How 'Into the Spider-Verse' Avoids Spider-Man Overload

[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]

It takes the new animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse about three minutes to make a reference to a film that feels like it was released a lifetime ago, Spider-Man 3. In one of the new film’s many running gags, we’re given a sped-up origin story for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man because the filmmakers correctly presume that we all know how some kid turned into a superhero. The first time around, Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) quickly glosses over one of the more jaw-dropping moments from Sam Raimi’s 2007 film, in which Peter did a strange dance number in public. This Peter then says, “Yeah. We don’t talk about that much.” It’d be easy to envision a universe in which this new iteration of Spider-Man — literally the third new cinematic Spider-Man in less than five years — would be one too many. Instead, Into the Spider-Verse is maybe the most satisfying depiction of Spider-Man ever.

Despite opening with Peter, this new film is about a middle-schooler in Brooklyn named Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore). Miles is starting at a new charter school and struggles to fit in, especially since his cop father (Brian Tyree Henry) has a penchant for embarrassing him in public. The closest relative Miles has is his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali); one day, as uncle and nephew hang out in a secret hideout, Miles is unexpectedly bitten by, wouldn’t you know it, a radioactive spider that gives him powers just like those of the very popular Spider-Man. What’s actually happened is that fearsome mob boss Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) has opened up alternate dimensions for personal reasons; in doing so, Fisk is inadvertently letting in a series of Spider-Heroes who find themselves in Miles’ dimension. When the Spider-Man of Miles’ dimension is killed by Fisk, it’s up to him, an alternate Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and a lot of other Spider-Heroes to save the day.

There is, as you can imagine from the paragraph above, a lot going on in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The film — co-directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, and co-written by Rothman and Phil Lord — has enough on its plate by introducing us to a new character who turns into a superhero without having to throw in a handful of other Spider-Folks. But the movie handles all of these elements with relative ease, in ways that manage to both pay homage to the character’s decades of comic-book history and to remain palatable to those of us in the audience who aren’t superfans. Even when Miles encounters the alternate Peter, or Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), or Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) or even Spider-Ham (John Mulaney, in a Bugs Bunny-esque performance), the story remains grounded in Miles trying to grow into himself as well as his new powers.

The basic elements of Miles’ character arc are not, in and of themselves, terribly unique in the annals of Spider-Man movies. After he gains his powers, Miles is both confused and amazed (all the more so because, unlike in other versions, he already knows who Spider-Man is and what powers he has). Once Miles encounters the older, gruffer Peter — who’s separated from Mary Jane and has become fatter and lazier — he not only has to struggle with being at a new school, being ostracized from his family and having fantastical superpowers, he also has to try and live up to the name of an iconic superhero who’s treating him like a wannabe. When Miles eventually embraces his identity, it’s both predictable and a thrilling payoff to the kid’s journey. Part of what makes this so satisfying is what makes Miles Morales so appealing as a comic book character, and what made Peter Parker so appealing originally: you can see yourself in him, so you can imagine yourself as a hero. After all has been resolved, Fisk has been stopped and the various Spider-characters have returned to their respective dimensions, Miles gives the closing narration in which he suggests that anyone can be a hero. It’s a Ratatouille-esque reminder that being special is not exclusive to a type of person, but possible for anyone.

That message is immensely exciting because it’s honestly kind of nice to see a character not named Peter Parker don the mantle of Spider-Man. The latest iteration of Parker in live-action form, played by Tom Holland, is lighter and more enjoyable than the version played by Andrew Garfield, but even in Spider-Man: Homecoming, there’s a sense of the filmmakers being hemmed in by our expectations of what Peter Parker’s character arc is meant to look like. Even with goofy friends and a John Hughes-esque aesthetic, he’s still Peter Parker and he still must learn that with great power comes great responsibility. Seeing Peter Parker as the one teaching someone else about the inherent burden and power of being a superhero is a nice twist.

Miles, even more so than Holland’s Peter Parker, occupies a world that’s looser and more relatable. While Into the Spider-Verse, once Miles gets bitten by the spider, deliberately calls to mind the visual layout and design of comic books with frame-in-frame shots, thought bubbles and more, it still reflects a more believable sense of what it’s like to be a kid in 2018. By making Miles a middle-schooler, instead of a high-schooler the way Peter typically is in his origin stories, Into the Spider-Verse also builds our ability to relate to his struggle, as opposed to the Garfield-led films of a few years ago, which felt like adults struggling to act like kids.

It also helps that, emotional heft aside, Into the Spider-Verse is exceedingly clever and funny, as you might expect coming from people like Lord and producer Christopher Miller, of the 21 Jump Street films. We get the Spider-Man origin from both Peter Parkers, from Spider-Man Noir, from Spider-Ham, from Spider-Woman, and eventually from Miles himself, and each of them has a uniquely funny spin. Even the heroes’ fights with the bad guys have a novel twist or two. To wit: once Miles and alt-Peter team up, trying to find a “goober” (aka a Flash drive that will enable them to shut down the scientific machine that opened up multiple dimensions), they struggle to succeed both in facing off against a scientist who is — surprise, surprise — Dr. Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hahn). Their fight with Doc Ock has a nice breather when the Spider-Men try to act casual when walking through a break room full of scientists. Some of the best gags are visual, as in each time a Spider-Character arrives in Times Square, and we see posters for things like Red Man Group, Hold Your Horses (a fake Seth Rogen comedy) and more, including the brilliant post-credits scene.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse could have easily been one Spider-Man movie too much. This year alone, we’ve now had three different movies that exist within a universe based around the web-slinger (even though he doesn’t actually show up in Venom). But Into the Spider-Verse is a sharp, clever and surprisingly deep story about the power of being a hero and the frustration of growing up with the burden of expectations. It’s all too fitting that Miles is asked, in the opening section of the film, to write an essay about Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, because such high hopes could have destroyed this film. Instead, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just the best animated film of the year — it’s the best distillation of what makes Spider-Man so special.