Review: 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' surpasses all expectations
Let’s begin this review with the following two statements: 1. Spider-Man was the first superhero to whom I was introduced. 2. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is hands down the best Spider-Man film ever made. Full stop. No qualifications. I mention these two things in conjunction because even though they initially appear to be unrelated, they are, in fact, intrinsically linked. I never read comics as a child, and when I finally did find myself immersed in the world of superheroes, my favorite was always Batman thanks to Tim Burton’s bizarre, stylish 1989 film adaptation. Nevertheless, my first proper experience with anything superhero related was watching Tomo Moriwaki’s “Spider-Man 2” at the impressionable age of 7 or 8. Thus, even to this day, I have a special fondness for everyone’s favorite web-slinger.
At the same time, I’ve always felt myself to be a little out-of-synch with the general critical consensus in regard to the various cinematic iterations of the character. Fans view Sam Raimi’s first two films as masterpieces; I think they’re fairly decent. Conversely, I’ve always thought that the much-maligned “Spider-Man 3” was a smidge underrated. I’ve never understood why Mark Webb’s two “Amazing Spider-Man” reboot films encountered such vitriol. And while everyone was gushing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recent “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” all I could think was, “Eh … that was pretty good, I guess.”
The point is that I’ve always had some strange, ephemeral idea in my head about what the perfect Spider-Man movie might look like, and yet I’ve never seen it fully realized. It’s the number one reason why I anticipate every new film featuring the web-crawler, and why I tend to exit the theater a tad disappointed even when I had an overall positive experience. The Raimi trilogy, while sincere, was always a little too goofy, the Webb films a little too “hip” and “edgy,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” just felt too chained to the superstructure of the Marvel Universe, unable to break free and fully spread its wings. I know that for many fans, at least one of these iterations has already captured the perfect blend of humor, pathos and zaniness; just not for me … until now!
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the perfect Spider-Man film that I didn’t even know I wanted. Moreover, it couldn’t exist conceptually without all the preceding films, thereby making all the trials and tribulations up until this point entirely worthwhile. The film starts off with the familiar groundwork already in place. Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, has been saving New York for at least a few years after having been given superpowers by a radioactive spider. In his most recent crime-fighting foray, he tries to stop a crime lord, the Kingpin, from using a particle accelerator to gain access to parallel universes. In the process, Parker dies but passes on the baton to Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager who has also just been bitten by a radioactive spider (the film sort of glosses over the odd coincidence of both Parker and Morales being bitten by these spiders, which is honestly fine). Much to everyone’s surprise, though, the particle accelerator has essentially vacuumed up Spider-People from five other dimensions and plopped them into Miles’ universe. Among them are the flabby, failed Peter B. Parker, the stand-offish Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman, the anime-inspired, robot-wielding Peni Parker, the 1930s detective-esque Spider-Man Noir and the wisecracking Looney Tunes-inspired pig known as Spider-Ham (alias for Peter Porker). Together, all six of these heroes must work together to stop Kingpin and simultaneously return home to their respective dimensions.
I apologize for having to spend so much time on a lengthy plot description, but as you can see, it’s a very strange premise. Indeed, I’ve haven’t even mentioned the Kingpin’s motivation, the half-dozen prominent henchmen at his disposal, the entire subplot involving Miles’s parents and uncle, the backstory for each of the alternate universe Spider-Folk and so on. When examined from a bird’s eye-view, this film looks like it compressed 60-plus years of comic book history and lore and then regurgitated it into a two-hour package. Yet it never feels overwhelming or overburdened. The script is air-tight, fluidly incorporating a dozen major characters, various subplots and the distinct tonal and stylistic approaches incumbent with each of the heroes.
The film is produced by Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97, with Lord also co-writing the screenplay. In that regard, “Into the Spider-Verse” bears remarkable similarities to Lord and Miller’s “The Lego Movie”; both are fast, charming and frenetically funny, but also work not only because they have an emotional center, but because that emotional center is woven so deeply into the very fabric of the narrative. For some storytellers, the actual heart and soul of the tale often feels like a dressing or a spice; it’s a nice little addition, but not imperative. Yet in both of these films, Lord, Miller and their collaboratives have managed to craft narratives that would collapse without that heart. In the case of “Into the Spider-Verse,” they latch onto the most painful and relevant message of the Spider-Man mythos. All of these heroes haven’t just experienced great tragedy, but in one way or another, they are each partially responsible for that tragedy. As a narrative device, that adds a degree of nuance to the characters and their actions that you don’t usually see in this kind of film. And it’s made all the more effective by some genuinely impressive voice-acting. In particular, Shameik Moore’s vocal vulnerability makes Miles the most engaging protagonist we’ve ever had in a Spider-Man film.
But enough with themes, characters and all that nonsense! Let’s talk about the fun, superficial stuff — like the animation. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything that looks quite like the animation in this film. It’s colorful, dynamic and absolutely spectacular. The music is unique and complementary. The editing is tight and flowing, basically everything works. Are there flaws? I’m sure there are, but I’m a little too elated right now to be bothered with them.
For me, the tell-tale sign that you’ve just had a remarkably fun viewing experience is when you internally groan with frustration as the credits roll. Not because the ending is bad, but because you just want to spend a little more time with these characters in this world (though, admittedly, you might also be groaning because the Spaulding Theater seats are oddly uncomfortable). “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is proof positive that you don’t need to end with sequel bait to get audiences excited about a follow-up. After all, a great movie on its own terms is basically sequel bait hiding in plain sight.