For those who don’t closely follow superhero movies and aren’t big Spider-Man fans, I imagine the reaction to seeing the title Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse can be a bit confusing or uninteresting. After all, since 2002 we’ve had three Spider-Man movies starring Tobey Maguire, two Spider-Man movies starring Andrew Garfield, and one Spider-Man movie starring Tom Holland (not to mention his supporting roles in other Marvel movies). That’s three Spider-Men in the span of 16 years, and it’s easy to glance at Spider-Verse and think, “Not another one!” if you don’t care about Spider-Man. But that would be a mistake, because Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s movie is able to deconstruct and rebuild the character in a way that feels loving and thoughtful while never being so esoteric that only Spidey fans can appreciate what they’ve crafted with their bright, dazzling, clever, and sweet new Spider-Man.
The story takes place in a multiverse where smart but lonely teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superpowers just in time to see his dimension’s Spider-Man die while trying to shut down a collider that will open up the multiverse. The original Spider-Man is successful, but not before a few Spider-People leak into Miles’ dimension including Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an overweight and depressed Spider-Man who’s on the outs with his dimension’s Mary Jane, as well as Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). To get these other Spider-People back to their dimensions, Miles needs to step up and learn to become Spider-Man, which means coming to terms with his doting father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and sweet but shady Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali).
The core of Into the Spider-Verse isn’t responsibility but expectations. For teenage Miles, he doesn’t know what’s expected of him and the kind of person he wants to be. Before he’s bitten by the spider, he just wants to flunk out of his prep academy so he can go back to his old school in Brooklyn, but the concept of expectations grow exponentially when he takes on the mantle of Spider-Man. Peter B. Parker serves as a mentor of sorts, but they’re both wrestling with expectations as Peter doesn’t know if he can handle having kids and the expectations of fatherhood. It’s wonderful that for a movie that brings a bunch of Spider-People together, it’s all about where we fit into the world. Rather than feeling less special that there are other Spider-People, Miles and Peter see that they’re not alone and they can handle greater challenges.
But Spider-Verse is so brash and confident that it never needs to just come out and voice its themes. Rather, it skillfully weaves its themes into a bold, colorful world where the plot may be to save the day, but the subtext and characters are what hook you. The directors and writers Rothman and Phil Lord know that no one wants to hear nerds preach about Spider-Man, and the best way to celebrate the character is to just tell a damn good story that illustrates what’s special about Spider-Man. Like Lord (and collaborator Chris Miller, who serves as a producer on the film) did with their previous movies, they take an idea that shouldn’t work—in this case, another Spider-Man universe to hook audiences—and instead turn out the best Spider-Man movie as well as one of the best superhero movies of 2018.
If you’re looking for a basis of comparison, the clearest one is The LEGO Batman Movie, which also used the self-awareness animation provides and smuggled in some of the sharpest observations of the character under the guise of just being a kids movie. In the hands of its filmmakers, Into the Spider-Verse shows Spider-Man as a great mythological figure of American storytelling. He’s a true everyman (not a billionaire or a super soldier) with real problems, but he sees it as his duty to help other people. From there, it’s all about how you play with the tropes, plotting, and motivations, but Spider-Verse has a blindingly clear read on the core character and what he means even if he might be an anime girl or a pig.
Special attention also must be paid to the animation, which is in a class all its own. While other studios have produced impressive animated movies this year, Sony Pictures Animation really broke the mold here, crafting a look that comes off like a comic book mixed with street art and acid. It’s not simply that the animation is “good”, but that it has a style all its own, and it’s only when a movie takes strides to look unlike anything else out there, you can’t help but sit up and take notice. Spider-Verse is a feast for the eyes, not just with the Easter eggs for Spider-Man fans, but how it harnesses its unique color palette and array of visual effects to create a superhero story that looks unlike anything else audiences have seen in theaters.
I had high hopes for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the movie surpassed them. Having seen three different iterations of Spider-Man in the past 16 years, I assumed that Spider-Verse would be backed into a corner with its only cards to play being Miles Morales instead of Peter Parker and animation instead of live-action. Instead, it has surpassed the other Spider-Man movies by breaking down the character without ever losing sight of an entertaining, lovely story. If you feel like you’ve seen all the Spider-Man you can handle, just wait. You haven’t seen anything yet.