Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (14 December 2018)

Early on in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, main character Miles Morales, aided by his Uncle Aaron (the Oscar-Winning and excellent Mahershala Ali), creates a wall-spanning piece of graffiti art containing the words “No Expectations”, a play on Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book being read at Morales’s school. While it sets the tone for Morales’s character, it’s also something the reader should keep in mind– since the web of parallel universes and compelling characters go in so many directions anyway, it is best to go into the film without expectations one way or the other, and to let oneself be carried in the +many directions the film takes. Into the Spider-Verse is electric and dynamic, a wonderful ride of a feature. From the moment the opening credits begin, it is immediately immersive, with intense beats and bright colors that dash across the screen. Movies based on comic books are frequent, but rarely are they able to so artfully give the viewer the feeling of being transported directly onto the pages of the medium. This is just one way that the film benefits from its animated format.

The witty web-slinger has graced the big screen nine times in the past 17 years, so viewers are familiar with Peter Parker’s origin story and personality, a fact the film quickly and humorously references. However, Miles Morales is a generally lesser-known iteration of Spider-Man. Created in 2011 by the comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Morales is a Brooklyn teen with an African-American father (voiced in the film by Brian Tyree Henry, who gave a performance that brought me to tears) and Hispanic mother. Morales really feels like the kind of teen one would meet in Brooklyn. He sings along to excellent music in his room, gets embarrassed by his policeman father, tries to impress girls (such as classmate “Gwanda,” voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) and worries about finding an identity and place in the world, especially after being forced by his parents to attend a private school instead of his former public school. Relative newcomer Shameik Moore does a fantastic job at portraying an authentic, kind-hearted, bright and occasionally awkward teenager. The tone of the film changes greatly, often from scene to scene, but Moore makes sure we never feel jerked around. He keeps the film squarely grounded in humanity, even as it swings us through the trials and tribulations of a superhuman universe.

Spider-Man has often been a hero strongly tied to tales of coming of age and finding one’s identity, and this film doesn’t stray from that template. Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider (neon and stunningly psychedelic) while in the subway creating graffiti art with his uncle, one of the few adults in his life with whom he feels safe. After discovering, and struggling with, newfound spider abilities, he returns to the scene, only to find his universe’s original Spider-Man in a struggle with Kingpin, who is attempting to access parallel universes. Morales is tasked by this Spider-Man to find a way to disable Kingpin’s particle accelerator, and therefore save the universe, but this cosmic task seems very grounded with the struggles Morales faces in feeling alone and lost in his task and world. With the help of spider-powered heroes from other universes, Morales must find an identity, confidence, and strength, a struggle taken on by many teenagers (although I would argue that his race and struggles with class, as evidenced by his father’s pressure to “move up,” make these universal struggles even more relevant for a large audience). Although the teen often feels alone, he is, though sometimes begrudgingly, joined in his task by a wide cast of characters.

Each character, and sometimes iterations of the same character, have something to add to the film, and although the film is animated, rarely do they feel two-dimensional. Even Aunt May (voiced by Lily Tomlin) is a different version of the character than previously seen, more independent and resilient than films have given her the opportunity to be in the past. In a world that has seen Spider-Man on screen so many times in the last years, it’s hard to imagine a film with so many versions of the hero to allow them to be unique, but the film even allows us a version of Peter Parker very different than any we’ve seen before, described accurately by Morales as a “jenky old broke hobo Spider-Man.” Even the porkine hero Spider-Ham, voiced by a delightful John Mulaney, features in the film and manages to be at least a little more than a gag. The cast of characters from different genres and dimensions allow the film to flourish, and allow both artists and actors to showcase their skills.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is visually and auditorily stunning in ways I wish I had the knowledge to more accurately describe. It’s obvious that the film was crafted by artists who truly love what they do, and who truly love and respect comic books. Daniel Pemberton has composed one of the most fantastic original scores I have ever heard, and artists like Nicki Minaj, Post Malone and Blackway and Black Caviar do an excellent job adding to the fresh and invigorating feel the soundtrack adds to the film. The art style is also something unique for a feature film– modern 3D computer animation is combined with the traditional 2D “dot” style of comic books. This style allows the film to surpass some of the confines comic book films face in live-action format. The concept of “Spidey Senses” has never entirely worked in live-action, but in animation, is able to simply be drawn on the screen via colors and wavy lines, so that the viewers can experience it without having to rely on tired explanations by characters. Additionally, the film uses traditional comic book techniques such as panels, which are able to provide humor and emotional punches depending on the scene. Onomatopoeias scroll up and down the screen, love notes to the original art form. Scenes such as doors of a subway car opening and closing are gorgeous in ways they perhaps wouldn’t be able to be in any other medium. The film is a beautiful piece of art, an homage to comic books and wholly unique, along with being a love story to Brooklyn, to change, and to evolution.

I would argue that the world already knew from films such as 2018’s Black Panther that comic book movies can be culturally-relevant pieces of art rather than just action-filled “popcorn flicks”, but through the use of classic yet groundbreaking animation, a compelling cast of characters, and an immersive soundtrack, Into the Spider-Verse further elevates the genre and adds a unique and breathtaking work of art to its list.