A film review by Craig J. Koban December 26, 2018

SPIDER-MAN: 

INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE jjj
   

2018, PG, 117 mins.

 

Shameik Moore as Miles Morales / Spider-Man (voice)  /  Jake Johnson as Peter Parker / Spider-Man (voice)  /  Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy / Spider-Gwen (voice)  /  Nicolas Cage as Peter Parker / Spider-Man Noir (voice)  /  John Mulaney as Peter Porker / Spider-Ham (voice)  /  Mahershala Ali as Aaron Davis / Prowler (voice)  /  Liev Schreiber as Wilson Fisk / Kingpin (voice)  /  Oscar Isaac as Miguel O'Hara / Spider-Man 2099 (voice)  /  Chris Pine as Peter Parker / Spider-Man (voice)  /  Jorma Taccone as Norman Osborn / Green Goblin (voice)  /  ZoŽ Kravitz as Mary-Jane Watson (voice)  /  Kathryn Hahn as Olivia Octavius / Doc Ock (voice)  /  Brian Tyree Henry as Jefferson Davis (voice)  /  Lily Tomlin as Aunt May (voice)  /  Lake Bell as Vanessa Fisk (voice)  /  Stan Lee as Costume Shop Owner (voice)

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman  /  Written by Rothman and  Phil Lord

 

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

Okay, so shove these facts up your mind, true believers: 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is, believe it or not, the very first feature length animated film about the world's most famous wall-crawler.  It's also the seventh SPIDER-MAN film since 2000, including Sam Raimi's sometimes masterful and sometimes mediocre trilogy, Marc Webb's equally mixed bag two pack of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN franchise reboots, and, yes, the MCU reboot of the reboot in last year's SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.  

Whoops, that latter version also appeared in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.   

That's a lot of SPIDER-MAN movies and movie appearances. 

Sarcasm aside, it's become quite difficult, for me at least, to get genuinely excited about a new film - animated or not - based on Stan Lee's and Steve Ditko's immortal comic book creation, which left me in a somewhat hesitant position going into SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, but the fact that it's an animated effort not based within the larger MCU (this is produced by Sony Pictures, which still has joint rights to use the character) had me intrigued.  I'm mostly pleased to report that this Spider-Man effort deserves some serious props for artistic innovation (more on its animation style in a bit), its unique handling of yet another Spidey origin story, and, most importantly, a keen focus on being an ethnically diverse Spider-Man adventure with several unique twists along the way.  INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE still has some rough and undisciplined edges, but it's arguably the very first film in this long running, multi-studio franchise that has a legitimately and engrossingly fresh take on this iconic and cherished character.    

 

 

This is not a Peter Parker centric Spider-Man film (although he does appear in it), but rather the story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a young African American teen that lives in Brooklyn and is about to start his first day at a new private school, but he's not altogether that excited to be changing schools, even if it means a better education and chances for the future.  His police officer father in Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is beyond giddy at his son's new opportunity, but Miles still finds himself hooking up with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) for quality time away from school.  Poor Miles feels disconnected from his old inner city school pals, but he escapes, so to speak, from his depression in taking up street art, a hobby that he's definitely talented in and is supported by his uncle.  For the most part, though, Miles feels down in the dumps and socially isolated from the other kids attending his posh new school. 

Much like it did with Peter Parker, fate steps in when a radioactive spider bites Miles while in a subway, which has - for anyone that has ever read a Spider-Man origin comic - has predictably transformative results for the lad.  His newfound superpowers seem perfectly timed, especially considering that the real Spider-Man (Chris Pine) has been - gasp! - murdered by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) during an altercation that involved the webhead trying to shut down the villainous thug's particle accelerator, which seems to have opened up multiple portals to other dimensions.  And, wouldn't you know it, another Peter Parker shows up in Miles' life from another dimension that crossed through thanks to the accelerator, but this version is older, pudgier, less clean shaven, and - double gasp! - is divorced from Mary Jane Watson.  This Peter (voiced by Jake Johnson) is a depressed schmuck that Miles amusingly refers to as "a janky old broke hobo Spider-Man." 

