'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse': Film Review

A deep dive into Geek-Verse.
12/14/2018

Marvel and Sony offer up a diverse, universe-blending, computer-animated origin story with a starry supporting cast.

It helps to be well-versed in Spider-Man lore to fully appreciate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a free-wheeling, fast-and-loose, strikingly animated addition to one of the biggest library of films in the Marvel collection. Faced with the challenge of how to further expand the franchise without sating both the character and fans, Marvel and Sony have borrowed from the comics to introduce a fresh origin story that both references the past and swings into a new, thoroughly multicultural and multi-Spidified future. Although it unfortunately exhausts itself and its creators' cleverness by running at least 20 minutes too long, this sharp-minded variation on familiar elements looks to go over very well with its large target audience.

“I always find a way to come back,” Peter Parker confides early on, not that Marvel has ever shrunk from the challenge of figuring out how to recycle its stable of popular characters. This time, a large array of new Spider-clan figures have been shuffled into the mix, virtually all of them with a too-cool-for-school attitude and a host of different realms and challenges with which to contend.

But the freshest and most stimulating aspect of the film is the visual style, which unites the expected Marvel mix of “universes” (it used to be assumed there was only one universe in creation) with animation that looks both computer-driven and hand-drawn, boasts futuristic as well as funky urban elements, moves the “camera” a lot and brings together a melting pot of mostly amusing new characters.

At the center of things is spindly Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a mixed-race 13-year-old who first appeared in the comics in 2011 and whose initial tremors of puberty produce certain physical changes not hitherto referenced in sex-ed texts. At home on the streets of Brooklyn, Miles loves music, affects a certain attitude and is never at a loss for something to say, but for lifestyle pointers he hangs with his endlessly cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who's so heavily muscled that you'd bet on him in an arm-wrestling contest with The Rock.

Taken by Aaron to a mysterious lair in the subway system, Miles is bitten by a glowing radioactive spider, turns green overnight and finds that he sticks to everything he touches, developments he initially attributes to a decisive blast of grown-up hormones. But upon meeting “Spider-Man”/aka Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Miles is hit with the news that he, too, is Spider-Man. “How can there be two Spider-Men?” the stunned teen inquires, setting the stage for a narrative that in short order provokes many more questions than that.

With its graffiti-strewn settings and of-the-moment soundtrack, this is as up-to-date a Spider-Man entry as there's ever been; it's loaded with attitude, a stance leavened by the lead character's uncertainty and excitement about the inheritance he now must learn to live with. As Miles adapts to his uniform and gets a feel for his powers, Peter Parker provides a sort of jaundiced tutorial until, according to TV reports, Spider-Man dies at 26 years of age, although he looks older than that. This event is immediately overshadowed by an animated Stan Lee reflecting that, “I'm going to miss him,” an appearance that makes one wonder if Lee had already prepared any further cameos for upcoming Marvel features before his death on Nov. 12.

The animation format provides the opportunity for considerably more ostentatious demonstrations of powers and skills than the makers of live-action fare might dare imagine, even if this tyro Spidey starts out being more scared than any other Marvel superhero in memory. As the kid slowly gets the feel of his talents and assumes his unanticipated career, Marvel geeks will massively groove on the perhaps unprecedented attention to the inside-baseball aspects of superheroics, just as they will also appreciate backstory elements such as a visit to Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), a feisty one-woman support system for youngsters in the Spider domain.

The term “Spider-Verse” suggests that there's been a major birth spurt in the population of superheroes, and so there has been. Along with the new Spider-Man, there is tough babe Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) and, eventually, Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) — who's so old-fashioned that he appears only in black-and-white — and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), arrived from some future realm.

With so many superheroes on the side of good, a large villain is required and one materializes in the hulking form of Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), an old mob type in black with a knob-like head positioned atop a body practically as thick as it is tall. Kingpin's power derives from his having devised a nuclear collider that allows access to alternative universes, which in the event allows the film to zip in and out of all manner of zones.

There's an upside and a downside to these multiverses. Of benefit is the constant surprise, the sheer variety of visuals and plunges into fun-house craziness. The increasingly abundant negatives are sensory overload and overkill, a feeling that the film it pitched first and foremost to the insider geek contingent that will get all the jokes and references, plus a growing sense that nothing matters because it's dealing in ephemeral realms that come and go in a flash, which they indeed do. Cumulatively, the result is that, just as things should be excitingly building to a rousing climax, nothing sticks, nothing matters. By the time it feels that, by rights, the film should be hitting its climax and wrapping things up, it pitches headlong into Geek-Verse and keeps spinning around there for far too long.

This is not to deny the pleasures and welcome arrival of this fresh new approach to all things Spidey, the new cast of characters and the adventurous approach to animation that invigorates before staying too long at the party. There will almost certainly be more to be heard from this group of hipster crime fighters, who here have begun to carve out a fertile new neighborhood both in Brooklyn and the Marvel-Verse.

Production companies: Avi Arad, Lord Miller, Pascal Pictures, Sony Animation
Distributor: Sony
Voice cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Screenwriters: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman, story by Phil Lord, based on the Marvel comics
Producers: Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Christina Steinberg
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Will Allegra
Production designer: Justin K. Thompson
Editor: Robert Fisher Jr.
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Casting: Mary Hidalgo

Rated PG, 117 minutes