'Into the Spider-Verse' Review: Spider-Man Finally Feels "Amazing"

Spider-Man's seventh film and first animated feature is also one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.

If the last twenty years of non-stop superhero movies meant we can finally have movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, then it was worth it. A visceral, euphoric journey through a mesmerizing comic book multiverse awaits in Spider-Man’s seventh, and best, movie ever. It’s also possibly one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, period.

Out in theaters December 14, Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse from directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman is the animated story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teenager struggling to fit in at his new elite prep school.

On a late night visit to his beloved uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Miles is bitten by — what else? — a genetically-altered spider that endows him with superpowers. When Miles meets the famed Spider-Man (one of them, anyway), universes are collapsing, and it’s up to Miles and Peter Parker (Jake Johnston) to send back a gaggle of other spider-heroes to their respective home dimensions.

It didn’t occur to me just how ridiculous Spider-Verse sounded until after typing that paragraph. Even for a Marvel movie, Spider-Verse is some next level comic book wizardry, its plot and character conflicts steeped in Philip K. Dick sci-fi and superhero satire. The film’s all-important MacGuffin is given the name “Goober,” because Spider-Man is legitimately tired of this stuff.

The heroes of 'Into the Spider-Verse,' with Shameik Moore's Miles Morales at the center.

Sony Pictures

That’s not to say Spider-Verse is ashamed of its comic book heritage. It’s actually goddamn proud of it. Loosely inspired by Dan Slott’s 2014 crossover Spider-Verse and the Brian Michael Bendis’ 2012 book Spider-Men, the film’s arresting visual language and pulp-like texture are unlike any movie before it.

Explosions pop in puff balls of orange and yellow, comic book thought bubbles function as Miles’ inner dialogue, environments have a vaguely retro 3D appearance, and sci-fi VFX that would have looked like garbage in live-action instead looks like the greatest acid trip since college. In the mid-2000s, the “Ultimate Marvel” comics tried to imitate the look of Hollywood films. Now in 2018, a major Hollywood movie wants nothing more than to recreate the feel of a comic, page by page, panel by explosive panel.

But Spider-Verse’s visuals are only half of what makes the movie work. Animation is a medium for characters, and the best animation works because you’re made to fall in love. Spider-Verse goes into overdrive making you fall for its universe, with mostly positive results.

Miles deservedly gets the proper treatment, with a tangible arc that makes sense while never losing his underdog quality. Shameik Moore’s voice lends well to a restless teenager who isn’t rebelling out of malice, but to seek understanding from everyone around him.

'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' dazzles with arresting animated visuals.

Sony Pictures

The rest of the crowded film’s characters, who complement Miles at their best, suffer minor setbacks of their own. Jake Johnston’s Peter Parker is a schlub, a Spider-Man never seen in film or even comics. In his universe, Peter’s life has gone south, divorced from Mary Jane with Aunt May dead. Mentoring Miles is as much an opportunity for him as it is for Morales, but even if it ends in an emotional high five, you can’t shake the feeling that Peter doesn’t walk away all that different than when we meet him.

Hailee Steinfeld’s Gwen, whose debut as Spider-Woman rivals Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman’s iconic entrance in Batman v Superman: Even This Title is Boring, also never rises past being the mildly hollow cool kid.

Then there’s the other Spider-Heroes, who are distractingly delightful while never fulfilling their absolute potential. Nicholas Cage pretty much owns as Spider-Man Noir, a brooding, self-destructive gumshoe vigilante from 1933. As does comedian John Mulaney, whose Looney Tunes stand-in Spider-Ham deserves to be a routine in his next Netflix special.

Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a moë anime schoolgirl (she’s literally animated differently) from the future who fights in a spider bot, is the weakest of the ensemble. She’s not a racist caricature by any means, but her first impression is several notches below that Scary Movie 4 gag where Japanese is just a jumble of words like “Mitsubishi” and “Karate judo samurai.”

As with any Marvel movie, the villains suffer the most. The uniquely designed Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who speaks with a better New York accent than whatever Vincent D’Onofrio is doing on Daredevil, spends too much time as just a bad guy to Miles than his actual antagonist. There’s a great twist involving another villain, but like Fisk, they don’t quite live up to their promise and instead coast on momentum.

These shortcomings, however, pale to the film’s strengths, of which there are many. Humor, for one. Spider-Verse is easily the funniest superhero movie since last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, but that was a result of experimentation and improvisation. You literally can not improv animation, which makes the film’s mile-a-minute laughs all the more remarkable.

“In Association With Marvel” has never sounded so good. Free from formulaic restrictions imposed by the Disney empire — although rest assured, big objects still fall from the sky, so we’re still in that domain — Into the Spider-Verse is the new gold standard of superhero moviemaking. The film is a visual feast that simultaneously mocks and adores everything about its DNA. Suddenly, every movie before this one feels like a prologue. This movie is the future that will force everyone, maybe even Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, to step it up.

I just wish Stan Lee were around to see it.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is out in theaters on December 14.

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