By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but he’s certain it doesn’t involve going to an upscale school away from the urban personality of his neighborhood he’s known all his life. He wants to do right by his strict police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry), but he also wants to impress his more rebellious Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), practice his elaborate graffiti, and maybe even impress his classmate Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld).
During a night out tagging with Aaron, Miles is bitten by a spider, and wakes up feeling odd–so odd, it seems very familiar to a Spider-Man comic he has. He returns to the site to investigate the spider, and stumbles across a massive battle behind the abandoned subway between Green Goblin and Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) has been working on a device to access other dimensions, and when it misfires, several different versions of Spider-Man get sucked from their respective dimensions into this one. Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a divorced and depressed 30-something Spider-Man; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a brooding black-and-white detective-style Spider-Man from a bygone era; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime Spider-Girl with large robotic spider as a best friend, and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic Looney Tunes-style pig Spider-Man. Even Gwen Stacey is revealed to be a superpowered version of the hero. Each of them don’t belong, and if they don’t work with Miles to stop Kingpin, they, and the multiverse, will disintegrate.
Into the Spider-Verse does so many things so well, it’s hard to even know where to start.
A daring commitment to emulate as closely as possible the feeling of reading a comic, Into the Spider-Verse is wildly vibrant. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once you’re locked in this is the most visually enthralling movie of 2018. Often switching to a hand-drawn style for a frame or two, adding in story blocks or page turns, and utilizing multiple panels in one frame are not only beautiful visual pieces, but active participants in the storytelling. Small, odd references to other comic book and pop culture properties are also sprinkled generously into the background. More than being a fresh visual take, this is a work of loving detail.
Each of the visitors from different dimensions has their own visual style, and each style is able to work as its own distinct thing while being simultaneously united under the movie’s overall style. Spider-Noir’s more distinct black and white stippling looks right at home next to the brighter and smoother looks of Spider-Pig and Peni Parker (with a fun detail being that, like anime translations, Peni’s mouth doesn’t sync with her lines).
The writing by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman is unexpectedly smart. By adding an ensemble of Spider-Folks, Lord and Rothman juggle multiple arcs that work in tandem towards a similar theme—each of these variations on the hero have similar origins, fears, and tendencies towards selflessness. And by featuring these established Spider-Man variations in the majority of the action sequences, Miles is given the entire first two acts to grow as a character before he gets to finally suit up as a true Spider-Man. The amount of breathing room Miles gets to evolve away from the mask makes the moment when he’s finally behind it awesomely cathartic. He’s not forced to be the hero—he wants it, and he earns it.
Grief is a major theme of the film, and nearly every character grapples with loss in one way or another. Into the Spider-Verse is rated PG and is mostly family-accessible, but the way it approaches the theme of loss and grief is surprisingly direct. Characters die or are otherwise lost in this movie, and other characters grieve for them. Instead of that grief being compartmentalized to one scene of the main character acting sad, this grief shapes each of the characters and their arcs. One of the best minor arcs of the movie involves Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, who in his universe has already buried Aunt May and has also married and divorced Mary Jane, because she wanted children and he didn’t. Peter B. Parker is depressed, gaining weight, and forced into being a mentor figure for Miles, a kid probably half his age at least. The writing of the movie nails the darkly humorous mindset of millennials entering their 30s, Parker’s pain of having no one to love in his life, and his growth as a character when Miles, a protégé and “practice son,” so to speak, encourages him to try to get Mary Jane back. On top of that, the different versions of the Spider-People actually argue over who will sacrifice themselves for the others, and that sheer selflessness is a rush of emotion.
For all of the heavy themes of the movie, it balances its tones well by never being overtly dour and, more importantly, never letting humor undercut a moment of drama. When it’s funny, it’s hilarious. When it’s serious, it doesn’t pull punches.
Composer Daniel Pemberton, whose work on Guy Ritchie’s fatally bizarre King Arthur: Legend of he Sword was probably the best part of that movie, again brings his A-game to Spider-Verse. The soundtrack has sweeping orchestral pieces, but often blends them with electronics and lends a degree of personality to the film that matches up to its visuals. There are even a few percussion bits that feel vaguely reminiscent of Antonio Sanchez’s work in Birdman.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a perfectly calibrated superhero movie that takes all of the right risks, makes all of the right creative decisions, and does both with an astonishing caliber of love. Its heart beats so loudly with affection for its characters and themes that it’s infectious.
I have a very special place in my heart for movies that just go for it, for better or for worse. I love when movies get to explore really crazy ideas and have a total passion for a bizarre little kernel of an idea that can blossom into something completely unique, even if it ends up a mess. Spider-Verse, however, completely sticks the landing with every crazy idea it has. The Spider-Verse interpretation of Aunt May is the kind of nutty you usually only find in bad movies but it actually works well here. Woven through all of the gonzo world-building is an approach to theme and character that is as engaging as it is thoughtful.
Truly one of 2018’s best movies—animated, superhero, or otherwise.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every shot that switches to hand-drawn
Do a Shot: every time grief is discussed
Do a Shot: whenever Peter B. Parker does whatever a single 30-something man can
Take a Drink: every time selflessness is discussed
Take a Drink: for every pop culture background reference
Toast Your Drink: to the most emotional Stan Lee cameo/tribute yet committed to film