There’s no going back now. Don’t you make me. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an electric shock to the system of superhero cinema. The film tears into the medium of comic books, rips into its guts, and strews them across the screen. Translated cinematically, for the first time, here is the breakneck thrill of sequential paneling, the physical crack of materialized sound effects, and the exposed intimacy of a thought balloon. They’re not tinkered on, reworked, or transformed. The devices are merely slapped onto the movie with the confidence of belief.
Every goofy, little trick that the form has to offer is highlighted, not necessarily elevated, and championed by filmmakers who have been itching to divulge the full power of a stapled comic. As vibrant a kick to the senses as the moment Dorothy crossed the threshold of Kansas and tumbled into the wonder of Oz, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman have mystifyingly, miraculously schooled Marvel Studios on the power of their own format. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!
You’ll recognize the supporting players, but Sony Pictures is not interested in dumping out another reboot. Pivoting to animation frees them from the constraints of twenty years of tried-and-tired live-action. Who’s your favorite Spider-Man? Tobey? Andrew? Tom? You cannot answer until you meet the new web-head(s).
Miles Morales is not Peter Parker. He’s a kid (Shameik Moore) who excels in his element but flounders when pulled from the comfort of public school and squished into the rich, private world of the Visions Academy. He has the brain to prove his worth, but he lets it wander beyond the boundaries of the classroom. He exhibits a passion for creativity, sneaking off to spray color on the lifeless concrete of New York City. His mother is Puerto Rican (Luna Lauren Valez), his father is African American (Brian Tyree Henry),and, most importantly, they’re alive.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse delivers on the fundamental philosophy of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,” but thankfully doesn’t regurgitate the parental execution experienced in every other Spider-Man, Batman, and Disney Princess saga. Good deeds do not require shame or sin. They don’t even demand radioactive insects (although, such fantastical creatures certainly aid in spandex gymnastics). Virtue need only extend from the knowledge that you have the ability to help those that do not.
The Brooklyn Miles stumbles through is not your Brooklyn, nor any other iteration we’ve seen portrayed previously. Just as they exhibit with their obvious love of comics, Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman revel in the concept of the multiverse. Cutting between fringe worlds stacked atop each other allows them to dissect, redress, and exalt all the various components we fell in love with the first time we picked up an issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” or watched the Sam Raimi iteration. The added bonus is that this animated adventure is not forced to imitate or reinterpret the classic origin, and oh yeah, the cartoon canvas allows the filmmakers and their characters to defiantly soar to heights even the most megalomaniacal blockbusters cannot possibly imagine.
When Miles looks to escape his policeman father’s overbearing protection, he runs to his outcast Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). His ear accepts Miles’ venting frustration, and as a part-time mentor, he can freely offer rebellious advice without consequence. Together they venture deep into the bowels of the city where unmarked walls call for artistic expression. Down in the sewers, a recognizable, pesky radioactive spider crawls upon Miles for a nibble. From there, every one of his tomorrows will bear no resemblance to his yesterdays.
Superpowers stand in for the usual awkward displays of hormonal outburst. Sticky fingers disrupt wannabe smooth interactions with new girl Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and further plummet Miles into his self-fulfilling void of loserdom. Moore perfectly captures the atrocious embarrassment of adolescence, his voice skipping over the pain of human interaction, hurtling through dialogue with the intensity of a teenager seeking a finish line to end conversation. Here we see a little bit of that unforgettable Peter Parker, but only because all kids find themselves as Parkers in some minute or another.
The plot moves fast, rushing through genetic antics to reach the cataclysmic plans of the diabolical Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). The gargantuan tycoon (whose head swivels on a body that resembles a large vat of sundried Play-Doh) has thrown his fortune into constructing a supercollider that rips through the fabric of space and time. New York crackles, bends and falls into itself. The science experiment sends shockwaves across the city, and like Miles’ biology, it’s slightly skewed by the next morning.
There is a lot to juggle from this point forward. A schlubby, listless Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) appears as a man-out-of-universe, but that also might be for the better. Not only can he reluctantly counsel Miles, but he can permanently ignore every pathetic problem back on his home planet. All New York Citys have bagels, so he’s good. Until a few familiar faces pop up as grim reminders of his neglect. Not his Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), not his Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz), but oof, they’re brutally close.
As Parker wriggles his authority over Miles, the new girl Gwen is discovered to be a cosmically expelled Spider-Woman. Then comes a gang of doppelgangers spilling forth from anime (Kimiko Glenn), the pulps (Nicolas Cage), and Looney Tunes (John Mulaney). Suddenly you’re happily anticipating the retelling of origins: fresh faces, fresh personalities, fresh points of view. Each appearance is a warm hug around the very idea of Spider-Man. I’m sure they can cram just one or two more bizarro twists on the character, right? You know the drill, stay through the credits.
Ten years after the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sixteen years after the original movie, and fifty-six years after Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the character, Spidey has never felt more passionate or dynamic a property. Walking out of the theater, I felt like this was my first encounter with Spider-Man and my first encounter with a true comic book adaptation. The beat of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” percolated in my heart. Silly, dumb, but true. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse makes new what was once old, and will probably carry the genre for another twenty years or so.