Sony has owned the cinematic rights to Spider-Man since the turn of the century, and through its usage, we’ve gotten some pretty decent movies. I still love the Tobey Maguire trilogy and am more forgiving than most when it comes to Spider-Man 3 (it sucked, but it still had heart). But over the last decade, they’ve severely mishandled the character, what with the truly horrid reboot duet, which was only “Amazing” in that people still paid to see it, and the wholly unnecessary Venom. As I mentioned in my review for that, it’s no wonder that Disney fought tooth and nail to get Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they delivered what could ultimately be regarded as the truest depiction of the character in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Despite all that, Sony apparently had one more bullet in the chamber, with the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which looked really cool in the trailers, and I’m happy to report lived up to every expectation. Homecoming may be the best portrayal of Spidey, but this psychedelic cartoon roller coaster may go down as the best overall Spider-Man movie ever made.
The story is inspired, uniting several actual forms of Spider-Man throughout the comic book ages. The voice acting is utterly superb. The animation and visuals are the biggest feast for the eyes this side of a Thanksgiving buffet. And most surprising of all, the film wrings genuine pathos out of its characters, even the most abstractly-designed ones.
This particular plot takes place in an alternate version of New York, where the famous billboards in Time Square are for Koca-Soda, among other things (don’t worry, Sony still gets their product placement in). In it, we meet Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an overachieving teenager who’s trying to flunk out of his new, elite boarding school so that he can live a normal life with his friends, despite the encouragement of his father, police officer Jefferson Davis, voiced by Brian Tyree Henry. One day, while sneaking out to do some graffiti art with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Miles is bit by a radioactive spider, giving him super powers, which he must immediately put to the test after witnessing his universe’s Spider-Man (Chris Pine) murdered at the hands of arch-nemesis Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).
Kingpin has been experimenting with a superpowered particle accelerator, which attracts disparate elements of the Multiverse to collide with Miles’. As such, after the funeral for this world’s Peter Parker – age 26 and still dating Mary Jane Watson (Zoë Kravitz) – Miles runs into a different Peter Parker, the one from our universe. This Peter (voiced by Jake Johnson) is middle-aged, morose, and gone to seed. He’s also separated from MJ in his/our world. He reluctantly agrees to train Miles to use his abilities in exchange for helping him shut down the accelerator and return to his world. They are soon joined by Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld, taking a temporary break from recording auto-tuned pop songs about diddling herself), who previously had shown up in Miles’ school and drawn his attention. She is the Spider-Woman of her own world. The group is eventually rounded out by Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a 1930’s stylized version of the webslinger, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-styled hero who fights in her spider-shaped mech robot, and Peter Porker (John Mulaney), a Looney Tunes-style cartoon pig who does whatever a spider-pig does. These are all real iterations of Spider-Man from the comics. Amazingly, the filmmakers did not make these characters up.
The mere presence of this ragtag group enhances the already trippy animation. Most of Miles’ universe is animated to look like a 3D comic book, complete with cel-shading, pop art backgrounds, and angular character designs. For the most part, Miles, Peter, and Gwen all conform to this style, but the other three are completely conspicuous in this realm. Noir is basically The Shadow, drawn in black and white with a sort of Sin City aesthetic, and as I mentioned, Peni is anime while Spider-Ham looks straight out of Tex Avery’s dream diary. The melding of all these characters on this comic book motif backdrop makes for a visual spectacle almost beyond belief.
But that’s just scratching the surface. This is some of the most incredible animation I’ve ever seen. As the universes collide, buildings fold in on each other and phase in and out of existence in a way that’s as beautiful as it is odd, with tight, exaggerated angular forms that could pass for modern sculpture interrupted by surreal splashes of color. Added to that are action and chase sequences against slightly altered villains like Dr. Octopus (Katheryn Hahn) that truly sparkle on screen and inflame the imagination. And then, of course, just for the sake of humor, the camera flips angle and perspective deftly to serve whatever each joke might call for. There’s a great moment where Peter casually strolls along the side of the building as Miles tumbles behind him, the camera adjusting to make the wall seem like a horizontal walkway for Peter, while Miles comically falls over himself repeatedly. It’s one of dozens of great visual gags.
There’s a great deal of humor to be had, enhanced by the able performance of the voice cast, but what really got me was how well the script handled the heavier material, particularly coping with loss, in a way that never felt tacked on. Each version of Spider-(Wo)Man narrates their own montage backstory, which just gets funnier and funnier with each go-round. But the fact that each of them also has to grow from tragedy and suffering humanizes the whole affair that much more. The one that got me the most was Gwen, whose story is a flipped script from the traditional Spider-Man of our world, in that she got bitten, and it was Peter who died because she couldn’t save him in time, not the other way around. Even Kingpin, who can be either the most nuanced or cartoonish of Spidey’s nemeses depending on the story arc, grounds his diabolical scheme in the relatable reality of his inability to cope with loss. Who knew you could empathize with Kingpin? It’s amazing to me how much genuine sentiment this film was able to get out of a cartoon with a talking pig, and even more so that they made it feel completely organic to each character.
This isn’t a perfect film, as it both subverts and perpetuates certain comic book movie tropes, but really, I only saw two true flaws. One, while it is the real character’s name in the comics, why on God’s green Earth would you have Miles’ father be a cop named Jefferson Davis? I mean seriously. A black policeman. Named Jefferson fucking Davis?! Are you kidding me? Second, and more germane to the film experience, this movie was animated in 3D and is intended to be viewed in that format. As such, the down-res to 2D had some unfortunate side effects. Throughout the film in 2D, the fringes of the screen look double-exposed, creating a false second layer. There were several moments where I scanned the theatre to see if people were wearing 3D glasses, and that we had mistakenly come to (and paid for) a 3D show. That was not the case. I even checked with the theatre management, and they told me that’s how it’s supposed to look. It resulted in a weird trick on my eyes that certainly didn’t work and was very distracting at times.
But aside from that, this film is a marvel, and not just because that’s the source company. I can’t remember the last time I saw such bombastic animation, especially not in service to such a richly-drawn story with such great characters. Overall, my favorite animated movie this year is still Isle of Dogs, but if I’m being perfectly honest, this movie is the best pure piece of animation I’ve seen this year. And we should all enjoy it while we can, because I’m sure Sony’s going to ruin this good thing with a slew of ill-advised sequels and spinoffs in the years to come.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite version of Spider-Man? Did you know that Spider-Ham actually predates Plopper by more than 20 years? Let me know!