Released: 12th December 2018
Directed By: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnston, Hailee Steinfeld
Reviewed By: Van Connor
For all the stick the DCEU gets for leaning heavily into the supposed “grimdark” sensibilities of the comic book movie subgenre, it’s strange that we, as a filmgoing culture, fail to really highlight how widespread and deeply rooted such a leaning can actually be. Sure, we know Batman’s been near run into the ground at this point with his varying shades of black and what seems to be a predilection for introducing heads to walls, but we never seem to focus on how needlessly bleak the bulk of Spider-Man’s depictions have been to date. Homecoming rectified a fair amount of that, admittedly, but cast your mind back over the past two decades of Spider-Man movies and what you’ll recall will, by and large, be something set at night and quite mercilessly grim.
Enter Sony’s feature animated effort, Into the Spider-Verse, which seems to have been constructed entirely to address this genre bent once and for all, taking shots not only at the rather weird mentality with which we consider the tone of comic book movie adventures, but getting in a few rather deeply-piercing jabs at other conventions too. Think there are too many origin stories to these things? Yeah, they’re going to lampoon that with gusto. Too many crossover characters and references to the mythology? Literally the bedrock here. Hell, Into the Spider-Verse packs in not one but several rather prominent and narratively essential character deaths, it even gives its hero a moment to grieve them, but y’know what it does after that? It goes right back to having fun with itself.
Key to this is a more youthful and energetic lead character than any Spider-Man we’ve seen depicted before – this, of course, being the cinematic debut of newish (to the canon) Spider-Man Miles Morales. Hardly a new idea for comic books (Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern gave way to Kyle Raynor, Tony Stark has Riri Williams, etc), yet this marks the first time one in recent memory that one of these would-be “replacement” figures has garnered themselves a movie. A decidedly different figure to Peter Parker, Miles is a young, inexperienced, thoughtful and sensitive millennial; his decisions feel like they have weight because the writing behind him here genuinely stops to give him as much. There’s no morosely dumping suits in trash cans and worrying about making it to the malt shoppe in time for MJ’s post-chorus show chillout – god no – this kid’s all about making it to the Starbucks on time cos he’s got a paper due and the wifi’s down at home. He’s every inch a contemporary Spider-Man, and some fantastically sharp writing from Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman ensures that never becomes in any way as patronizing as attempts at that usually wind up falling. Tom Holland’s Spidey’s very likable, but this kid’s a damn rock star in a hoodie.
He’s brought to life by a pretty charming performance from Dope actor Shameik Moore (playing impressively young, it should be noted), who spearheads a pretty terrific ensemble cast of characters aiding the newly bitten Spider-Man in his quest to protect New York City from the Kingpin’s sinister plot to implode the multiverse. You get not one but two Peter Parkers, with Chris Pine offering up a deliciously Ace Rimmer-like “prime” Peter Parker and New Girl’s Jake Johnston delivered a decidedly… less prime Peter Parker, Hailee Steinfeld steals the show as the jaw-jaw-droopingly badass Spider-Gwen, Nicolas Cage is going full Cagney as Spider-Man Noir, and Live Schreiber delivers his best James Caan as what might be the most visually and physically terrifying depiction of the Kingpin ever depicted. There’s also a giant Japanese Spider-Mech and a talking cartoon pig, but no explanation could possibly top simply seeing them for yourself.
Not content with simply telling us the kind of universe-hopping meta-tale this does though, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman take on a melting pot of the genre’s animated quirks to date. The American-Anime fusion that’s made the Ultimate Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shows such smashes on TV the past few years provides the most notable base, while the blending of beats and energetic visuals from the 90s Spider-Man show runs squarely through its veins. There’s even a sizeable debt owed to the oft-forgotten 2003 MTV show (Spidey may have invented EDM, it’s a weird story) and the grander scale animated superhero theatrics of Big Hero 6; and yet, most importantly, Into the Spider-Verse never once forgets to be its own man and deliver its own very specific message. A message that may well bring some Marvel fanboys to tears by the time they’re done, in a way you’ll be quite impressed by for scheduling reasons if nothing else.
Jaw-dropping animation and a pulse-pounding soundtrack may be the obvious sell for Into the Spider-Verse, but what’s really going to make for the water cooler discussion is undoubtedly its sense of quirk, humour, and depth – all three of which it combines into something fresh, unique, and almost ironically grounded. Like Teen Titans GO! To The Movies, Into the Spider-Verse could have been the grandest superhero event in years in a live-action form, yet, like its DC counterpart, it utilizes its animated form not as a canvas but as an outright asset to astonish, move and amuse with a scope and precise energy unique unto itself.
It’s not only a great animated movie, but it’s also a terrific Spider-Man movie – it might even be the straight-up best Spider-Man movie to date – and that’s before you even get into the discussion of whether or not this fourth-wall breaking meta-blast has managed to out-Deadpool Deadpool (it really has). For all of their want of trying, Sony has finally stumbled upon the Spider-Man cinematic universe that works. No Sinister Six required, no more godawful My Pal Venom, just a good old-fashioned Spider-Man in an animated Millennial package and given as little a visible remit as possible beyond “just go knock this out the park”. It was worth The Amazing Spider-Man 2 just to get to this, it was almost even worth Venom to get to this, and, if we actually do get that rumored Spider-Gwen movie out of this too, hell, it was even worth Spider-Man 3. Meet Miles Morales, people. He’s your new Spider-Man, and he’s awesome.