From the very first frame of Sony’s animated Spider-Man film, something feels off. The animation is unlike what you’re used to expecting from such movies. Character motion is jittery, yet the surrounding movements feel fluid, as do the camera pans. It’s almost as if the film is going for a sped-up stop-motion impression. Environments appear digitally painted and sequences constantly feel straight out of an artist’s canvas.
Of course the said differences from other films in the animated genre are for the best. Right from the first shot, Into The Spider-Verse mimics the comic book pages graced by Spider-Man and countless other characters of his ilk for the better part of the previous century. The detail is astounding; you can literally see the dot-matrix print look splattered on faces and background plates as the filmmakers embrace even the most fundamental flaw of print comics of the Silver Age. Every frame, scene or shot is designed to resemble a comic book page or panel, making this Spider-Man movie literally one of the most faithful comic book adaptations ever.
But it’s not just the rich anamorphic visuals that adorn the film. At its core, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse packs a story with enough heart, as do most well-made Spider-Man films, even if some of it comes from full meta at several places. Unlike the Raimi, Webb or even Watts films however, this one is primarily about Miles Morales. And although the basics are the same – high school kid gets bitten by a radioactive spider and develops spider-like abilities – the protagonist is not Peter Parker, even though he does play a vital part. Introduced first to the comics in 2011, Miles, the son of Jefferson Davis and Rio Morales, is another high-schooler and somewhat more confident than Parker despite going through similar teenage struggles with homework, shyness and a crush.
Even though the story is best experienced by just jumping right in, as the movie gives you plenty to chew on what it’s trying to say, a perfunctonary knowledge of the plot only helps. To that end, the New York of this Spider-Verse is inhabited by Peter Parker who attempts to stop a diabolical Kingpin from using a large hedron collider of some sort to bring in beings from other parallel universes into his own. While Parker thwarts his experiment, some other Spider-people manage to enter the universe of Miles Morales and team-up to stop the Kingpin and his pack of Sinister villains from further dragging the universe into a mish-mash-mess of alternate realities.
As bizarre as the plot sounds, I can’t help but marvel at how easily it comes together as well as how much of it is accessible to anyone who’s only familiar with the basic ethos of Spider-Man. That, the movie assumes you are since it not only doesn’t spare enough time to delve into the origins of Parker or any of the other Spider-people, it takes the concept several steps further by introducing multiple versions of Spider-Man picked from a handful of comics with their own slightly twisted takes on the origin story. Every time a new Spider-being is introduced, they get to narrate their tale in less than 2 minutes followed by their face stamped on the cover of their comic book origin story splashing on the screen. It turns into an extremely satisfying plot device when Miles gets his own comic cover later on as he becomes a successful Spider-Man in his own right.
Into the Spider-Verse also gives us yet another take on Peter Parker. Arriving from a universe which answers the question What if Spider-Man grew lazy and tired of his job?, we see a dishelved Parker, stubble and tummy, gorging on pizzas, sleeping and depressed after a failed marriage with Mary Jane Watson. This aging Parker is forced to train an eager Miles Morales who looks up to the original Spider-Man with fondness and respect. That’s an unseen dynamic right there and makes the movie stand out further aside to the already differentiating presence of Miles front and center.
Without getting too much into details, suffice to say there’s Spider-Gwen, a version of Gwen Stacy who got bit by the spider instead of Parker; there’s Peni Parker, an anime-inspired Japanese girl from the future who controls a giant robot spider, there’s the Noir inspired black and white Spider-Man who just can’t see color and there’s Peter Porker, a spider-pig from a universe where animals talk. The spider-heroes are given their own theme, sound effects and voice to represent as many different eras and genres as possible. The noir-Spider-Man (voiced by Nicolas Cage) for instance, is always in black and white, with imaginary wind bellowing his costume and cape. The futuristic Spider-girl’s action sequences have a strong anime vibe to them, replete with all the accompanying colorful effects. And Peter Porker, by far the scene stealer, looks straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon with his surrounding music and sound effects also evoking memories of the Hanna-Barbera era (it only helps that he gets the most hilarious lines). By using the mechanics of the multiverse, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller go absolute bonkers with the movie’s plot and treatment, opening the door for an n-number of possibilities. This is already reflected in Sony’s plans for a sequel and a Gwen-Stacy spin-off set in the same universe.
