"What makes you different, is what makes you Spider-Man."
Within the 21st century we have seen an abundance of Spider-Man. The big screen alone has seen three different incarnations of Marvel’s famed web head in less than two decades, and that is before we even delve into the TV series, video games and single musical (yeah, that was a thing that happened). But almost all of these iterations return to Peter Parker’s tenure as the wall crawler, which is interesting considering that wide array of figures who have donned the identity in the various comics over the years. That is just way in which ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ distinguishes itself.
Bitten by a radioactive spider in the subway, Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales suddenly develops mysterious powers that transform him into the one and only Spider-Man. Except he soon discovers that far from being the one and only, Miles exists among an array of people who share his unique abilities, and when an interdimensional collision brings them all together, they must unite to stop a madman and save the city, as well as themselves.
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a movie that is so adoringly in love with its own medium as much as ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’. This movie is a love letter to the comics on which it is based and the history of animation that has come before it. But most of all it adulates Spider-Man, not just as a character but as a universal concept that explains why the creation has blend such an enduring impact. It is fitting that this is the first film based on the imagination of Stan Lee to be released after the iconic storyteller’s passing. It embodies the core ideas and resonant themes that Lee, Steve Ditko and a generations of writers who succeeded them have bestowed onto Spider-Man. It celebrates his presence within our social consciousness as both an individual and an idea. On the big screen Spider-Man has never been more varied, nor more singularly distilled.
It stands a testament to the thematic weight of ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ that I chose to mention its resonance first rather than the animation. To say that the film looks stunning or is visually stimulating is a frankly criminal understatement. I am genuinely lost for words at what to mention first. There’s the simple fact that every solitary frame within this film looks completely in tune with the visual aesthetics of a comic book. There’s the gorgeous blending of art styles and animation techniques and how they all blend seamlessly together. There’s the way these contrasting styles are so often placed within the same shot and never look at conflict with one another. There’s the way the film is unafraid to veer into the abstract and psychedelic for its more otherworldly set pieces whilst still retaining this grounded clarity to give added weight to its more emotionally nuanced character moments.
But these are the big visual gestures that anyone could notice from a surface glance. When you look closer at ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ you will notice more masterful techniques such as how the grained texture that makes it resemble a printed comic book panel, or the varying frame rates that emphasise specific actions, or the defined outlines that make each character feel so distinct, or the subtle uses of colour and shading that just make the immersion within its vision that little bit more complete. There’s a phrase within animation called “banging the lamp”, named after a scene in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ to describe creative details that are not inherently essential to the film but exist regardless due to the sheer passion and effort the animators put into crafting a fully realised vision. ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ is “banging the lamp” from its very first frame to its last.
The same care and effort has clearly been put into conveying the story of the film as well as its technique. The screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman is a masterclass in ambitious storytelling mixed with intimate settings. Amid the array of characters, no one feels lost or short changed. While the core development of the story rests with three central characters, everyone is given a means to contribute to the plot development or thematic arc of the film in some way. Comedic characters are given beautifully rich moments of insight, seemingly one note villains are allowed to reveal surprising amounts of conflict and every secondary character whom Miles encounters along the way has something meaningful to add to his journey.
How ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ effortlessly introduces its various characters and their conflicts is astounding and does so much to help the story move forward at a terrific pace. It revels in and explores the essence of its characters and themes enough to not feel rushed, but never stalls in terms of moving the plot forward at all times. Structurally, it winds each escalating set piece together with superb clarity, starting in the grounded and deeply personal mechanics of Miles home life only to end with a mind-blowing finale that builds upon the action beats of everything that came before it and concludes them in a masterstroke of storytelling.
I have to also shower praise on the voice cast that would honestly be identical to simply listing the cast as they appeared. Shameik Moore effortlessly conveys the shifting conflicts and identity struggle of Miles Moralis throughout the movie. Jake Johnson and Hailee Steinfeld make for uniquely interesting and brilliantly charismatic versions of the iconic web head. Mahershala Ali and Brian Tyree Henry work as empathetically grounded mentors in Miles’ life, whilst Nick Cage, Kimiko Glenn and John Mulaney all bring some wonderful eccentricity to the array. I would also be remised if I didn’t mention the menacing villainy Liev Schreiber evokes in his role as Kingpin.
As I said at the start of this review, what I found most affecting about ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ was its ability to understand the universal appeal of Spider-Man, the reason why Stan Lee struck such a profound nerve with readers when he and Ditko conceived the character. It understands that anyone can empathise with the figure, with the ideas. It evokes the notion that a hero can exist within anyone and that beyond the ability to crawl up walls, what distinguishes a hero are their own personal struggles. If Spider-Man has ever appealed to anyone on any level, it was because of these core ideas which the character personified, and there is not a single moment in which ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ forgets that.
A towering achievement of animation, emotionally resonant storytelling and richly drawn characters. Amazing.