Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is the best super-hero film in at least ten years because it understands what drew our shy, fifteen-year old selves to comics in the first place, and what has been missing, at a fundamental level, from the cinematic work of D.C. and Marvel: delight.
Delight in what comics look like and how they move; delight in the rich, weirdo possibilities of the comics universe, where men decked in primary colours make earnest speeches about saving the world; delight in how it feels to be a kid who finds out he can run up the sides of buildings; delight in how it feels to be a kid who finds out he’s not alone.
Taking its lessons from the earnestness of the Raimi Spider-Mans, but liberated by the elastic rhythms of digital animation, Spider-Verse dispenses its joys liberally, like streams of spider-gunk from homemade web shooters, rewarding the viewer from the get-go with its looks, its jokes, its surprise appearances and voice actor choices. Watching it you think: yes, thank God, these guys get it.
It’s Spider-Man, in a world where Spider-Man already exists. Radioactive spider, Aunt May, great responsibility yada yada yada. One of Spidey’s admirers is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a creative, smart but goofy teenager jettisoned from his Brooklyn locale to a WASPy academy. Resistant to the life lessons of his police officer Dad (Brian Tyree Henry), Miles plays hooky with his laidback Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), when he stumbles on a strange glowing insect doing its hexagonal pitter-patter. All of a sudden, his body is bugging out, his sticky hands powers flaring up in a great, awkward school corridor encounter with a blonde named Gwen.
In its design and proportions, Spider-Verse puts on screen what comic readers had in their head, and what the illustrations of the page promised, and what live-action film, with its fidelity to what people actually look like, can never quite deliver. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is an impossible planet of a man, pin-prick white on black. The eye-popping style creates the texture of the source material, with random comic sound effects and pop-up speech bubbles, and the feeling of it too. Thoughtful use of 3D conveys the glitchy, fractal intrusions of foreign dimensions.
In plot, the film is basically The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s “Spiderman Too: 2 Many Spider-Men”. Kingpin, fuelled by actual emotional motivation, punches a hole in space-time fabric, accidentally inviting in parallel universe Spider-people to help Miles learn the ropes and stop New York getting sucked into a quantum black hole. His reluctant mentor is a Spider-Man from like ten years in the future, beaten down by life: divorced, dejected and putting on the pounds.
Voiced by an expertly cast Jake Johnson, he’s essentially a loser Spidey, joined by Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage!), an anime schoolgirl with her pet Spider-Mecha (Kimiko Glenn) and, sublimely, unbelievably, John Mulaney was the voice of Peter-Porker. You know, the Spectacular Spider-Ham? Their introduction is one of the most winningly, grinningly off-beat moments of the year. Together they must stop
Screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman bring the wit and irreverence to be expected from one half of the perfect-record Lord & Miller combo, and a real understanding of what makes the Spider-Man mythos tick. Spider-Verse is inclusive, not just in terms of identities represented, but in terms of its spirit: it champions a democratic heroism, one rooted in the capacity of ordinary people to make better decisions. Miles’ transformation into an actual Spider-Man is the journey of adulthood and all the growth and pain that comes with it.
After a number of Spider-Man reboots of varying quality, this one really sticks. Conor Smyth
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is out on wide release.