The eye-popping animated film mixes bold twists with limp superhero tropes
Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the seventh Spider-Man feature film this century, not counting the character’s seventeenth-banana appearances in the recent big disastrous Marvel smash-ups. Spider-Verse begins with a retelling of Peter Parker’s tragic origin story, because if Uncle Ben doesn’t die in a movie is it even really a movie? But then the old zig takes a zag. We meet Miles Morales (voiced by The Get Down‘s Shameik Moore), an unspiderly pre-man surviving teen life in modern-day Brooklyn.

Miles just started attending an elitist boarding school called Brooklyn Visions Academy, the very name smelling of gentrified cafés, uniforms, and uniformity. Miles’ cop dad (Brian Tyree Henry) has great expectations. But, cut off from his old friends at public school, Miles feels like an outcast. He’s a talented street artist, colorblasting spraypaint in shadowy subway corridors. Not the hobby the son of a cop is supposed to have — though Miles’ evening activities get full support from his free-living uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali, what a cast!).

Spider-Verse is the first animated Spider-Man movie. Asterisk that: first entirely animated. The character was invented back in 1962 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, but on the big screen, his existence has depended on computer-generated imagery, from the pixelated horrors of the rooftop-jumping Tobey Maguiroid in 2002’s Spider-Man to the much more realistically dumb-looking Electro in 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Spider-Verse is aiming for the opposite of realism. The visuals take their cue from Miles’ graffiti — and also tremendous inspiration from four-color comic book illustrations. This is a fascinating 2.5D universe, with cheek outlines that look pencil-drawn on digital faces. The characters’ movements have an endearing skipped-frame quality, halfway claymated. When the opening credits roll, the various studio logos transform into eye-popping psychedelic glitches — the first time a kid’s movie has ever reminded me of Enter the Void. After Miles gets bitten by a scientifically zhuzhed spider, his powers don’t just change him. They alter the look of his whole world. A pulsating spider-sense ripples synesthetic percussion beats through his line of sight. His thoughts start appearing onscreen in caption boxes so colorful you want to chew them.

When Miles debuted in the comics back in 2011, the mere fact of a mixed-race superhero was revolutionary. (It still is.) He was co-created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli — though I’m a truther who traces the character’s beginnings to a brilliant i09 essay by my former colleague Marc Bernardin. “The Last Thing Spider-Man Should Be is Another White Guy,” he stated then. Typical Hollywood, taking eight years to catch up to Bernardin!

The decision to focus a film on Miles feels like an act of franchise throat-clearing. The 2000s Tobey Maguire trilogy — which I quite love — felt beamed in right from Spidey’s mid-60s origins, set in a retro Manhattan with elevated downtown trains, waterfront supervillain hideouts, and one of those apartment buildings where every apartment shares one corded phone in the hallway. The Amazing reboot franchise — which I utterly despise — had their own nostalgic fetishism, casting Andrew Garfield’s Peter as a sneering Xtreme bro, the kind of skateboarding doofus rebel who either listened to Sum-41 or was in fact Sum-41.

Now Tom Holland’s played Peter in three of the highest-grossing movies ever made. He seems popular, though the decision to turn his Spidey into Iron Man’s Robin makes the character a bit of a tool, frankly, a kid who keeps getting cool toys from his billionaire daddy.

There’s this as-yet-unquenched thirst to see a truly contemporary Spider-Man, is what I’m saying. And Miles is it, man. Moore’s performance has a pleasantly tossed-off quality, sounding almost improvised amidst all the digitality. He comes off like a pretty cool kid, which is maybe a minor problem for anyone dedicated to Spider-Man originalism. But none of the movies have ever really caught the character’s solitary outcast melancholy, the feeling you get from Ditko’s first ever Parker drawing that you’re looking at the absolute loneliest creature on Earth. (Maybe that sensibility is just beyond the possibilities of kamillion dollar superhero movies; you need the raw intimacy of something like this summer’s traumatic teen odyssey Eighth Grade.) But the look of Spider-Verse feels fresh. The wall-to-wall soundtrack is fun. The first act successfully conjures a feeling of community and family history around its new superhero.

And then there are two whole other things happening with Spider-Verse alongside the Miles Morales story, one kinda fun, one kinda dumb, both crystallizing some of the limpest recent trends in big franchise storytelling. First up, there’s Peter Parker, who’s all over Spider-Verse in ways I can’t spoil without facepalming my hand through my brain. Suffice it to say that we meet a version of Peter voiced by Jake Johnson, an unshaven veteran hero with a beer gut and a sadsack department that looks like a bad divorce. When Miles utters eternal Spider-Man motto “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,” this Peter Parker moans, like he’s heard that song a thousand times before.

He’s “a janky old broke hobo Spider-Man,” in Miles’ words, and too much of Spider-Verse is dedicated to his redemption. You’re encouraged, I think, to view this Peter as a spiritual avatar for the whole Spider-Man franchise. He’s in his 40s, like Maguire is now — and a flashback montage from this Peter’s past features famous scenes from the other Spider-Man movies.

