- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman
- Written by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman
- Featuring: the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson and Nicolas Cage
- Classification: PG; 117 minutes
With great power comes great franchise possibilities. That's how Uncle Ben's final words go, right? There's no time to fact-check it, lest another iteration of poor ol' Benjamin Parker comes along in the meantime, ready to die again so that the story of nephew Peter can be told anew, for maximized return on investment.
Over the past 16 years, audiences have faced three different cinematic versions of Spider-Man, a turnaround of one new Spidey every 5.333 years. At this point, there’s nothing sacrosanct about who gets to wear the web-slinger’s mask, or who gets to utter Uncle Ben’s last breath (although Cliff Robertson will always tower over Martin Sheen). So when faced with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – not only yet another Spider-Man movie, but the second of two Spidey films to be released in the same calendar year, after Avengers: Infinity War – we can either greet the prospect with a shrug or pure exhaustion. All right, fine, we’ve proven we’ll pay for most anything familiar. How bad could it be?
To my extreme surprise and delight: not bad at all. Actually: better than could be imagined. Going one step further and stretching this review’s use of colons: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might be the best Spider-Man film ever made.
The new work distinguishes itself from its predecessors in one obvious way: It’s animated. When footage from Spider-Verse started trickling out earlier this year, it didn’t seem immediately apparent why the world needed a cartoon version – there are enough computer-generated images in the live-action versions for them to be considered animated, too. It only takes three minutes of Spider-Verse to understand just how wrong that assumption is.
Miles away from the sanded-down safety of Pixar and so layered and energetic that it makes whatever the Minions are doing look like the scribblings of a juice-drunk toddler, Spider-Verse’s animation is next-level gorgeous and intoxicating. Co-directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman have said they intended to pioneer a style akin to “living paintings” – but even that hyperbole doesn’t do justice to the images onscreen. One-hundred and forty-two animators band together here to take the best principles of comic-book imagery – impossible physics that subvert reality, hyper-stylized backgrounds that overwhelm the eye, bright colours that do more than pop, they explode – and tether them to the language of film. The result is an exaggerated, completely immersive cinematic experience that nicely apes the thrill of losing yourself in a comic, perhaps while highly caffeinated.
Director Sam Raimi may have invented how a modern superhero moves onscreen with 2002′s Spider-Man, but by the time Spider-Verse reaches its dizzying climax, it’s clear that it will take a few technological leaps for live-action filmmakers to catch up with what Persichetti and Co. have developed.
If its visual splendour was all Spider-Verse had going for it, that might have been enough. (Certainly more than Marc Webb’s two Spidey films.) But the movie also tells the most thrilling Peter Parker adventure yet – although I should use the name “Peter Parker” carefully.
The real hero of Spider-Verse is Miles Morales (voiced by a charismatic Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager struggling with very Peter-esque problems in Brooklyn. In Miles’s world (separate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe of Infinity War, but hewing very close to Raimi’s films, so much so that this could be the sequel to Spider-Man 3), Peter is doling out punches and quips in equal measure … until he’s killed by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). This happens to occur just before Miles is bitten by a familiar-looking radioactive spider, but one that’s escaped from an alternate reality, thanks to a pesky rip in the space-time continuum.
Promising the dying Peter that he’ll stop Kingpin’s latest evil plan, Miles becomes a new, younger, far more inexperienced friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. It’s a refreshing and diverse enough reboot of the character – Miles’s problems are every teenager’s, in addition to the whole saving-the-world thing – that, again, the movie could stop right there and still be miles ahead. But then Rothman and co-writer Phil Lord (of Lego Movie and Jump Street fame) go absolutely bananas, introducing a wealth of alternate-dimension Spideys to aide Miles in his quest, including Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a Spidey who’s given up, gained weight and has a penchant for bagels.
The scene in which Miles, Peter B. and the other alt-Spideys – Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), anime-style Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her radioactive robot, black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage!) and the Looney Tunes-esque talking pig Peter Porker (John Mulaney!) – gather for the first time led to me stretching the widest, stupidest grin. The story’s joys only multiply from there, as many Spideys take on many supervillains (including a gender-swapped Doc Ock voiced by Kathryn Hahn), while the background is crammed with clever Easter eggs (including a delightful reference to Lord and writing partner Christopher Miller’s dearly departed Clone High cartoon).
Spider-Verse’s finale leans a little too heavily on the many-things-go-boom obligations of the superhero genre, and there’s a twist involving Miles’s slick Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) that is familiar to anyone who saw last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, or has ever read any story ever.
But it’s a thrill to report that someone has taken the great power of Spider-Man, and handled it with great responsibility.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens Dec. 14.