Relentlessly entertaining and packed with jokes, this plays to animation's strengths while retaining Spidey's iconic teen angst.
Image: Web-slinging into the Spider-verse. Source: Sony
Comic book characters and animation would seem like natural partners – and they have been in home entertainment, with DC comics’ parent company Warner Bros releasing a steady stream of TV series and direct-to-DVD movies. But as their handful of big-screen efforts have all been parodies (The Lego Batman Movie, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies), it’s fallen to Marvel (specifically Sony Pictures Animation in association with Marvel) to take animated super-heroes seriously. Well, as seriously as a movie featuring Peter Porker, The Amazing Spider-Ham can get.
But if super-heroes already work so well in live-action, what’s the point of animating them? Into the Spider-Verse answers that question by playing explicitly to animation’s strengths, starting with high-energy stylised visuals that come off as a cross between comic book art (the Ben-Day dots from traditional comic book colouring are a constant design element), graffiti, and cutting-edge computer animation. It’s a treat for the eyes – though the way the animation often fuzzes out characters and details on the fringes of the screen takes a little getting used to.
This fluid style is a perfect fit for Spider-Man’s web-slinging ways, and the scenes where he and his cohorts swing across the city are some of the movie's most memorable. The snappy visuals help sell a lot of the (very funny) jokes too, while the final dimension-mashing fight scene throws just about everything imaginable at our heroes while still keeping things coherent (just).
That’s an approach mirrored in the story, which happily piles on the twists and characters at a rate that live-action simply can’t match. Miles Morales (the voice of Shamiek Moore) is an African American-Hispanic New York high schooler struggling to fit in after he wins a scholarship to a private academy, but when he gets bitten by a radioactive spider during a subway graffiti session with his cool uncle (brother of his loving but square cop dad)… you can probably guess what happens.
But this New York already has a Spider-Man – until he gets killed in front of Morales’ eyes trying to stop The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from using a giant super-collider to open a portal to other dimensions. The Kingpin’s plans are thwarted (briefly) by this sacrifice, and as Morales wonders how he can live up to the legacy of the city’s dead hero, he stumbles across another older, shabbier Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), freshly dragged across from another dimension.
Unfortunately this Parker is a bit of a loser, and not exactly keen to help Morales follow in his footsteps. But it rapidly becomes clear that he’s not the only alternate Spider-Man the Kingpin’s device brought over. There’s also Spider-Ham, a grim 30’s version called Spider-Noir, the anime-style Penni Parker and her Spider-Bot, and a spider-powered version of (the original) Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy. And if they don’t find a way back home soon, they’re not going to survive.
As a teen hero driven by recent tragedy, Spider-Man’s real superpower has always been his direct access to angst and emotional trauma. Into the Spider-Verse makes that explicit even as it fires out joke after joke, as every version Morales encounters is dealing with their own sadness and loss – though in a twist, he’s the one Spider-Man with a family still around to back him up.
For a character pushing past 50, Spider-Man’s take on being a teenager – a time of introversion and awkwardness hidden by wisecracks – still feels modern. And as this relentlessly entertaining film makes clear, it’s a core concept flexible enough to work with all manner of characters. Can a Spider-Gwen spin-off be far away?
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rotham
USA, 2018, 117 mins
Release date: December 13
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