Spoiler-Free Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Title: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman
Stars (primary actors): Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Bryan Tyree Henry, Hailee Steinfeld, Liev Shreiber, and Mahershala Ali
Bias: I’m pretty sure they made this movie for me personally, so…
In A Nutshell: Miles Morales is an ordinary kid from Brooklyn who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superpowers. Meanwhile, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, is funding an experiment to open a gateway to multiple dimensions. Miles must team up with a eclectic gang of alternate dimension Spider-folks to stop Fisk, return everyone to their homes, and discover if he has what it takes to be Spider-Man.
The Critique: To start, this is a legitimately groundbreaking film that pushes the medium in incredible ways. The animation brings a variety of comic book styles to life, not just recreating them, but capturing all of the dynamism, action, and energy in ways that I’ve never seen before. At the same time, there’s a density to every frame that makes the images feel real and solid without losing any of the visual inventiveness. The first shot of Miles at his drawing board, swaying back and forth to “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee immediately brings the character to life as a charming, likable lead.
That’s important, because so much of what makes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse so great (aside from the visuals, which, again, stunning) is the story. I’ll admit, I had a lot of concerns from the start with the whole “Spider-Verse” aspect of the story. I wanted a Miles Morales story that put him front and center and developed him as a character without feeling the need to pad it out with a bunch of characters that could make him feel like an afterthought (or worse, given his importance as one of the most high-profile biracial characters, a gimmick along the lines of Spider-Ham). I was also worried that the plot would be too overloaded or difficult to follow. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about, as this is absolutely a Miles Morales/Spider-Man story. The central relationship between Miles, his father, and his Uncle Aaron, along with the promise Miles makes early in the film and feels a responsibility to keep, are what drive the story and invest the audience in seeing him succeed.
What the other Spider-folks end up being are an excellent supporting ensemble for Miles to bounce off of. To a person their performances are excellent, and the way they’re visually realized pays homage to their specific creators/origins in the comics while fitting beautifully in the world the animators have created. As great as they all are, Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir and John Mulaney’s Spider-Ham threaten to steal their scenes (though Spider-Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) and the glimpse we get of her world are a visually-stunning tribute to her creators).
Perhaps the thing I found most engaging (and I’ll need to talk around some spoilers here) is the underlying message about heroism here, that is just as perfect for Miles as Peter’s “With great power…” mantra is for him. There’s a danger with spin-off characters that they’ll never feel as real or necessary as the original, and this becomes especially concerning when the spin-off (as they often are) is from a marginalized group. The message for Miles is “Anyone can wear the mask” and it isn’t meant, and doesn’t come across, as dismissive or dis-empowering. Instead, when combined with the various versions of Spider-folk in the film, it’s a communal call to action and a re-imagining of what power and responsibility are. “Anyone can wear the mask” and (to reference two other key lines in the film) all it takes is the willingness to make a leap of faith, and to always get back up. Given the many gate-keeping arguments that often come in comics fandom about who and what the “real” or “one true” version of a character is, this is the perfect counter to that argument. It isn’t that Miles, Gwen, Peter, or whoever is THE Spider-Man. It’s that they all are. And relying on a solitary hero is never going to be as effective as people being willing to step up and be a hero when they need to be.
Shout-out(s): I didn’t spend much time focusing on it in my review, but the music is such an essential part of creating the world of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Also, the nods and tributes to all of the creators involved, but particularly to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (both of whom passed away this year) were perfect. And on a side-note, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to Donald Glover (who partially inspired the creation of Miles due to the “Donald as Spider-Man” viral movement) that’s excellent.
To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: Seriously, see this in a theater as soon as possible. Along with an outstanding story, this is one of the most visually-impressive films I’ve ever seen.