It’s amazing how much Into the Spider-Verse crams into its plot through tight editing without losing sight of the larger picture, that this is a Miles Morales story. Barely a minute feels like it’s wasted or could be done without. Where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 struggled introducing so many characters into the fold, this one succeeds despite keeping things shorter and heavier than before; it has six spider-heroes to deal with and it manages to give them all a fair amount of personality, while focusing the most on Peter, Gwen and especially Miles. And it’s not all loose comedy; there are moments of genuine warmth, emotion and development that stand toe-to-toe with the best sequences from the Raimi and other Spidey-films. I suppose the tight pacing comes from speeding up the action sequences and letting the character interactions play out at their own pace, especially the more emotionally resonant ones; it’s a strategy frequently employed in major blockbusters to provide more room and time for storytelling without sacrificing the spectacle and the breathtaking battles these movies are most known for.
What’s also great is how closely it embraces its comic book roots, in case that wasn’t clear from this review’s opening. Thought and description bubbles show up throughout the movie; Aunt May’s location reads Somewhere in Queens and other placards pop-up aptly and amusingly. Anyone who’s read a single comic in their life is simply going to love the nods and faithfulness to the comic format. The movie’s title appears like a full-blown comic cover and the end-credits use the exact same font deployed in yesteryear comics, particularly the Stan Lee era. Speaking of which, Stan the man makes an appearance himself as a costume shop owner, getting a lengthy scene with Morales and one that, dare I say, is probably even the most influential to the plot compared to other Stan Lee cameos of the past. This is definitely the cameo Stan would’ve been most proud of.
Despite it’s animated nature, the New York here comes alive with breathtaking acrylic inspired visuals, neon-tinted streets and some hip music that lends a flavor to the proceedings along the same veins as Kendrick Lamar’s score did for Black Panther. Unliie that movie though, there’s no unknown isolated world to learn about; we’re just exposed to New York’s best and worst bits with some psychedelic artwork infused panels that seamlessly convince us we’re right in the middle of the city. And this New York is quite busy, with cars whizzing by, people chattering and skyscrapers glooming.
And yet, in this busy street, we find time for some personal, intimate moments. The highlight of course is Miles’ interaction with his uncle Aaron Davis (played with suitable restrained by Mahershala Ali). We’re told Miles is quite fond of his uncle and Aaron inspires a young Miles to embrace his artistic skills under the sewers of New York. There are some touching moments between Miles and his father as well, and it only reinforces the notion of Miles’ story being rooted in familial bondings and emotions.
The amount of creativity, wit and charm oozing through every frame of this flick is astounding given that it was helmed by two writers, three directors and overseen by more producers. Primarily though, it has Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s signature Lego Movie waggishness and spark and manages to tell a PG story that holds weight for both parents and kids alike. The end-titles are where the animators unleash all the madness, infusing it with every ounce of zanyness they can muster; the trail of characters conveying the multiple spider-heroes yet resembling the flipping of a comic book’s pages simultaneously.
For what it’s worth, you owe it to yourself to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen. That a Spider-Man movie has managed to be this enthralling despite there being so many Spider-Man movies already is one thing. There’s so much texture fitted in a single frame that it’s going to take multiple viewings to pause and uncover all that it has to offer. Even the post-credits scene offers something unique you didn’t see throughout the movie. That Sony has managed to make a movie as good as this, potentially without aid from the head-honchos of Marvel Studios, is pleasingly perplexing.
I can’t wait to see what madness Sony unleashes with the sequels and spin-offs under production, and I cross my fingers hoping they don’t squander a potential animated franchise. Catch it in theaters, now.
Overall Score: 9.0 out of 10.0