Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman serve up one of the more unique visual feasts of the holiday film season with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is the first big animated superhero theatrical film since 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. More importantly, it is the big screen debut of Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino teenager who succeeded Peter Parker as Spider-Man in Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s (Who is credited as an animator on the film.) 2011 Ultimate Comics Spider-Man series and is still Spider-Man in the mainstream Marvel Universe. The film chronicles Miles’ (voiced by Shameik Moore) origin story as Spider-Man as he teams up with Spider-People from other dimensions, including Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) to fight crime lord the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has gone from threatening just Hell’s Kitchen to all of the multiverse.
Beginning with a flashing Ben-Day dot take on the traditional Sony/Columbia/Marvel opening credit sequences, Into the Spider-Verse‘s animation style and color palette take center stage. The film’s presentation is an intoxicating blend of 3D animation, pop art, some photorealism (Like in the classroom scenes.), traditional animation, and of course, classic comic book storytelling motifs like sound effects and text boxes. The animators make what would be rote sequences in other films, like interdimensional portals or web slinging, imaginative like using stop motion animation to show when another dimension has crossed over into the main one. In a way, Into the Spider-Verse does remind me of the great stop motion animation work done by Aardman (Wallace and Gromit) or Laika (Coraline), but with a slick big city sheen that matches the glossy sound quality of the music in Miles’ headphones in the first scene of the movie.
However, writers Rothman and Phil Lord (Co-director of The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street) don’t just rest on the laurels of the engrossing animation style, kick-ass action sequences featuring an inventive riff on a classic Spider-Man villain, and scene stealing voice work from Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir and Mulaney’s Spider-Ham. They take their time establishing a world where the tropes of Spider-Man and superheroes are well-understood and give Miles himself a compelling heroic journey.
But it’s not all superhero stuff for Miles. Rothman and Lord spend some time in the film exploring his other interests, like street art and music, and his complicated relationship with his school, Brooklyn Visions and family. Miles would rather stay with his friends and community at Brooklyn Middle instead of going to a charter school, and so he sneaks out and fails quizzes on purpose. He feels a bit awkward at Visions, and this connects with his growing pains as Spider-Man.
And every scene he spends with his dad NYPD officer Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), and uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) is to be cherished. Ali and Shameik Moore have an easy chemistry in a pivotal early scene where Uncle Aaron shows Miles the ropes of transforming his emotions into street art. He is a real rock for Miles as he struggles with school, his new powers, and growing up, and Miles is truly at ease around him.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a lot of things. A superhero origin story, a coming of age tale with an unlikely mentor figure, a crazy crossover, and a rare case of visual experimentation in a big studio animated film. (Those Rico Renzi pinks when Spider-Gwen first showed up rocked my world.) Persichetti, Ramsey, Rothman, and Lord also use the film to show the universality of Spider-Man, and that anyone of any race or gender could be under the mask as long as they help the helpless, take responsibility for their actions, persevere in the toughest situations, and maybe make a joke or two.
Overall Rating: 9 out of 10