Within the span of the last two decades – thanks to the many big screen adaptations of the character – Spider-Man’s pop culture standing has grown bigger and bigger. Even as a kid, not being much of a comic book reader (as well as an avid Batman fan), I was still very much aware of Spider-Man. This was in part due to the ‘90s animated series that ran on FOX Kids as well as my somewhat peculiar obsession with the video game MAXIMUM CARNAGE for the Sega Genesis, which introduced me to both Venom and Carnage for the first time. But it wasn’t until Sam Raimi’s 2002 SPIDER-MAN that I began to appreciate how great of a character Peter Parker/Spider-Man was and is. Fast forward 16 years and seven films later (five solo films and two ensemble films), I would put Spider-Man on par with Batman and Superman as one of the most universally known and beloved comic book superheroes of all-time. Now, we come upon Spider-Man’s next climb up the pop culture ladder – SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, the ultimate love letter to the character and its millions of fans around the globe.
Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a teenager living in Brooklyn, is having a tough time right now. His parents have transferred him from his neighborhood public high school to an elite boarding school against his wishes. At Visions Academy, he’s struggling to find his place within its social hierarchy. At home, his father Jefferson Davis (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), a police officer, villainizes the vigilantism of Spider-Man, of whom Miles is an admirer. With seemingly no one to confide in at home or school, Miles sneaks out of his dorm and seeks refuge in the company of his uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali), who encourages him to pursue his talents (as well as a girl at school named “Gwanda” that Miles has developed a crush on). Aaron takes Miles to an abandoned subway station to put one of his talents on display – his knack for graffiti. After painting, they leave the subway station, but not before a radioactive spider descends onto Miles’ hand, leaving him a bite for good measure.
Directed by the team of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, with a screenplay by Phil Lord and Rothman, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is a triumph of the highest quality. It might seem like a cliché at this point, but imagine being transported into a real-life comic book – not in the sense of simply living in a universe where superheroes and supervillains exist, but into an actual living, breathing comic book, with panels, thought bubbles, vibrant colors, and exquisite animation. That is what experiencing SPIDER-VERSE is like (the effect is all the more enhanced if seen in 3D, which is what I decided to do). Many people have called the animation for this film “ground-breaking,” which I feel is a fair assessment. Personally, I’ve never seen animation quite like this in my entire life, and the team of animators behind this film deserve all the accolades they are receiving right now. Every frame screams with life, every scene jumps off the screen in a crescendo of effervescent colors and dazzling effects, every moment is captured in spectacular form. In a couple of instances, you even start to wonder if you’re watching animation at all, as the lifelike physical qualities of the characters (including background “extras”) are so well done that they manage to put that doubt into you in the first place. The film also features a climactic sequence that can only be accurately described as the LSD trip to end all LSD trips – think something along the lines of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The only word that can sum up the entire scene is this one: breathtaking.
Not only is SPIDER-VERSE a triumph on the animation front, it also triumphs in its story. The screenplay by Lord and Rothman encapsulates everything great about Spider-Man and, as such, becomes a fan’s dream film. Based on the comic book ‘Spider-Verse’ storyline, as the film progresses, we find out (I won’t reveal how, due to spoilers) that there are, in fact, parallel universes with their own Spider-People, including an alternate (I call it the “bad luck”) version of Peter Parker, Spider-Gwen (if Gwen Stacy became Spider-Man), Spider-Noir (a 1930s Humphrey Bogart-ish private eye/superhero), and Spider-Ham (a loveable Looney Tunes-like pig who’s Spider-Man). But the focus of the story is on Miles and his journey to discover who he is and where he belongs in the world, and how his newly-formed spider powers help him learn and accept his destiny. This story is told so well as to be one of the most inviting screenplays of 2018 – even if you’ve been living under a rock for decades and don’t know who or what a “spider man” is, the tropes and aspects of Miles’ story are universal. These are real emotions the characters are going through, and the stakes are incredibly high, not just in that “comic-booky” way, but in a relatable way as well. For those die-hard Spidey fans, there’s plenty of Easter eggs and fan service as to also make this the most immersive Spider-Man film ever made. Overall, it’s amazing what this film has been able to pull off – being a very inviting film for first-timers while also containing bits that only passionate Spidey fans would understand; and especially to his creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I can finally see the indelible mark and that all comes down to the strength of its story and screenplay.
What’s also amazing is the voice talent in this film – Jake Johnson (as alternate Peter Parker), Hailee Steinfeld (as Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen), Lily Tomlin (as Aunt May), John Mulaney (as Peter Porker/Spider-Ham), and Nicolas Cage (as Spider-Noir), along with Liev Schreiber, Kathryn Hahn, Chris Pine, Zoe Kravitz, and Lake Bell, as well as Moore, Henry, and Ali mentioned above. That is an incredible assembly of talent that do a tremendous job here, Moore and Ali in particular. On top of that, the film is structured very well, keeping logical storytelling and emotional payoffs at the forefront, to the point where its nearly two hour running time just seems to fly through instantly. I could go on more tangents regarding the film’s animation and screenplay, but at the risk of repeating myself, I’m just going to let my thoughts above speak for themselves.
But I will say this – SPIDER-VERSE was originally a film that I wasn’t too excited about; after seeing the teaser during the post-credits scene of VENOM, I still wasn’t onboard the hype train for this. Yet, within the first five minutes of watching the film, I knew this was going to be something special. If the stellar animation isn’t enough to convince you, the brilliant story and fleshed-out characters should be enough to sooth any doubts. I was never a diehard Spider-Man fan, only becoming more ingratiated with the character after the 2002 film and his portrayals ever since. Yet, SPIDER-VERSE has done something to my Spider-Man fandom that none of his previous iterations (including the MCU version) have done: it made me appreciate Spider-Man.
So I just have one thing left to say: thank you. Thank you to everyone behind SPIDER-VERSE, you’ve left on our pop culture, and my spider sense is telling me that it will last a much-deserved long time.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
2018 • 117 Minutes • United States
Animated • English • Sony Picture Releasing
Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Bryan Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kathryn Hahn, Chris Pine