Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Like the blast radius of a distant and collapsing star, Marvel Entertainment’s suite of superhero-related cinema properties continues to expand wider than the human imagination can comprehend, and faster than most cinephiles can process. Fortunately, the studio’s latest costumed crusader picture lacks the self-serious pop of the last “Avengers”movie. Instead, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a loving tribute to the comic medium that provides its source material, and a charming multicultural addition to the too-whitewashed Marvel universe.
“Hold on,” you may be saying to yourself. “Another Spider-Man film? Haven’t there already been three Spider-Men?”
You’re correct there. Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland have all played New York’s beloved webslinger on the big screen, and none of them play any of the five (yes, five) Spider-People in this animated film.
In fact, the film’s primary web-slinger is not Peter Parker. Instead, Shameik Moore (“Dope,” [the 2015 film, not DOPE], “The Get Down”) voices Miles Morales, a Brooklynite teenager, the son of a black police officer and Latina hospital administrator who serves as the film’s protagonist.
In a series of improbable coincidences, Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider (sound familiar?) and finds himself acquiring Spider-Man’s powers. At the same time, he encounters a criminal conspiracy to open a gateway into parallel dimensions, one of which has a nasty habit of spitting out other Spider-Persons from other realities, including the Peter Parker more well-known to casual superhero fans. Morales and Parker join forces to return the Spider-Individuals to their respective realities, but not before engaging in a few hilarious and kinetic action sequences along the way.
The Morales character, created for comics by Brian Michael Bendis in 2011 (he served as executive producer on “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) is beloved by many, and Moore absolutely nails the role. The too-few scenes in which Morales interacts with his superhero-hating father and his suave graffiti artist uncle (played wonderfully by Mahershala Ali) are a treat. His scenes with Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker, here a middle-aged divorcé, are the absolute emotional highlight of the film. Their warm mentor-pupil relationship comes across as more human and nuanced than many of the relationships in the live-action “Avengers” films.
The story, its pathos and catharsis, however, all take the backseat to “Into the Spider-Verse”’s visual flair. Every inch of the screen pays tribute to comics as a visual medium. Words indicating sound effects appear and then evanesce onscreen. Objects close to the foreground display ink dots, the same kind that characterize old school comics, with the same pride as a peacock showing off its feathers. Objects in the background bleed into double exposure. Anime-style motion lines replace motion blur, and shadows are rendered in half-tones. This all may sound like gibberish to anyone who doesn’t eat, sleep and breathe print comics, but it will all make absolute visual sense when watching the film. If not, just read this interviewwith one of its art directors.
The bottom line is, it’s one of the most stylish movies in recent memory. A few hits of high-THC flower ought to make it a modern psychedelic must-watch. Its depiction of New York, covered in graffiti, speckled with stickers and bathed in neon, comes across as an absolute playground for the imagination, one inhabited by memorable characters delivering quotable lines of fun-loving dialog.
The film’s gifts are not equally distributed among said characters, though. The villainous billionaire Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk is the only non-Spider-Person given any real character arc to speak of, but he’s totally upstaged by a gender-swapped Doctor Octopus. Kathryn Hahn’s take on Octavia (“Liv,” if you’re feeling friendly) Octavius as a determined, opportunistic corporatist with transparent plastic tentacles is so on point she might merit a spin-off of her own, and considering the way the film industry works these days, she just might get it. Next to her, other villains played by more well-known actors seem simply two-dimensional.
The film is even less judicious with its pantheon of Spider-Persons. Morales and Parker could have carried the film on their own. Hailee Steinfeld’s Gwen Stacey doesn’t get enough screen time to really shine, just a few serious chronology problems — and she gets more dialog than the remaining Spider-Persons combined. Nicolas Cage cracks a few great jokes as Spider-Man Noir, a hardboiled detective who speaks only in ‘30s idioms and cannot see color, but he’s essentially a glorified cameo. Kimiko Glenn and John Mulaney’s anime, Looney Tunes-esque characters might as well not even be in the film at all.