It’s rare for a movie to go so far against my expectations for me to be actually floored by the time the credits roll, but this week’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is one of those times.
What looked to be a cheap animated knockoff and last-ditch cash grab from Sony before Marvel and Disney get around to releasing their “Spider-Man: Homecoming” sequel next year is actually one of the most inventive, inclusive and entertaining superhero movies of this or any year.
And not only is it a good movie in its own right, it does something that sequels and spinoffs rarely do — it manages to elevate all the other “Spider” material out there. What a feat.
The movie opens with the “Spider-Man” story you already know. In a quick recap, we go over all the basic “Spider-Man” origin highlights — radioactive spider bite, dead Uncle Ben, “with great power… yada yada.”
You’ll notice that this seems to be taken from the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man.” The events depicted are pretty similar to the ones in those movies, even down to the goofy dance number. But, if you’re watching carefully, you’ll notice that things are subtly different.
For one, the big red flashing billboard in the background is advertising “KoKa Soda,” and Peter Parker, when we see his face, is decidedly blonde. This may not be exactly our world, and this definitely isn’t Peter’s story. Enter young Miles Morales, attendee of a Manhattan prep school and, despite his best efforts, an awkward teenager.
Miles is a black kid struggling with the same thing I imagine a lot of youth are dealing with — how do I satisfy the expectations of my parents and my peers simultaneously? Miles’ father is in the NYPD and his beloved uncle Aaron walks a decidedly different path. Miles wants to be accepted, to be cool, to not have to go to nerd school, but mostly he just wants to be like his hero, Spider-Man.
Sooner rather than later, Miles is going to get his shot.
Precipitating that event is Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, who is using his vast resources to employ a team of scientists tasked with opening a connection with the multiverse — the infinite number of parallel universes that exist side by side with our own.
While Fisk’s reasons are personal, the danger to all of reality draws out our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler to try and stop it. Unfortunately, things go wrong and all hell breaks loose. The multiverse is open and, due to Spider-Man’s interference, a very particular type breed of creature is being summoned to this world.
Miles finds himself bitten by the very same kind of spider that bit Peter Parker and, if that weren’t enough, a different, somehow more deadbeat, Spider-Man arrives on the scene. And, as it turns out, he’s only the first.
Before we go into the specifics of what makes the movie so good, we should talk about my favorite thing about it. Due to the existence of multiple universes — a Spider-Verse, in this case — all previous iterations of the character are rendered both canon, and their differences or continuity issues, meaningless. Did you like the Tobey Maguire version and not the Andrew Garfield approach? No problem — they both exist. Is Tom Holland your guy, or do you like it old school — à la 1970s era animation?
Either one is great.
All Spider-Men are welcome here. Even Spider-Women — as in both Gwen Stacy’s version, and Peni Parker and her Spider-Robot, SP//dr, from somewhere in the future. Inclusivity is the name of the game, not only for characters, but also animation styles, a brilliant, sometimes chaotic mixing of anime, Looney Tunes, and comic book aesthetics. You would think the goofy nature of Spider-Ham wouldn’t mix well with the hard-edged style of much of the rest of the film, but it works beautifully.
Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, along with phenomenal duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, have achieved something pretty amazing with this movie. So often, the animated versions of these series, though they have their defenders, are basically cheap, quick versions, meant for the home market and that don’t tie into the rest of the canon.
But this film goes the other way completely – it not only ties in, but it ties everything together. As a Peter Parker, Jake Johnson isn’t the most obvious choice – he’s typically a professional sidekick, but here he works well, as do Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy and John Mulaney as Spider-Ham. Nicholas Cage steals all of his scenes as the overly dramatic Spider-Man Noir. Mahershala Ali is great in a small role as Miles’ uncle Aaron, but the real star of the show is Shameik Moore as our newest Spider-Man. He plays Miles Morales with a real balance of confidence and youthful reticence. Miles is really on the edge of going from being a kid to a young adult and all the changes with his new Spider powers just enhance that. It’s an obvious metaphor, but it works very well.
I can’t say enough good about this film. There were a few things that bothered me, but it may be more my issue than the films. The style is pretty frenetic. It makes sense, but it is a little distracting, at least in the beginning. The plot is pretty solid, but there are few leaps that require a suspension of disbelief. These are minor issues, however.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a real achievement. It should be a shoo-in for, at the very least, a nomination for Best Animated Film, if not an undisputed win. This is a film that is good for kids, for adults, for lovers of comic books and comic book films. If you have even the vaguest sense that you might enjoy it, drop what you’re doing and go to the theater. You won’t regret it. Grade: A
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is rated PG for comic book violence and mild language.
• By CHRIS JENNESS, Now Playing