So Spider-Verse‘s Peter Parker is the latest example of a weird new archetype that could only exist in this new era when franchises never end: The icon who no longer believes in his iconography, as tired of himself as certain audience members seem to be. He’s Logan in Logan! He’s gruff murder-y Batman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice! He’s Luke Skywalker in the new Star Wars and also kind of Han Solo in the new Star Wars, old familiar faces called back to gruffly tell the adoring kids “I’m no hero!” before doing something heroic! Look to Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk in Star Trek Beyond, bored of the episodic life. Look to Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Skyfall, failing every MI6 physical exam before successfully chase-fighting bad guys with all the physical dexterity of a celebrity with a studio-sponsored personal trainer.

There’s a tendency to credit all these characterizations with deconstructive depth, like these franchises are somehow attacking their own foundations. But it’s a bit of a con job, I think. The essential point with all these stories is to get the main characters back to the good heroic work they always get up to anyways. Spider-Verse‘s Peter Parker talks a big cynical game: Listening to one villain’s big bad speech, he mutters that it’s all “pretty standard Spider-Man stakes.” But you feel the buddy mechanisms grinding as soon as he agrees to be Miles’ Spider-Man coach. In this sense, Spider-Verse is a spiritual sidequel to the Deadpool films, another holier-than-thou snarkfest inviting you to laugh at superhero tropes without ever once challenging those tropes.

Then there’s the version of Spider-Verse on all the billboards: A superteam of Spider-characters, all from alternate realities, with their own bespoke arachnoid powers. The star turn here comes from Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a Spider-Woman from a world where Peter Parker died. (Can you believe they used to make movies where Peter Parker didn’t die?) I would optimistically describe Gwen’s role in Spider-Verse as “a great setup for a spin-off,” which isn’t quite the same as saying she gets a lot of great stuff to do in this movie. The other Spider-people hail from loopier worlds: A cheerful kid-bot with futurepunk Japanime affectations, a Looney Tunes-ish costumed swine, a grimacing monochromatic noir Spidey with the power to generate moody windgusts through his moody trenchcoat. The latter is voiced by Nicolas Cage, whose perfect line readings belong in a museum.

Do these characters sound fun? They are! And the one big action number that unites the Spider-people against an onslaught of villains is very fun. But you start to feel the 10-car-pileup of this movie’s intentions when the other Spideys show up. Spider-Verse has three credited directors, which seems like a lot even for a cartoon. It was co-written by Phil Lord, half the animation braintrust behind the LEGO series, and I’m not sure the resulting film ever fully decides whether it’s a full-fledged LEGO Batman-y goof or a sincere attempt to Make A Statement about what Spider-Man means.

The attempted good-times vibe clashes madly with a narrative full of fatalities, tragic deaths that earn brief espresso shots of grief. The main bad guy here is the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), but he could be any rogue from the gallery, really, a block of evil muscle with a movie-gangster accent. Things spiral cosmic, and the storytelling spirals shaggy. There’s one dire moment when Gwen says “My spider-sense told me to head to Visions Academy,” which is how a tired screenwriter types “Do It Because Plot.”

Am I being too harsh? Spider-Verse has plenty of small delights, and it looks unique. You walk away wondering what a Miles Morales adventure will look like when it’s doesn’t also have to be meditation on the cruciality of the Peter Parker monomyth. (I liked it more than Homecoming, and it sure as hell is better than the Amazing Spider-Mans.)

But for a film that invites so much self-aware chortling over franchise in-jokery, you feel Spider-Verse has missed something essential from its own screen history. In Sam Raimi’s 2000s trilogy, Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson was a true costar, the essential regular-person character grounding various Spidey-Goblin melodramas. 2007’s Spider-Man 3 is ludicrous — an early gag in Spider-Verse pokes fun at the cool-guy Emo Peter dance number — but that much-lamented threequel found room for remarkably sincere beats with MJ, a powerless character experiencing personal and professional struggles that had nothing to do with saving the multiverse. By the end, she was a failed Broadway actress singing jazz standards to a restaurant full of people who weren’t listening.

It’s not, like, On the Waterfront, but it is the kind of a real-person character arc that feels entirely lost in the current age of big-screen superheroes. In between the cool costumes, Spider-Verse calls up a version of Mary Jane who seems partially lobotomized, a woman keeping the candle burning for her plottishly-important love interest. Scholars will notice some degeneration. In Spider-Man 3, Mary Jane was the audience surrogate looking on with horror as Spider-Man got high on his own iconography, a onetime nerdly sweetheart transformed by popularity and self-righteous rage into a toxically masculine skirtchaser. In Spider-Verse, Mary Jane worships Peter Parker, as everyone is expected to do. At one point, she gives a speech to a crowd cosplaying Spidey outfits, preaching how “We are all Spider-Man.” I liked it more when we were all Mary Jane. B-

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018 Movie)
The eye-popping animated film mixes bold twists and limp superhero tropes.
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