**** out of ****
(for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language)
Released: December 14, 2018
Runtime: 117 minutes
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Starring (the voices of): Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Nicolas Cage, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Kathryn Hahn, Live Schreiber, Chris Pine, Lily Tomlin
Heads-up, true believers: we’re in the midst of a Spidey-ssance.
In the wake of a tired, cheesy two-film Spider-Man reboot that did few things well outside of casting Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, the on-screen future for everyone’s favorite web-head did not look good.
But after Sony and Marvel Studios struck a deal to bring Spider-Man into the MCU, the Tom Holland era has been an inspired revelation.
It kicked off with an extended cameo (that was also the best thing) in Captain America: Civil War, and then that promise was fulfilled in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the best, boldest screen incarnation yet of Marvel’s most iconic superhero. It’s only rivaled in the current MCU by Black Panther.
That standing, however, has now received an unexpected challenger: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
At first blush, this non-MCU animated adventure appeared to be a glorified straight-to-DVD low-budgeter that was squeezing in a theatrical release. It’s not. It’s so much more than that.
Like the new Tom Holland franchise, this is another game-changer. More than any film before it, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is truly a comic book come to life, as if the pages themselves have become incarnate.
Spider-Verse revolutionizes not one but two genres: animation and superhero blockbusters. The potential of what’s possible in both has just been completely blown wide open.
Zigging in so many ways from where the industry is currently zagging (not the least of which is going PG in a profane Deadpool world), Spider-Verse offers up a fascinating premise that it delivers on with sheer brilliance, pulling from deep within the Spider-canon without being a slave to it or some fan-catering obligatory checklist.
Miles Morales, a mixed-race African-American/Hispanic teen that’s another variation of Spider-Man in the comics, is met by five other Spider-Heroes from alternate multiverses. They’re brought into Miles’ Brooklyn-based dimension by a machine called The Collider; it’s been built and activated by a classic Spidey baddie (with a twist).
The Spideys – which include an aging Peter Parker, Gwen Stacey’s Spider-Woman, Spider-Man Noir (from the 1930s), anime Peni Parker and her Spider robot, plus the Looney Tunes-ish pig Spider Ham – team up to destroy the device, while also strategizing how to use it to return to their own universes before The Collider goes kerplewy.
The level of ambition here – from concept to script to visual daring – completely shakes up the status quo rut that feature-length theatrical animation as fallen into (Disney, Pixar, Illumination, et al). It’s virtuosic innovation merges styles by keeping the 2D look of sketch-drawn lines on 3D modeled animation, including 2D cross-section shading gradients; 3D animation has traditionally ditched inked shading for actual “lighting” in 3D worlds and the shading that it creates.
Frame rates are also experimented with, mixed and matched, but never employing the full 24 frames per second that 3D uses to approximate the same rate as live action movement. Instead, it opts for 12 fps (the 2D standard) and even at times less than that for specific desired effects.
That’s a lot of jargon to say that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is doing things that no other animated movie has ever done before. And it looks so cool doing it, especially as the colors and designs pop with breathtaking spectacle. (I didn’t see this in 3D, but that will soon be rectified.)
Each character is so well-written and conceived, as is the inventive plotting (beefed up by clever wit, not punchline humor), with legitimate thought given to the arcs of Miles Morales and the elder Peter Parker, and how the other Spiders play into that core duo while each is still given a distinct presence and voice of their own, including the inspired casting of Nicholas Cage as the comically nihilistic Spider-Man Noir.
Other supporting characters are just as vivid, vital and, at times, surprising, including Miles dad and uncle plus Parker’s Aunt May.
Parker is saddled with personal baggage and failure but in ways that feel specific, and Jake Johnson’s voice carries that with a credible existential exasperation. He also serves as a reluctant mentor to Miles, complete with a meta-snark that’s similar to Deadpool but much dryer (and without being as obnoxious), and Miles’ journey to becoming a Spider-Man crescendos to about five “Hellz yeah!” moments in the climactic finale that gave me chills.
Honestly, with as much as this movie juggles to absolute calibrated perfection – including doing superhero team-up dynamics better than any Avengers movie ever has – what Spider-Verse achieves through animation might be too much for live action to contain (but I’d sure love to see someone try). What would likely come off as overkill in a real-life setting, animation is able to harness, exploit, and maximize. Or, at least, it is by this creative team led by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie).
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all? Not only is this an exhilarating entertainment, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is so emotionally satisfying, too. Yeah, that’s right, I got chocked up.
At long last, we finally have proof that a superhero movie can astonish, delight, move, and thrill outside of the MCU or the watchful eye of its guru Kevin Feige. Furthermore, genre risk-taking need not be edgy to be ingenious and resonant.
This Spider-Man is truly amazing.
(Oh, and stay until the very end of the credits. You will be rewarded.)