(Written for Reviewing the Arts, October 17, 2019)
How many times has someone tried to make a new Spider-Man movie? The world’s favorite arachnid-hero has been played by many famous actors (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland) on many big screens, with each new try a little different. But not as different as this one. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wastes no time in taking the classic superhero story and flipping it on its head. The animated film, released December 14, 2018 and directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, is bold in every sense of the word. With an all-star cast including Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Nicholas Cage, John Mulaney, Hailee Steinfeld, Chris Pine and Mahershala Ali, Spider-Verse brings lesser-known versions of the iconic superhero into the spotlight as protagonist Miles Morales’ (Moore) world is put in danger.
From the beginning, 13-year-old Miles is struggling. His parents, an African American cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican nurse (Lauren Velez), are adamant that he attends a prestigious academy instead of the school in his neighborhood, even though he doesn’t fit in at the academy. The only time he seems at ease is when he’s creating: in his room, singing along badly to the Post Malone and Swae Lee track “Sunflower,” or graffitiing Brooklyn’s underground with his Uncle Aaron (Ali). But just like any superhero, this place of comfort is taken from him when a neon-tinged spider bites him and takes away any chance of normalcy. Especially when Miles witnesses the death of his universe’s Spider-Man (Pine) at the hands of mobster Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and learns how the villain plans to use a particle accelerator (his “Super Collider) to open parallel universes and change the world Miles knows, but not before bringing in some new faces.
It’s the film’s chaos, delicately controlled by the creators, that keeps it interesting. When Miles first experiences the abilities given to him by the spider and pulls out Gwen’s hair, gets stuck upside-down to the ceiling of the school’s security office while the head officer bangs on the door and then walks on the outside walls of a building, the visuals are stimulating and engaging but not overwhelming. The animation style emphasizes specific movements and lines that guides the audience through each scene, like the iconic “spidey sense” tingle that pops up above each version of the hero’s head in the form of wiggly lines throughout the film. The colors of the film are beautifully bright and help create the tone of each scene with the unique shapes and styles of the artwork. The plot, although it seems too confusing at first, flows seamlessly from the first scene to the credits. Each scene has a purpose, whether it be for comedy, action, or the emotional punch that many heartbreaking scenes in the film pack. But they don’t drag it down. Miles makes plenty of mistakes throughout the film—he is a 13-year-old boy, after all—but nothing he does makes the audience stop rooting for his success. When he breaks the USB drive (or a “goober,” as some of the other characters call it) that will stop Kingpin’s Super Collider, no annoyance or exasperation is inspired. When he falls down, physically or metaphorically, you’re always rooting for him to get back up (and of course he does). It’s these moments of hardship that make the final arc of the story so satisfying.
After so many struggles: being bitten by the spider, seeing Kingpin kill Spider-Man and the mobster’s plan for his Super Collider machine, being almost killed by his uncle and then watching his uncle die, and being left behind by the other Spideys (among other things), the rise of Miles to becoming his own version of Spider-Man is one of the most powerful sequences in any animated movie. As he spray-paints his own suit and swings through the city, Blackway and Black Caviar’s “What’s Up Danger” creates an intense feeling in the audience as he goes to save his friends. The film’s ending is satisfying, heartwarming and comforting while also leaving some room for a possible sequel. It’s something rare in superhero movies: a definitive ending that doesn’t require more but leaves you wanting it.
Even though compared to other Spider-Man or animated superhero movies this one was not as highly grossing—earning $375.5 million worldwide, $190.2 million in the U.S. and Canada—the consensus among critics and audiences is that Spider-Verse is a triumph. It had a hugely successful award season, bringing home an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice Movie Award and a BAFTA for Best Animated Feature. It has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 87% on Metacritic and gained enormous praise from film critics worldwide. It was also added to Netflix in June 2019, only six months after its theatrical release. With a run time just short of two hours and availability on many major platforms, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has something for everyone, whether it be the unique animation style, the plot, the score and soundtrack or the message it preaches: anyone can wear the mask. Anyone can be Spider-Man.