Could an animated movie about “that other Spider-Man” really be the best Marvel movie of the year – in a year full of great Marvel movies? Yeah, it really could. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just my favorite Spidey movie, it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen this year and the most inventive animated feature I’ve had the privilege of watching in a long time.
This review may contain minor spoilers.
This Spider-Story is Bonkers
There’s no nice way to say it. The story of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse shouldn’t work. It’s a silly, complicated story that depends on the audience being able to make sense of a multi-verse and being able to take the silliness of it all seriously.
In this story, we meet Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a high school student who will soon find himself swinging from webs and running up walls. He’s not a kid from Queens, he doesn’t have an Uncle Ben or an Aunt May. In his world, the Peter Parker Spider-Man has died in service of the city he loves. But just as Miles is getting his powers, the multiverse is falling apart. The different earths that all exist in separate, parallel universes, each with their own Spider-Men and Women, are merging together. If you’ve read the Spider-Verse comics that inspired this, go in knowing that the writers (including Phil Lord, who helped write The LEGO Movie and was at one point attached to both Solo and the Flash films) have significantly re-written the story to give the Spiders a reason to come together and work together. There aren’t any extra-dimensional old-timey vampires in this story, and it doesn’t feel like they’re missing.
But even without those vampires, the story is still wild. All at once, Spiders from other universes are appearing in Miles’ world. Noir Spider-Man (Nic Cage), screw-up Spider-Man (Jake Johnson), and others. I don’t want to reveal them all, for fear of spoiling some of the great comedic moments we get out of their reveals, but there’s a few more on top of these two. But very little time is spent on mystery in this movie, and that brings me to the first thing that makes Spider-Verse so good: it respects the audience.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse knows we live in a world where Ant-Man has been in the Quantum Realm, where the Flash has met Flashes from at least two other dimensions and two other timelines, and where we have different actors playing the same characters across different media releasing at the same time. When they lay out the multi-verse, most of it is handled more as a joke than anything, and we only get a couple seconds of screentime with the camera pointed at a multi-verse map.
We’re simply expected to accept that there’s a multi-verse, that it’s collapsing, and that the Spiders are the only ones who can save it. That lets us focus in on the next thing that makes this movie really shine: Miles Morales and his story.
Time for some Super-Feels
While all this wild stuff is going on around this poor kid, it’s always seen from his point of view. The movie spends very little time showing things Miles can’t see. In this chaotic whirlwind of a story, it’s Miles that matters, and we watch as he tries to cope with everything all at once. Being a teenager is still relatively new to him. He’s in a new school away from his friends and his parents. His dad just doesn’t understand (as parents rarely do). And then, one night while he’s out with one of the few people that does understand him, his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), when an experimental spider, escaped from the Alchemax laboratory, sinks its glowing fangs into him. It’s kind of just one other new thing for him to adjust to on top of all the other changes he’s going through.
This straightforward core story acts like the restraints on a roller coaster. Whatever else happens, we have Miles to hang onto and his very believable story to guide us through the insanity.
The movie plays fast and loose with Spider-Man lore, frequently making fun of Spidey’s origin story and commenting on how well-known it is. That gives Miles’ story room to grow. Where Peter Parker’s life is defined by loss and obligation, Miles’ is defined by the family he does have. Miles’ mother and father are why he is who he is, and it’s a speech from his father that ultimately helps him climb out of his fear and apprehension. He’s driven by his connections, not by his obligations.
That makes it sound like this is a feel-good movie about a teen hero coming into his own, and it is. But that would discount the stellar writing that makes Spider-Verse into a genuinely funny film. It’s packed with great fourth-wall-breaking lines that play with Spider-Man’s place in the world and popular culture, and with his known history,
I found myself not just entertained but laughing out loud thanks to the writing and casting. While the movie is about Miles, his main partner in crime-stopping is an older, middle-aged version of Spider-Man, voiced by Jake Johnson. This Spidey has made some spotty choices in his life, like investing in a food chain, and he’s gotten soft in the middle. Johnson does a great job of both making him feel schlubby and making it seem like Peter feels his downtrodden state is justified and inescapable. Nic Cage’s turn as Noir Spider-Man is corny as hell, and it fits Nic Cage and the character perfectly. The casting throughout the whole movie is just incredible from end to end, and that does a lot to elevate the movie. It says something about the state of comic book movies that Sony and Marvel managed to get so much talent together into one movie and to give so many members of the cast time to shine.
What finally pushes the movie over the edge, though, are the visuals. Spider-Verse is a truly unique-looking movie that does fresh things with its look that Pixar needs to take cues from. I never thought a Spider-Man cartoon would be the startling, refreshing movie that this ended up being. I can’t stress what a visual treat this movie is.
Spider-Verse is colorful, dynamic and fresh. It might sound obvious to call this a comic-book movie, but when I say that I mean that it stands on the line between comic book and movie, taking all the right cues from both. Comic-book frames dissect shots. On-screen special effects that Adam West would be proud of add design elements to shots, giving them clean lines and shapes.
And there are colors everywhere. One of the early moments we get that tells us about who Miles is has him spraying graffiti on an abandoned subway wall while his uncle comments on his art. That art informs the rest of the movie. When the particle accelerator that is damaging the multiverse turns on and starts bleeding out, it explodes in spray-painted color and pop-art comic imagery.
Characters are well-animated and seem to have their own movement styles. Noir Spider-Man’s physicality is very different from Miles’ awkward potential. Spider-Schlub clearly knows how to move but is too tired and burned out to put his heart into it. The different Spiders have their own looks, too. Where Noir Spider-Man is from, everything is in black and white and so is he, too. If a character is two-dimensional (literally, not written as such), they stay that way.
A lot of the movies we go to theaters for these days, we go as much for fear of missing out, as anything else. Spider-Verse should be seen in theaters because it’s just so eye-searingly, brain-blastingly beautiful. It’s stylish as hell, oozing pink, yellow and orange from every pore. It’s the best-looking animated movie in a while and the best-looking Marvel movie ever.
This has been an absurdly good year for Spider-Man. He was a highlight in Infinity War. Then he became the first Marvel character to get a genuinely good game in a long time with Insomniac’s Spider-Man (which does get a couple nods in this movie!). Then one of his sometimes allies, Venom, got his own weirdly enjoyable movie in October. Now Miles gets his own feature that stands on its own, a story about strength and connection rather than loss and responsibility.
Even with at least two or three good Spider-Man movies, countless comics, a few games, and more, Spider-Verse stands out. It’s an ode to Spider-Man’s long history, a stellar animated film, and Miles Morales’ first real debut outside the comic-book pages. It’s warm and delightful and simply beautiful. Marvel Studios and Pixar should both be looking at this movie. And Aquaman has some serious competition this month.