thinks it’s elitist and being there makes him feel like he’s betraying his own kind. He tries to get himself kicked out by deliberately failing, but his teachers see through him and won’t let him.
Like many adolescents, Miles finds solace in making art, particularly spray-painting murals, and he’s able to talk about his woes with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who watches over the kid but clearly has a dark side, which is probably why Miles’ father and Aaron are estranged brothers.
One night, Aaron takes Miles into the subway to paint and, wouldn’t you know, down comes a radioactive spider (not unlike the one that found Peter) and bites him on the wrist. As the story goes, Miles begins to transform—his body grows; he develops a Spidey sense; and his fingers start to stick to things, including the hair of the girl he likes at school, who calls herself “Gwendola” (Hailee Steinfeld) and has a secret of her own.
The plot thickens once Miles makes contact with the original Spider-Man, who’s in a heated battle with the Green Goblin and, shortly thereafter, the crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who’s built a giant mechanism that, for all intents and purposes, disrupts the time-space continuum and opens a portal to parallel universes (his motivation for constructing such a device is something I’ll let you discover). Without giving too much of this increasingly layered plot away, Miles’ own dimension suddenly becomes inhabited by five other Spider-People, including an older, out-of-shape and recently divorced Peter “B.” Parker (Jake Johnson), who reluctantly becomes Miles’ mentor; Spider-Gwen, the aforementioned female version of the hero; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese school girl who operates her own spider robot called “SP//dr”; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a dark version of Spider-Man who, with his black trench coat and fedora, resembles Rorschach from “The Watchmen”; and Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic pig. Yes, a pig.
Research tells me each of these alternate versions of Spider-Man actually has his or her roots in various Spider-Man comics and/or video games, which surprised me because I just assumed they were created specifically for this film. Nevertheless, “Into the Spider-Verse” provides them each a worthy backstory and pools them together to thwart Kingpin and his chief engineer/partner-in-crime, Dr. Livia Octavius, a.k.a. Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn). With so many characters and an impressively intricate plot, the movie is surprisingly coherent and builds into a rich, action-packed adventure with strong moments of character development; witty, self-deprecating humor; and even true, heartfelt emotion. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is nothing if not well-rounded.
The film’s most striking feature, of course, is its animation, which is virtually boundless and allows the action to move with the kind of fluidity and freedom that only animation can provide. The filmmakers have utilized their resources to a full and mesmerizing degree, filling all corners of the screen with vibrant colors and often dazzling set pieces (as far as computer-animated set pieces go). And despite this being computer animation, the characters possess full weight and dimension, thanks in large part to the fitting and memorable voice casting, particularly Moore as Miles, Henry as Miles’ father, and Ali as Uncle Aaron. They prove they don’t just enliven live-action characters but have just as much presence as the voices of animated ones.
If I could change anything about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” it would be the main conflict, which, after an energetic setup, eventually settles on a mostly traditional superhero plot. You know the drill: the good guys must defeat the bad guys in a limited amount of time; and the main hero must learn to accept the things he cannot change, harness his powers, and rise above his own personal feelings and insecurities to fight for the greater good. This has become the sort of “go-to” Spider-Man story, which was my underlying problem with the otherwise fine “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” And while I understand a big-budget animated feature such as this probably needed to tread familiar territory before it can venture too far on its own, I also couldn’t help but think that with everything this film has at its disposal, both technically and casting-wise, it had potential to be a near-masterpiece, if only the plot taken more of a gamble and introduced problems to Miles and company that were less predictable.
Still, I did appreciate the film for at least being aware of its own exhausted devices and tropes and how it even had the nerve to poke fun at some of them, including the famous, “With great power comes great responsibility” line. This attitude made me think that if the film does well enough and there’s a sequel, the filmmakers will feel they can break new ground narratively as much as they have visually.
Regardless of my minor reservations about it, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a splendid treat, and both ardent and casual fans of Spider-Man should find it thoroughly engaging, humorous and touching. It takes the cinematic incarnation of Spider-Man as we know it and points it in a much-needed newer direction, while at the same time it helps solidify the idea of diversity in mainstream superhero movies as the new norm. Above all, though, it’s just enormously entertaining, and despite how prolific superhero movies have become, particularly those about Spider-Man, the filmmakers have not taken for granted the bare essentials it takes to make a good movie—name character, story and heart, all of which “Into the Spider-Verse” shows off to great effect.