Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Web Warriors, by David Bax
With a screenplay by Phil Lord of The Lego Movie and Jump Street reboot fame and a plot that includes a half dozen different versions of Spider-Man in varying degree of obscurity from the comic book’s long and many-tentacled run, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to fear that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman) would suffocate under the weight of its own inside jokes. And, truth be told, at times it threatens to do just that. Fortunately, the movie is lithe, fleet and thoroughly engaging. Basically, it never idles long enough to be pinned down by anything, to mostly positive effect.
Peter Parker (Chris Pine), our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, after being bested by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), passes the mantle to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teen who has only recently acquired his powers (via radioactive spider bite, of course) and is nowhere near ready to wield them. Lucky for him, then, Kingpin’s evil supercollider accidentally caused a bunch of other spider-folk to be transported into Miles’ New York, giving him more mentors than he could have (or would have) asked for. They are Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an older, sadder version of the hero; Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), an alternate version of Peter’s friend, Gwen Stacy; Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a talking, ass-kicking spider/pig hybrid; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-inspired hero who pilots an arachnid mech warrior; and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a 1930s detective version of Peter.
As you might imagine, Into the Spider-Verse is thus laden with plenty of layers of fish-out-of-water jokes (the inability of the black and white Spider-Man Noir to comprehend a Rubik’s Cube being a personal favorite). Delightfully, this is carried over to the movie’s visual plane. Some of these heroes come from such vastly different dimensions that they have their own animation style. Peni flies into the battle with blasts of color and speed lines; Spider-Ham’s anarchic, physics-defying absurdity is pure Looney Tunes. But the directors alter the look of the movie for other purposes, too. Morales’ world is made up of backgrounds that don’t quite come into focus, almost like looking at a 3D movie with your glasses off. As I understand it, this was meant as an homage to color offsetting mistakes in old comic books but the effect also externalizes Morales’ ambivalence about his place in the world into a lack of focus.
Actually, it’s kind of thrillingly difficult to focus on anything at all in Into the Spider-Verse. The last theatrical animated Marvel movie, Big Hero 6, was no slouch but this outing tops it in both scale and speed, not to mention psychedelia. The final battle takes the imposing, up-is-down Inception cityscape as a leaping off point and then adds a Lisa Frank color palette and puts everything in a wildly tumbling centrifuge. I had trouble remembering to take notes during the screening. In fact, I had trouble remembering to take a breath.
All of this spectacle does come at the sacrifice of more nuanced characterizations, though. While Morales’ story hits a few poignant familial notes about the teenage limbo between independence and insecurity, it has to force a few plot points to get there. And, of the other Spider-Men, only Johnson’s Peter is deeper than a one-line character sketch and not much deeper at that.
Truthfully, as with the hoary in-jokes mentioned above, the bulk of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse consists of pretty much what we’ve come to expect from modern day superhero movies. It’s in the extra stuff laid on top—the smarts and exuberance—that it sets itself apart.