FILM REVIEW – SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. With the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage. Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman. Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language. 117 minutes.
Since 2002 we’ve seen three different live-action Spider-Men in eight big-screen adventures, but honestly it feels like even more. There’s been an exhausting game of franchise musical chairs going on for the past decade or so, and to put things into perspective we’re already on our third Peter Parker since the year Pierce Brosnan stopped being James Bond. Part of the sneaky, snarky brilliance of the rollicking new animated extravaganza SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is how it weaves our collective Spider-fatigue into the fabric of its story. If you think you’ve had it up to here with webslingers, here’s a movie crawling with them! The multiplicity of Spideys is part of the joke.
This may take a moment to explain. We begin with Miles Morales, a new Spider-Man created for the comics in 2011 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli as part of the “Ultimate” universe existing outside of Marvel’s regular continuity. (Comic book fans initially reacted to Miles with the warm exhibitions of inclusivity and racial sensitivity for which the subculture is renowned [sic] but even they must admit he looks a heck of a lot more like a 21st century kid from an outer-borough neighborhood than Peter Parker does these days.)
In the movie Miles is a science prodigy who likes to skip out on his scholarship at a fancy Manhattan boarding school and would rather paint graffiti art in abandoned subway tunnels with his ne’er-do-well Uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali). It’s during one of these underground escapades that he’s bit by a radioactive spider. Conveniently nearby, oversized crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is firing up an atom collider that will rip open the quantum realm so he can try to find alternate universe replicas of his dead wife and child. This doesn’t work out so well.
What he accidentally brings back are Spideys, a whole bunch of them from other dimensions who can hopefully help shut down the collider before the Kingpin blows up Brooklyn. This is how Miles winds up being mentored by a divorced, depressed, pot-bellied Peter Parker in sweatpants (the hilarious Jake Johnson). Pitching in to assist are Hailee Steinfeld’s svelte Spider-Woman, a Japanese anime Peni Parker complete with robot sidekick, Nicolas Cage as a black-and-white, 1930’s Nazi-punching Spider-Man and yes, even Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham.
“Into The Spider-Verse” smashes together all these wildly divergent tones and cinematic styles into a madcap, laugh-a-minute sprint that calls out just how unimaginative contemporary studio animation has become. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, and Rodney Rothman cheerfully toss aside the semi-photorealistic Pixar house style to which most CGI features are beholden, indulging instead in wild, expressionistic flights of fancy complete with flying thought balloons, sound-effects text bubbles and narration blocks. I adored their design of the Kingpin, with a body the size of an SUV and a comparatively microscopic head. The movie is loosey-goosey looking enough for anime characters to share the screen with Cage’s pencil-sketch Will Eisner homage, all the clashing aesthetics somehow working wonderfully in concert.
This sense of looney-tune liberation extends to the screenplay (penned by co-director Rodney Rothman and “LEGO Movie” co-writer Phil Lord) and its manic pile-up of sight-gags, in-jokes, and good old-fashioned heart. This is a disarmingly sweet picture, miraculously making time for us to care about these characters between spectacular set-pieces. There’s also a playful feeling of limitless possibility in this world, one that’s very much the opposite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s deliberately drab attempts to ground their fantastical adventures in something approximating “realism.”
Perhaps most importantly, baked into the text here is a powerful rebuke to comic fans’ initial rejection of Miles Morales. So much of geek culture is fixated on gatekeeping and exclusivity, the loudest and ugliest contingent being middle-aged guys in ill-fitting Dark Knight T-shirts still furious that someone allowed women to bust ghosts. “Into The Spider-Verse” is built for a new kind of fandom, offering a world in which anyone can be Spider-Man — including young men of color, teenage girls, anime robots, talking pigs and even Nicolas Cage. All are welcome here.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.