“Spider-Man” is the superhero franchise that may suffer the most from reboot fatigue. In the past 16 years, there have been six Spider-Man movies starring three different actors as Peter Parker, with another on the way. Could we really stand yet another Spider-Man movie? Animated feature “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is here to prove new life can be injected into the franchise by reminding us all where Spider-Man comes from: the comic books.
Right away, “Spider-Verse,” directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, with a screenplay by Phil Lord, reveals itself to be a completely different animal, unlike any other superhero or animated film that has come before. The animation style is like watching a comic book come to life. The characters look hand-drawn, with distinctive strokes and lines. The images even have a pointillist style reminiscent of the Ben-Day dots paper printing technique, complete with red-blue aura around the characters. There’s a tactile sense of a comic book page on the screen, fluidly rendered, with an ingenious use of text boxes, married with a technologically and aesthetically outre style. The climax is a wild and colorful head-trip of neon and pastel, a big bang fight scene exploding in pink and green and blue and purple.
“Spider-Verse” also firmly exists in a post-“Deadpool” environment, where it seems the only fresh way into a century-old superhero is to skewer the tropes, make fun of the merchandising and acknowledge the cultural significance of it all in a cheeky and self-reflective manner. Don’t worry, Spidey isn’t as crude, violent or nihilistic as Deadpool, but this is a universe where Peter Parker exists as a cultural icon, one that could take a good ribbing or two.
This universe is a multi-verse – a “spider-verse” if you will – and the story clashes together all the different Spider-people that have proliferated throughout the comic books. Our hero is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latinx kid from Brooklyn whose father is a cop. Peter Parker (Chris Pine) exists in his world, and there’s a Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) from an alternate universe who crashes in when the evil mobster Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) fires up a portal to another dimension to bring back his family. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Spider-Ham, aka Peter Porker (John Mulaney), and the anime-inspired Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) all crash the party too, helping Miles get in touch with his new abilities and inner hero.
It’s so refreshing to have a character like Miles in the lead, and his relationships, particularly with his father (Brian Tyree Henry) and uncle (Mahershala Ali) have real heart and stakes. Johnson balances that with his hilarious take on washed-up Peter B. Parker, who’s packed on a few pounds and shows Miles the ropes in his sweatpants. The smart and spry Spider-Gwen is also incredible, in her hooded suit and ballet shoes.
The key to the balance of self-aware and sweet is Lord, who along with his writing/directing partner Chris Miller, penned the incredibly smart “The Lego Batman Movie.” There’s a deep sense of love for the characters and tropes, but also a willingness to have some fun with it. Not all superhero reboots need to be gritty and dark, and the delights of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” bring a newfound sense of joy and playfulness to the beloved character – in every iteration.
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