Certainly, audiences have had no shortage of “comic-book movies” over the last few decades. In particular, the character of Spider-Man has been front-and-center in theaters, having a trilogy of Tobey Maguire-led films, two Andrew Garfield-fronted movies, and an MCU-adjacent Spider-Man played by Tom Holland in three films so far (with a fourth coming out next year) – all in the last 16 years!
So, the question stands, then: are movie-goers interested in yet another big-screen iteration of their friendly neighborhood web-slinger – an animated outing, at that? Fortunately, anyone who takes the chance to head to the cineplex and watch ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ will be given an immensely rewarding experience, in what I feel confident in terming the most comic-book “comic-book movie” that I’ve ever seen.
First things first: some back-story to the film’s plot. This version of “Spider-Man” does not take place in the “main” Marvel Universe, so don’t worry about being confused by wondering how Tom Holland fits in here, or if you’ll see other MCU characters in animated form (you won’t). Although there are several spider-related super-people in this movie, the main character is not Peter Parker, but rather Miles Morales, a young man living in Brooklyn who is starting at a new school and has all the typical challenges of your average high-schooler. He has a decent relationship with his parents, but it’s really his uncle Aaron who he has the best connection with. Aaron takes Miles underground – literally – to practice some of his “street art” and in the damp darkness of the New York sub-system, a genetically-modified spider (freshly escaped from the labs of probably-an-evil-corporation Alchemax) bites Miles, providing a contemporary spin on the well-known Spider-Man origin story.
Except: this universe already has a Spider-Man. The familiar Peter Parker does exist here, and once things internally start to go a bit bonkers for Miles, he finds himself in close quarters with Spidey, and the duo’s common “Spidey Sense” indicates to them both that they have a shared bond of arachnid-infused powers. The revelation is short-lived, however, when Spider-Man is captured and killed by classic villain and Alchemax owner the Kingpin – and Spidey’s death is the first major indication to the “average” viewer that we’re definitely NOT in the main Marvel Universe now.
Kingpin is using Alchemax to create an inter-dimensional portal – he has personal reasons, but as a plot device, it’s mostly a standard-bad-guy thing. When Spider-Man (before the Kingpin, uh, permanently defeats him) gets knocked into the portal for a moment, an extra-dimensional shout-out of sorts is made, and Spider-centric super-heroes from across the multiverse are accidentally brought into Miles’ home turf. Together, these heroes must attempt to work together to defeat the Kingpin and his cronies, return to their own dimension, and shut down the dimensional portal before it destroys this universe entirely.
Reading the synopsis above, you may think the plot sounds like a convoluted mess – but things actually flow seamlessly in this pop-culture savvy tale crafted by co-writers Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, modeled after the “Ultimate Spider-Man” and “Spider-Verse” comic book storylines pioneered by Brian Michael Bendis in the mid-2000s. The pacing is frenetic and the visuals are designed to look like a comic-book, replete with kitschy retro color-separated backgrounds and some of Miles’ thoughts and words visually presented in text boxes and the like.
Miles as a main character is a refreshing and modern-feeling change from Peter Parker, who is still very present in the film, thanks to not only the original Peter of the “home universe” (voiced well by an uncredited Chris Pine) but also “Peter B. Parker,” a similar-but-not-identical persona from one of the multiverses (voiced by and brought to life as a guilt-ridden has-been type of character by Jake Johnston). Shameik Moore does a fantastic job of bringing Miles to life, granting the character a cinematic-animated presentation that captures perfectly what was so captivating about the comic character when he debuted in 2011: he captures the essence of why Spider-Man as a concept is so engaging to people of all backgrounds, the simple fact that under the mask, it’s someone who wants to help others because it’s simply the right thing to do.
The supporting Spider-cast really takes the film to the next level. With the thematic inclusion of the multi-verse, the story is really able to open things up beyond the “typical” Spider-Man type of persona that movie audiences are familiar with. Interdimensional travelers include Spider-Woman (known in the comics as Spider-Gwen) aka Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a long-time friend of Peter Parker who took up the hero mantle when her dimension’s Peter passed away; Spider-Man Noir, a black-and-white 1930s gangster-fighting vigilante (Nic Cage); Peni Parker and SP//dr, a young Asian girl (Kimiko Glenn) who shares a telepathic link with a radioactive spider that pilots a crime-fighting robot; and Peter Porker the Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a crime-fighting pig whose mere presence is just as nuts as it sounds.
You know how things that you wouldn’t think would normally go together can somehow meld to create an amazing experience? Peanut butter and apple. Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Seal and Heidi Klum. ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ absolutely nails the odd-couple vibe of blending so many wildly different characters – and styles! Peni and SP//dr dominate their scenes with anime-heavy visual stylings and peppy pop music, then the screen seamlessly shifts to Spider-Man Noir, who stews in a gritty monochrome background and spouts Depression-era one-liners about thugs and 23-skidoos and such. And let’s not forget about Spider-Ham, who pulls giant weapons from his pockets as if he stepped right out of a Looney Tunes episode.
Kudos to Sony and the creative team here, who absolutely go all-in on creating a fully-immersive multi-verse for these characters to play in. A movie like this could not have been created by a studio who did not have enough confidence in their team to let them come at a story like this at anything less than 100% – and the faith is absolutely founded, as ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ delivers on pure, unique entertainment from start to finish. It is one of the most original films of the year, and that’s a hard thing to accomplish when your main character has been covered cinematically for decades prior. I loved it, and if you’re looking for a singular experience in a “comic-book movie” that’s wildly different than what we’ve been given on screen for the last 20 years, I think you’ll love it too.