Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber Running Time: 117 minutes
The suggestion that we have hit a saturation point with superhero movies has become an increasingly pointless gesture in film criticism. One might as well say that Hollywood has hit a saturation point with making money, and the idea has always carried a degree of ignorance, or arrogance; a dismissive view of a form of storytelling whose domination of the comic book medium is closer to reaching a century than a saturation. The people are here for superhero movies, and the future for the genre isn’t to die out but to make sure they speak to all the people; growing and changing and embracing the vast potential of the medium to show superheroes, their powers and their capacity for good in exciting new ways. Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse does all this and more, with a confidence, enthusiasm and joy, all of which put it firmly in the conversation for best superhero movie of the year.
There’s no way a big studio would have trusted audiences to get their heads around the idea of alternate universes 10, 15 years ago, but the success of the big M Marvel Universe and the very nature of how these characters are used in multimedia now means that it’s very simple for viewers of all ages to get their heads around. In Into the Spider-Verse, the Spider-Man we know is a well-established web-head, keeping New York safe for the citizens, including young Miles Morales. One of the most popular and enduring new characters introduced by Marvel in the last decade, Miles here is an enterprising student attending a top NY prep school, the son of an African American cop and Puerto Rican nurse who struggles with the Great Expectations put on him. Everyone knows that with Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, but what are you supposed to do when you feel responsible but now powerful? Miles can’t talk to his expectant, imposing dad and tries to be cool like his idolised uncle, and his struggle to cope under the pressure gets considerably more real when he’s drawn into Spider-Man’s business. A spider-bite and a few alternate universe openings later and Miles’ life starts going through monumental changes that have little to do with puberty, with various famous villains led by Kingpin needing to be taken care of before he can go back to worrying about getting his homework finished, or making the cute blonde in his class laugh on purpose.
Miles, a relatable underdog and lovable dork, is more than capable of headlining a film on his own, but the supporting cast really lifts his story up a few levels. The opening of various alternate universes throws several different versions of Spider-Man into the mix all while Miles is already trying to make sense of his own powers, and they’re all wonderful and entertaining side characters. The most prominent fellow web-slingers featured are Jake Johnson as Peter “B” Parker and Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman. Pete B is an older, schlubbier hero whose bad fortune is even worse than usual and acts a reluctant mentor to the latest Spider-Man, while Gwen is a similar age to Miles but way ahead of him in self-assurance. They work very well in their own right, fully realised and fun, but along with their increasingly ridiculous counterparts (Nic Cage as 30s style Spider-Man Noir, Kimiko Glenn as robot-piloting kawaii Peni Parker and John Mulaney as cartoon crusader Peter Porker, a spider bitten by a radioactive pig…) each of them reflects something about Miles himself; qualities he wishes he had or failings to fear. With clever storytelling boosted by vibrant characters brought to life by a stacked voice cast, particularly Dope/The Get Down’s Shameik Moore as Miles, Brian Tyree Henry as dad Jefferson and Mahershala Ali as Uncle Aaron, Into the Spider-Verse blows past being yet another superhero origin into being one of the best onscreen depictions not only of Spider-Man, but of the nature of being a hero altogether. All these Spider-Folk webbing around begs the question for Miles: what does it take to be a hero? And the film answers with exceptional conviction.
Sony Pictures Animation aren’t lauded for their work in the same way as your Ghiblis or Pixars, or even begrudgingly admired for their business acumen like Illumination of Minions infamy. They’ve had hits, like the Hotel Transylvania series, critical successes like the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs films and even committed crimes against humanity in the form of The Emoji Movie, but it has not been an animation division with a strong identity up until this point. But under the watch of Meatballs’ scribes Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Spider-Verse directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman and their animation team have created a fluid stereoscopic style that captures the imagination right away. The ‘Verse also embraces comic book quirks – captions, visual sound effects, panel transitions – in a way that’s charming, effective, and dynamic. Anime has brought over the tools of manga as a visual medium for so long, and this western animation doing the same with its source material is a big point in its favour. In the look of the characters and environment, there’s a similar comic-book style, but with a freedom that tips it over from looking neat to looking gorgeous. This is a combo of the designs of Sara Pichelli, Robbi Rodriguez and others, the colours of Rico Renzi, the visual language and the storytelling ambition of Ditko and Lee.
All of those inspirations are filtered through the creativity of the film animators themselves bringing plenty to the table – the character designs have a Looney Tunes quality that makes them really pop, everything about a character signified from how they look, sound and move, from Kingpin’s ludicrous proportions and tuff guy gangster accent, to the Spot-The-Difference changes between the successful Peter Parker of one universe and the loser Pete of the next. The Spider-People of the various Verses are a natural invitation to provide variety to the films look, and it all comes together perfectly to create the most visually engaging superhero film since what, Batman Returns?
Funny, exciting and genuinely heartwarming, Into the Spider-Verse is a must-see superhero movie, not just a breath of fresh air but some of the freshest air the genre has had in a long time. It stands to reaffirm the faith of fans and provide even the most hardened of cynics with a smile, ensuring that the cinematic year is closing on one of its highest notes.(5 / 5)