Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren’t overly disposed to give this big-screen Spider-Man a go, on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t “good enough” for live-action, why should I give it my time?
Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s pedigree wholly persuaded me; they’d had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics’ approval that swayed me, suggesting I’d have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it’s a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.
Screenwriters Lord and Rodney Rothman (the latter one of three directors, along with Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey) have seized on a robust premise. The multiverse is a simple but effective means – in that it’s by now a broadly familiar shorthand – to team up various Spider-Man alts that have appeared over the years, albeit they’re drawing on an already complex and stuffed-to-the-gills comic-book Spider-Verse. Probably the least persuasive onscreen is SP//dr, alias Peni Parker’s anime-styled incarnation via a biomech suit, first featured in 2014 and here voiced by Kimiko Glenn.
Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney) is the most absurd, a porcine “cartoon” – the word used as an insult – version of the character (first appearance 1983) who even gets away with overtly quoting the Warner Bros Looney Tunes in his design references.
Perhaps most intriguing is Spider-Man Noir, voiced by Nicolas Cage (first appearance 2009), a black-and-white 1930s iteration who cutely, due to his monochromatic vision, becomes obsessed with a Rubik’s Cube. They’re on the periphery of the action, though (we also encounter Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 in the post-credits scene, wackily interacting with a rudimentary 1967 Spider-Man cartoon, with original voice Paul Soles).
Centre frame, though, is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), passed the Spidey baton when his universe’s Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is killed by Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber); this Peter isn’t in the movie very much, but there’s an appealing reverence towards the previous Sony movies via a montage of near-quoted sequences applied to his reality (Sony’s own pre-existing filmic Spider-Verse).
Indeed, a perhaps inevitable consequence of the preponderance of other Spideys, most particularly Jake Johnson’s middle-aged, beer-gut wielding, pizza-fuelled Parker, is that Miles isn’t given a proper chance to assume the web-slinging mantle – amid much, possibly slightly overdone inability to even climb walls/stop sticking to things – until the climax.
The flip-side, however, is very much a positive, in that the relationship between past-it Peter, less than dedicated to upholding his great responsibility following the failure of his marriage to Mary Jane Watson, really bears fruit, each gaining from his interaction with the other.
Then there’s Spider-Gwen (Stacey, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), who also first appeared in 2014, possibly the most stylish rendering of the various webslingers, although a distant third to Miles and fat Peter in prominence by virtue of lacking a crucial tie to Miles beyond his adoration (appropriately, ingenue Miles has to admit they’re just friends).
The villains might be considered less than essential in all this, incidental to the pervading Spider love-in, and to an extent, that’s the case. But Kingpin’s at least serviced with a relatable emotional motive for tearing the worlds asunder (to regain his lost love). He isn’t just bent on destruction.
There isn’t much to Doctor Olivia Octavius Octopus, aside from gender-swapping, however, meaning that the real kernel of conflict comes from Peter’s discovery that his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is the Prowler (I might not have followed this thread sufficiently closely, but I’m assuming the genetically-modified spider in the subway station must have come via Aaron’s contact with Octavius, or more tenuously Oscorp).
As for the animation, it’s vibrant and invigorating in all the right ways. Perhaps occasionally, it becomes a little too abstract for its own good – the particle accelerator climax is a fully-seized opportunity for weightless comic-book leaping hither and thither, but there’s a point where that’s all it ends up being, detached from anything tangible and thus feeling more like the final act to your average overblown live-action superhero movie – but that’s very much the rarity.
The decision to remind us of comic frames through a limited four-colour palette and touches such as repeated (written on-screen) dialogue and sound effects evidences the most fun had in transposing the medium since Ang Lee’s Hulk. Although, Into the Spider-Verse is receiving very much the positive reception for such affectations, where Hulk, at least at the time, was largely spurned. Rendering-wise, I’d only really take issue with the Stan Lee cameo, as he ends up looking rather flintier than I’m sure was intended.
I suppose one might see Miles Morales (first appearance 2011, lest I forget) being consigned to an animated debut as a snub to the character. Certainly, given the way that, however well this ends up doing, the grosses will only be a fraction of Sony’s main player. On the other hand, much as I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, this version is undoubtedly the more inventive, creative piece, showing clearly that Sony doesn’t need the Kevin Feige magic touch to make their comic-book character crown jewel, the one they’ll never relinquish, a success. Just attract people with a passion for the character who know what they’re doing. Hopefully Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will garner a sequel sooner rather than later.
Oh, and Spidey Bells? Instant classic.