There is an argument at present that Hollywood films are indistinguishable from each other, not doing enough to set themselves apart. Taking heed of that advice is a new picture that introduces not just one iteration of a famous Marvel character, but several, and places them in a world that looks unlike any before it, the result of which is astonishing.
Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, Dope) is feeling like an outsider in more ways than one. Just two weeks ago, he moved from public school to an elite private school, there struggling with the heavy workload and an inability to express himself, or make friends. Miles will often spend time with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), a part-time felon, to escape the burdens of adolescence, although doing so displeases his father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), who happens to be a police officer.
Burdening Miles further is the bite from a mutant spider, which has given him abilities not unlike those of New York’s celebrated superhero, Spider-Man (Chris Pine). The teenager’s search as to how, or why, he was instilled with these powers leads him to a large underground laboratory, in which Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk (Liev Schreiber) has built a machine capable of travelling between dimensions. Just as he happens upon this machine, Miles witnesses an experiment gone wrong, resulting in the laboratory’s destruction.
Little does anybody realise that Kingpin’s experiment was a success, able to open portals between parallel universes and bring objects into this dimension. Caught in one of these portals was Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an overweight, middle-aged divorcee and alter-ego of Spider-Man living in his own version of New York City. A chance encounter in a local cemetery sees Miles and Peter team-up, with the former hoping that Peter can be a mentor, and the latter needing Miles’ help to find his way home.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is Columbia Pictures’ second attempt at an expanded superhero universe in a matter of weeks, following the critically-maligned Venom released in October. The studio’s latest effort is undoubtedly the better of the two, being everything that the previous film wasn’t – gone is the tonal confusion, odd pacing and ambivalent motivations of the characters. A more obvious difference is that Spider-Verse is an animated feature, rather than live-action, which is what truly allows the blockbuster to stand out.
Into the Spider-Verse has a unique visual style that is unmistakably its own, emulating the comic books from which the film takes inspiration. The computer-generated, three-dimensional animation has been cel-shaded to resemble a hand-drawn illustration, providing the film with a pulpy aesthetic. This effect is further enhanced by Ben-Day dots, coarse lines, and speech bubbles – all staples of graphic novels – as well as a low frame-rate, which deliberately makes the characters look jerky and disjointed.
This isn’t always the case, for there are occasions when Spider-Verse will forgo the flipbook-esque animation, usually during a fight sequence. It’s scenes like these where the movement of the characters becomes smooth, fluid and fast-paced, but never to the point where one struggles to comprehend what they’re seeing. The best animation is found during a battle inside Kingpin’s dimensional portal, with bright colours and uncanny imagery resulting in the trippiest, most entrancing visuals ever witnessed in a superhero movie.
Joining Miles and Peter on this mesmerising journey are four more alternate incarnations of Spider-Man, all of whom are welcome inclusions. They are Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who assumed the mantle of Spider-Woman after the death of her best friend; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a teenage girl with a robot sidekick from centuries in the future; Peter Porker (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic pig; and this author’s personal favourite, Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a brooding gumshoe drawn in black-and-white.
All four of these protagonists are individualised by their differing art-styles, as witnessed above, which is also reflected in their voices. Kimiko Glenn makes Peni sound like the American dub of an anime character; John Mulaney channels Nathan “Timon” Lane to provide the voice of Spider-Ham; and Nicolas Cage speaks like the narrator of a 1930s radio serial, which only makes his character more hilarious.
Despite the movie introducing several all-new characters with minimal backstory, there isn’t a point in Spider-Verse where one feels lost or overwhelmed by the amount of heroes, which is a remarkable feat. What’s most extraordinary is how these characters, who have not appeared in a feature-length film until now, make the case for getting their own spin-off – the moment these heroes appear on-screen, if not soon after, one feels attached to them, and is longing to see their stories explored in greater detail.
On the subject of which, the plot of Into the Spider-Verse follows some very familiar beats, making events less exciting. By and large, the film is an origin story for Miles Morales that follows a time-honoured template – he discovers his preternatural abilities, learns how to control them, and utilises them after a tragic circumstance befalls him – thus preventing it from being the transcendent, wholly-original experience it deserves to be. Miles’ fellow superheroes are well-aware of this fact, pointedly remarking how similar their own beginnings are.
This overly-familiar formula is at least made bearable by the comedy, which acknowledges the film’s many clichés. Spider-Verse induces laughter by constantly being meta and self-referential, but not in a snarky manner like Deadpool does – rather, these jokes are told lovingly and in good-nature. Additionally, the film makes further use of its cartoonish visuals by having a fair amount of slapstick humour, which matches the hilarity of the one-liners and references.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a creative, audacious and inimitable take on Marvel’s web-slinging superhero that constantly surprises. Distinct, charming characters inhabit a film that is visually striking and perfectly balances action with comedy, all of which is presented in a family-friendly package. Only a predictable story sours the enjoyment, with the remainder of the picture being nothing but awesome.