"Spider-Verse" Cashes In On Rich History Of Spider-Man

In theory another big screen superhero origin story, in reality almost anything but, Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” zips into theaters a stunning amalgam of next-level animation and comic book inversion. Although comingling webheads from different dimensions isn’t a new idea, “Spider-Verse” does it with such aplomb, such savvy, that it reconfigures the very idea of what a Spider-Man movie – nay, what a superhero movie – can be. The genre will be feeling its effects for years if not decades to come, its minor shortcomings washed away by the cleansing rain that it is.

Spearheaded by “Lego Movie” creatives Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (Lord gets a co-writing credit), “Spider-Verse” is bold to its core, centering on a Spider-Man not named Peter Parker. The Peter Parker version of the character (initially voiced by Chris Pine) sets us off with a narration, deftly spinning the long history of the character into one package (there’s even a loving dig at Sam Raimi’s controversial “Spider-Man 3”). Then the stage is ceded to Miles Morales, New York City high schooler and Spidey superfan.

Miles (Shameik Moore), a character first introduced in the comics in 2011, is the son of a black father named Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and Puerto Rican mother named Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Vélez). Dad, a cop, loathes vigilantes like Spider-Man, while mom admires the wall-crawler’s bravery. This family dynamic, along with Miles’ trouble adapting to his new boarding school, sets the stage for his assuming the suit.

While practicing street art with his strong-willed uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) in a dark subway station, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider. What follows is the only familiar passage of “Spider-Verse” and, for a little while, the movie wobbles; familiarity sets in. But as soon as Miles chances upon a battle between the webslinger and the Green Goblin, the animation really starts to pop, and we’re off on a wild multi-dimensional journey of surprising discoveries and unlikely friendships.

Peter’s present quarrel with the Green Goblin is over a particle accelerator made by Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), built in hopes of reuniting Fisk with his late wife and son. The machine’s aim is to open parallel worlds, potentially apocalyptic consequences be damned. Peter stops the collider and gives Miles a USB drive capable of disabling it – but not before portals are opened. And not before Peter is mortally wounded.

Seeing no choice but to assume the mantle of Spider-Man, Miles begins honing his new abilities. With little success.

Here, things get substantially weirder, with webslingers from other dimensions popping up in Miles’ world. First it’s another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), then one of Miles’ classmates is revealed to be an alternate version of Gwen Stacy aka Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld). As the alts pile up, the movie becomes more and more exciting, arguably culminating in the unbelievable, incredible screen duo of Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).

As the multidimensional Spideys join forces to take down Fisk’s collider – and a few other famous Marvel villains along the way – directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman wield their animators’ wild talent like a flamethrower, leaving retinas pleasantly singed and optic nerves well-traveled. At the center: Miles Morales, who remains the heart and soul of the movie despite a bevy of spotlight moments for his newfound associates. (Juggling the emotional turbulence of our lead with a talking pig is quite a vault. The pic’s creative team lands it flawlessly.)

Minor narrative lulls are the only thing that keep “Spider-Verse” from being flat-out the character’s best film to date. (Sam Raimi’s 2004 sequel remains the gold standard, but not by much.) Where it tops the entire genre is in its art style, bringing decades of comic book panels to the big screen in the most satisfying way imaginable. Considering the risks inherent in bringing an alternate Spider-Man to the big screen, let alone half a dozen alternates – considering all the work that went into in the film – it’s a wonder how natural it all feels.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 14, 2018
Studio: Sony Pictures Animation
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Screenwriters: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Liev Schreiber, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Hailee Steinfeld, Jake Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Luna Lauren Velez, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney
MPAA Rating: PG (for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language)