In this beautifully animated adaptation, a multitude of Spideys band together to save the day.
Of all the comic book characters across all of the different brands that have molded these modern myths, Spider-Man has the most endearing and enduring sense of charisma and morality. At its core, this story has always been about a kid who faces loss and not only survives, but also teaches us all that we can thrive and hold onto a measure of joy.
The screenplay for the latest iteration of the Spider-Man saga by Phil Lord — Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — references characters created by Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli, Steve Ditko, David Hine, Rodney Rothman, Fabrice Sapolsky, and the late great Stan Lee; it marries the complexity of decades of canonical comic history with a puckish desire to illustrate a necessary awareness that culture expands through refraction and reflection. The decision to return to the animated roots of the character in this particular multiverse ground the proceedings in a welcome familiarity, which allows for equal measures of pop-art fantasy and good old-fashioned fun.
In the hands of directors Bob Persichetti (storyboard artist on The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away), Peter Ramsey (director of Rise of the Guardians), and Rodney Rothman (screenwriter on Grudge Match and 22 Jump Street), there is an obvious and eclectic blend of styles on display that perfectly matches the narrative’s multi-format approach to the character of its hero: Spider-Man. Only, in this film, there’s more than one web-slinger.
Everyone knows the basic story: a smart kid named Peter Parker wears the mask and bears the great responsibility of being the quippy wall-crawling superhero. He was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained superpowers, then he lost his beloved Uncle Ben soon after. We know that he loves redheaded beauty Mary Jane Watson. (And, in some versions, Gwen Stacy.) On a regular basis, he deals with a host of super-villains: the Green Goblin, the Prowler, the Lizard, Doc Ock, and Kingpin — and his newspaper editor for The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Thanks to several live-action reboots of these details, you would think that no other origin story is needed.
But what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does with those iconic elements is shoot them through a prism, which gives birth to a multiplicity of Spider-Heroes. Within a carefully configured introduction, we see what appears to be the prototypical Spider-Man (Chris Pine) running through his greatest hits before launching into battle against the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) as he seeks to open a multi-dimensional portal. That Spider-Man’s story gives way to the rise of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a smart kid with artistic aspirations — he’s a budding graffiti tagger supported by his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) — who encounters a radioactive spider of his own, and soon finds himself in the company of an older paunchy Spider-Man (Jake Johnson).
Of course, things get really screwy when Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), the black and white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), the looney Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and the anime Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) enter the mix and face off against a power-mad distaff iteration of Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn), who has partnered with the Kingpin. While the roots of the Spider mythology are seemingly immutable, each time a new edition is introduced, we come to realize how distinct each one is.
But the movie centers primarily on Miles, as he struggles to understand the extent of his powers (which include a stunning electro-shock and the ability to disappear) and how to tap into them beyond moments of high-stress. He also confronts the sad truth about the nature of his relationship with his uncle and — more importantly — his father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), a police officer who sees Spider-Man as a dangerous vigilante. Miles is a kid growing into the super-secret identity. With this, he must develop the fortitude to keep fighting when the odds are stacked against him. Unlike the other Spider iterations, he benefits from their mentorship. This reliance could endanger him as well, as they coddle him instead of forging a more hardened Spider-Man to join this band of heroes.
From the animation style they’re rendered in to the subtle yet key twists of their backstories, what emerges is the realization that Spider-Man is the quintessential everyday person; every universe needs an example of what the best of us looks like. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse shows us just how dynamic and inspiring the idea of the multitudes within us can be. Grade: A
(PG, in theaters Dec. 13)