For as long as I can remember, I have loved superhero movies. It is a love that has exhausted me and my wallet over recent years, and left me jaded despite films like Black Panther attempting to take the genre in new directions. Just a few days ago I would have been hesitant to say there was any future for the superhero flick, or that my interest would last long enough to see it; but last night I went to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and I now feel very differently. It is not often that a trip to the cinema leaves me feeling this invigorated, and so – at the risk of seeming immature beyond my 21 years – I am now going to rave about an animated superhero movie.
The story of Into the Spider-Verse is disconnected entirely from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is one of familiar comic-book logic. We follow Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a high-school kid recently moved to an upper-class boarding school on a scholarship where he immediately feels like an outcast. This Spider-Man receives his radioactive spider bite while graffitiing an underground tunnel, which just so happens to be next to a supercollider run by nefarious millionaire mob boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).
The same supercollider causes the multiverse to collapse and different incarnations of Spiderman to come tumbling into Miles’ world. These include a paunchy, middle-aged divorcée Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), a Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and even the cartoon pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). And so, Miles must learn to be his own version of Spider-Man while working with his alternate selves to defeat Kingpin once and for all.
Into the Spider-Verse was clearly intended to delight fans of the comics, not only by having multiple versions of Spiderman interact but also by wasting little time providing background for its villains: in addition to Kingpin it also features a gender-swapped Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn) and The Prowler among others, all of whom you’re clearly expected to quickly recognise and understand. This doesn’t make the film impenetrable to non-geeks – given the referentiality of much of its material it’s surprisingly accessible – but fans are likely to get significantly more out of it than casual moviegoers.
Into the Spider-Verse represents the bold, bright future comic book movies deserve…
However, “just fan service” sells the film short. For a start, Into the Spider-Verse is one of the most visually inventive takes on the superhero film genre of recent years. Every frame appears as if it were lifted straight out of a comic book, right down to the imperfections of the paper. The result is a brilliant colour palette with far more warmth and depth than we’ve become accustomed to in digital animation. Furthermore, each version of Spiderman is differentiated by their animation style, allowing a black-and-white noir version of Spiderman (played superbly by Nicholas Cage) to interact seamlessly with the anime Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), for example.
This contributes to a frequent overabundance of visual interest – it’s no coincidence that producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller were also behind the similarly bright Lego Movie – culminating in arguably the busiest and most colourful finale sequence I’ve seen in a superhero movie. And it is intended as an example of its kind: Into the Spider-Verse is smartly self-aware, such as when Peter Parker mocks a meeting of supervillains by accurately predicting their hackneyed dialogue.
And yet, what truly sets Into the Spider-Verse apart from its peers is its heart. As Miles Morales, Shameik Moore brings a real vulnerability, and the script gives him ample opportunity to display it. Into the Spider-Verse is ultimately his origin story, and the origin story of Spider-Man is one of tragedy and isolation, something the film repeatedly emphasises through the backstories and interactions of each Spider-person. As incredibly visually complex as its action sequences are, the filmmakers aren’t afraid to let more emotional scenes breathe. That any emotional beats are hit with sincerity after the introduction of Spider-Ham is a small miracle, and sets Into the Spider-Verse apart from other efforts that seek to undermine the self-seriousness of many superhero flicks while maintaining emotional beats, such as Deadpool and its tonal soup of a sequel.
Coming out in the same week as a re-release of that sequel and another turgid addition to the DC canon, Into the Spider-Verse could not be timelier. It reminds us that we can demand more from both our superhero movies and our animations, and I would even argue that Into the Spider-Verse represents the bold, bright future comic book movies deserve. Forget the “dark” “edgy” “realism” of Christopher Nolan and his many imitators: if every superhero film featured a cartoon pig swinging on webs and defeating bad guys with a giant mallet, the world would surely be a brighter place.
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is in cinemas now.
Main image Credit: Sony Pictures Animation.