SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. Voices of Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin. Directed by Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman. 117 minutes. Rated PG (Mild science fiction themes, animated violence and coarse language).
For years, the closest that we ever got to seeing comic books translated onto the screen was old school hand drawn animation. But it never could quite manage the stylisation or the dynamism of a comic book frame. Then, when Britain’s king of stylised, genre-bending cinema, Edgar Wright, adapted the cult graphic novel series ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’, the gold standard for translating comic books to the big screen was immediately set. Wright imbued his frames with jokes, boxy, comic-esque framing, and gleefully doled out onomatopoeia written across the screen. It was like watching a comic spring into life. As a card-carrying member of Wright’s fan club, I was sure that his effort would never be topped. Having seen ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’, I stand joyously corrected. Sony’s latest foray into exploiting their rights to the Marvel webslinger is nothing short of a game changer. An animated family film, it perfectly captures the look and feel of a comic, but it also digs down to the core of what made and continues to make Spider-Man such a popular hero with fans of all ages, his universality and his innocent moral clarity. But even beyond this visually stunning fealty to its origins in decades of syndicated comic strips, the movie is fast, uproariously funny, constantly inventive, and it traverses surprising emotional territory with sensitivity and grace. It transports viewers to a ‘Spider-Verse’ they will willingly return to again and again.
This time, we’re spared Peter Parker’s origin story. The Peter (Chris Pine, excellent) that we meet is already a fully-fledged superhero. But here’s the kicker: he’s not the hero of this story. Instead, we follow Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an African American-Latino teenager who is bitten by a radioactive spider while practicing his graffiti skills in an abandoned subway station with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). When Miles begins to develop spider-like abilities, he freaks out and returns to the subway station to find the spider. There’s no spider in sight, radioactive or otherwise, but he stumbles across a secret lab where Wilson Fisk, a hulking underworld figure better known as Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), has built a particle accelerator, hoping to reunite with his dead wife and child by transporting their replicas from another dimension. Miles watches as Spider-Man swings in to save the day, fighting Kingpin, the Prowler and the Green Goblin while trying to disable the accelerator before it can tear their reality apart. Spider-Man’s heroic efforts culminate in the ultimate sacrifice and he is killed.
As the city of New York mourns the loss of its favourite son, a dejected Miles is approached by Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, giving a fun spin on the Mr Miyagi archetype), an older, slightly shlubbier Spider-Man from another dimension who was sucked into Miles’ world when Kingpin fired up his accelerator. Recognising that he might need Miles’ help to return to his own reality, Peter B. agrees to take Miles under his wing for training. When the pair meet their dimension’s grieving but steely Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), they realise that Peter B. isn’t the only inter-dimensional Spider-guest. There’s Gwen Stacy, a.k.a. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld, nicely spirited), a spunky chick that Miles already met when she showed up undercover at his high school. There’s also Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, perfect casting), a black-and-white character from a 30’s universe who wears a fedora and an ever-billowing trench coat. Then there’s Penni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a young Japanese girl from an anime-inspired future, who shares a telekinetic link with a spider that pilots a biomechanical suit called SP//dr. And just when Miles and Peter B. think that it can’t get any stranger, in trudges Peter Porker a.k.a. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney, hilarious), a wise-cracking pig from a Looney Tunes-esque animated universe, complete with the ability to defy gravity and an oversized mallet for clobbering goons. With each of the interdimensional travellers exhibiting worrying side-effects of their disconnect from their own realities, Miles and his new Spider-pals must band together to reverse Kingpin’s machine before its too late, putting an end to its reality-bending consequences.
Miles is very different from other Spider-Men that we’ve seen on screen before (and there have been several!). He still has a family – his Dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry, extremely nuanced) is a police officer, who is convinced that Spider-Man is a reckless vigilante, and his Mum Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) works as a nurse. He’s even still got a cool uncle, or at least when Aaron isn’t off seeing to one of his schemes that drove him and Jefferson apart. He’s not quite as nerdy as the Peter Parkers that we’ve met, nor does he pine constantly after a Mary Jane (that job is left to Peter B., who is divorced from MJ Watson (Lake Bell) by the time he is sucked into Miles’ world). Combined with a pitch-perfect vocal performance from Shameik Moore, and this all manages to make the Spider-Man origin story cool and deeply investing again.
Much of this comes back to the snappy writing from Phil Lord, who lands joke after joke – some of them knowingly poking fun of the superhero genre and the long history of Spider-Man in film, TV and comics, and many others just plain funny – and sneaks in plenty of powerful emotional punches too (an area where Miles having a family becomes key). This probably shouldn’t be that surprising coming from one of the masterminds behind the hilarious ‘Jump Street’ films (who also produced this film with his directing partner Christopher Miller), but it’s an invaluable facet of the movie nonetheless.
Another strength is the visual register that the three credited directors have created for the film, which simply defies categorisation. It’s fundamentally computer animation, but it’s replete with little comic book touches, from the halftone dotted shadows to sound effects appearing written onscreen. It’s eye-poppingly bright and stylised, but the animation allows them to do unexpected things with character design too, like this universe’s Green Goblin, who is an enormous, dragon-like beast (no Willem Dafoes donning mech-suits in sight). It’s a constant visual treat, with the animators also carefully loading their designs with interdimensional gags (fun movie posters for alternate films abound, like ‘Hold Your Horses’ starring Seth Rogen as a jockey). Composer Daniel Pemberton also contributes an excellent score, blending Miles’ appreciation of hip-hop beats with more traditional superhero themes. His theme for the Prowler, who is later tasked by the Kingpin with tracking down Miles, makes the character twice as intense and scary than his already eerie costume does.
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is one of those movies that come together in a way that no one in their right mind could have predicted. It just goes to show that all it takes to make a top-tier animated film is a brilliant idea and a cracking script, ground-breaking animation and a spot-on voice cast. You don’t have to be a superhero to make something this spectacularly entertaining, but it probably helps.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 13.