Review: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

5 out of 5 stars.

I never thought I’d describe a Spider-Man movie as truly refreshing—Sony’s big live-action superhero franchise has been rebooted so many times in recent years it’s become a joke in and of itself.  But refreshing, as well as “innovative” and “original,” are exactly the words to describe “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” not just in terms of Spider-Man movies, but also superhero movies and main-stream animated movies.  It’s a near-perfect effort from Sony Animation that combines the usual superhero origin story with a lot of humor, action, and heart.

Set in New York City, the story focuses not on Peter Parker, but on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a teenager who’s going through a bit of a rough patch.  He’s struggling to fit in to his fancy new boarding school, and he feels like he has a stronger relationship with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) than his police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry).  When Miles is bit by a radioactive spider, he begins developing skills similar to those possessed by NYC’s savior, Spider-Man.  As on top of everything else Miles now has to learn to control his newfound abilities, Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) builds a particle accelerator that opens up alternate universes, bringing together a whole host of people with spider-like powers—including an older, down-on-his-luck Peter Parker (Jake Johnson).  Together they must work to stop Fisk from using the machine before it destroys the city, while also finding a way to return to their respective dimensions.

First off, “Into the Spider-Verse” handles what could have easily become a story over-complicated by too many characters and other dimensions exceptionally well.  The story (which is by Phil Lord, with screenplay by Lord and co-director Rodney Rothman) unfolds with precision, taking the time to first allow us to get to know Miles, before bringing in Peter and finally the other characters.  As fun as it is to see some of those other versions of the character who have previously only existed in the comics (they include Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld; John Mulaney as the cartoony Spider-Ham; Kimiko Glenn as the anime-inspired Peni Paker; and Nicholas Cage as the hilariously hard-boiled 1930s-era detective Spider-Man Noir), the story stays centered on Miles and Peter.  One of the great things about this movie is having a story where Peter Parker is not the main character.  Miles is even younger than Peter was when he got his powers, and despite his enthusiasm and desire to help, finds himself struggling to keep up with the other, more seasoned heroes as he lacks the confidence in himself to master his powers and take down Fisk.  He’s also different in that he is not the first Spider-Man his world has seen, and as someone who admired Spider-Man previously, he feels like he has a lot to live up to.  It’s also great to see such a different portrayal of Peter Parker as opposed to previous “Spider-Man” movies.  This Peter isn’t a wise-cracking high-schooler who loves being your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  He is much older, and years of crime-fighting have taken their toll on his health and relationships.  This Peter is jaded and cynical, initially unwilling to show Miles the ropes, but the student/mentor relationship they develop as the film progresses changes them both for the better.  There’s also plenty of humor and enough solid action to rival any live-action movie.

Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Woman, another hero who emerges from another dimension in “Into the Spider-Verse”

But as great as the story is on its own, the animation will take your breath away.  It’s unlike anything else out there: a combination of 2D and 3D animation that’s inspired by the style of the comic books.  The background elements aren’t just there to look nice; they enhance the characters’ actions, like the occasional speech bubble.  It’s colorful and busy without ever distracting from the action as we venture from the grittily rendered streets of Brooklyn to the psychedelic trappings of the particle accelerator.  The character design is just as interesting, bringing in different styles to accommodate the characters from other universes, and the great soundtrack and score assembled works well with both the action and the youthfulness of the protagonist.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an all-around fantastic film for all ages.  And while you don’t have to be a big Spider-Man fan, or even to have seen any of the other Spider-Man movies to follow it (it stands completely on its own, which is great), there are tons of references and visual cues to delight longtime fans.  In a lot of ways, this movie was made for those fans, bringing together everything we know and love about the character but doing it in an entirely new and different way.  It isn’t merely refreshing; it’s inspired.

Runtime: 117 minutes. Rated PG.

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