Much to Miles' surprise, alternate Peter was not the only Spider-Man (or should I say Spider-Person) to come through the dimensional portal: Multiple variations from multiple universes also appear at Miles' doorstep, including an all black and white iteration from the 1930's, Spider-Noir (Nicholas Cage), Spider-Gwen (yes, that Gwen Stacey, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), an anime inspired Peni Parker (complete with giant mech Spidey robot, voiced by Kimiko Glenn) and finally - and most absurdly - the Loony Tunes inspired Spider-Ham (aka Peter Porker, voiced by John Mulaney).  All of these radioactive spider powered super heroes inevitably find themselves banding together to help train the in-over-his-head Miles to become another Spider-Man while stopping the nefarious plans of the Kingpin, who wants to take his massive accelerator to the next dangerous level that could mean doom for New York. 

INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is an absolute technical dynamo and among one of the most thrillingly realized animated films I've seen in an awfully long time.  Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman and their crew of 140 animators from Sony Pictures Imageworks have managed to painstakingly create a movie that pitch-perfectly captures the essence of comic book panels come lovingly to life.   Utilizing traditional 3D computer animation and then augmenting it with a classical 2D hand-drawn vibe, INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE honors the artistic styles of the pantheon of artists that have drawn Spider-Man over the decades by making their version feel like it has been plucked right from graphic novel pages.  With bold line work that was 2D rendered on top of the 3D animation, the overall bravura effect here is unlike anything I've ever seen before.  It's also telling that the film, at times, feels like it aesthetically compliments Miles' own graffiti artwork within the story; even the opening credits of INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE has this hyper-stylized LSD-like trip allure, and the results are a bold and oftentimes beautiful psychedelic infusion of color and movement.   

I also loved the fact that all of the Spider-Man characters presented here have their own unique look, flavor, and personality, with each one being flawlessly adapted from their own comic book antecedents.  It's fitting, for example, that Spider-Ham is as, well, hammy as possible and often results to sight gags involving oversized mallets and that Spider-Noir comes from a world of no color, which leaves him overcome with awe when he encounters a multi-colored Rubik's Cube on Miles' desk (in one of the film's more clever gags).  Even the Kingpin looks fascinatingly menacing and appears unhealthily massive, almost like a suited up tank with a pin head.  For the most part, though, the real focal point of interest is Miles himself, who was created in 2011 and was one of the first mixed raced super heroes ever.  His arc has familiar beats to those of Peter Parker, but this version of Spider-Man-to-be seems to have more nagging self-doubts and barriers that impede him from actually becoming a costume clad hero.  There's an underlining theme of the importance of family - in various forms - that informs Miles' life.  He loves his dad, but finds his uncle more supportive of things that inspire him, and later on he finds a surrogate father figure in Peter, who's primarily responsible for training Miles in the fine art of super hero-ing.  There's added dramatic conflict when it appears that Peter doesn't think that Miles will ever be worthy of the mantle of Spider-Man, which hurts his pride and confidence. 

I was so enamored with the characters and ideas at the core of INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE that it left me more than a bit jaded and confused by the schizophrenic tone of the film, which begs multiple questions from me.  The film was co-written by Phil Lord (who previously made ultra self-aware films in 21 JUMP STREET and THE LEGO MOVIE).  There are times during INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE when it's as positively heart-wrenching as a drama, but then those scenes give way to massively scaled action set pieces with many other sequences shoehorned in that have ultra broad humor that makes the whole enterprise feel like an AIRPLANE styled spoof and lampooning of the larger Spider-Man comic book universe's troupes.  There's so much effort taken here to impart depth on Miles as a conflicted young man that's struggling with identity (both of the masked and unmasked variety) and what it means for him to be a hero that he's idolized in another form, but INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE awkwardly and sometimes aggressively bombards viewers with some distracting fourth wall breaking scenes where its characters seem fully cognizant that they're populating a SPIDER-MAN movie.  INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE has a lot of fan servicing in the respect of its characters cracking wise franchise in-jokes that it really creates this disconnect in the film.  On this level, the film is literally all over the place and can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a legitimate Spider-Man origin story or a goof self-referential farce or an action picture that blends pathos with humor.   

I've read a few other critics that have essentially labeled INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE as the PG love child of DEADPOOL and THE LEGO MOVIE.  That seems pretty apt, and is one of the sources of, in my opinion, its biggest weakness.  However, that's not to take away from the other audacious choices that make this film work, like its supremely pioneering and intrepid visual design and a noble minded attempt to give viewers a SPIDER-MAN film that's delectable different from all others that have come before.  Best of all, INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE - despite a too-jokey-for-its-own-good tone - has a relatable new Spider-Man in Miles Morales, which also gives the story added dimension and heart, the latter trait that frequently gets ignored a lot of other bloated and self-indulgent comic book films.  

  H O M E