Spider-Man as an animated feature? Yes, and it’s terrific
It’s good to be reminded that quality knows no genre. An animated spinoff of a comic-book franchise — one that has practically been filmed to death over the decades — should be just another chunk of brand-extended plastic, right? Surprise: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is one of the wittiest and most creatively exuberant movies of the year, and maybe one of the best. A pop-art roller coaster ride with soul, it can dazzle even a sick-of-superheroes doubter with two hours of thoroughgoing delight. Take the kids. Better yet, take the kid in yourself.
The star of the show actually isn’t Spider-Man — sort of — but Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teenager who, early in the film, is bitten by one of those pesky radioactive spiders. To his confusion and embarrassment, Miles finds himself with super powers much like his hero, Spider-Man (Chris Pine); to his horror, he finds himself having to step in and save the day when Spider-Man is killed by the criminal mastermind known as the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).
Or appears to be killed: There’s another Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) on the scene, and he’s surprisingly bad at the job. In fact, the movie has more Spider-Men than it initially knows what to do with.
There’s a lot I don’t want to give away, since so much of the fun in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is experiencing its multiple jack-in-the-box detonations of plot. Let me say a word about the film’s look then: It’s as close as you can come to sticking your head inside a living, breathing comic book and still have an enjoyable time. The visuals have flair, focus, and depth, yet they retain the flatness of the printed medium. Word balloons and sound effects gracefully unfurl. Subtle gradations of Zip-a-tone dots underlie everything. You can almost feel the ink come off on your fingers.
The movie also mashes up comic-book eras and styles into an appealing postmodern merry-go-round. There’s one character (voiced by Nicolas Cage) who could have stepped from a film noir, another (Kimiko Glenn) who seems to have dropped in from a Japanese anime, a third (comedian John Mulaney) who’s on possibly illegal loan from the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes universe. (“Into the Spider-Verse” is a Sony venture.) The film’s larger look combines the feel of classic Steve Ditko-era Marvel panels and the more angular styles of modern-day comics.
All of which would be beside the point if the story weren’t so inventive, the dialogue superbly turned, the performances fully felt, and the whole thing edited with the kind of crack timing that went out with screwball comedy. “Into the Spider-Verse” has zingers and gags and plenty of topical references, but they lack the bullying smugness of so many other digital movie theme parks. The difference between this and a snarkfest like “Deadpool” is that the jokes here rise from and serve the situations rather than the other way around. The movie gives you an emotional toehold. You like the characters.
And, boy, are there a lot of them. In addition to those outlined above, Lily Tomlin contributes her amusingly jaded tones to the part of Aunt May, Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) is on hand as a rather different Gwen Stacy than the one you may be used to, Kathryn Hahn appears as a villainous surprise, and Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) provide heft and depth to the roles of Miles’s uncle and father respectively.
There are as many cooks behind the camera: three directors, two art directors, a production designer, and close to 150 animators. Yet there is a governing sensibility to “Into the Spider-Verse,” and it comes from the minds of writer-producer Phil Lord and his co-producer partner Christopher Miller. The two have previously given us “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “The Lego Movie,” and other slices of unexpected pop-movie bliss. Their films are tightly scripted yet joyfully anarchic, absurdly smart while inviting us down on the rug to play. I could quote chapter and verse but we’d be here all week.
Now Lord and Miller have delivered their most free-swinging yet emotionally grounded work to date. Strip away the joyful noise, and the movie’s the engaging story of an under-confident kid who finds community and a humble sense of assurance that leads him back to his best self. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” packs that story into a comic Roman candle of a movie that shoots sparks higher and higher until, in a climax that still has my eyeballs ringing, it goes full Galaxy Brain in a way reminiscent of Ditko’s most hallucinatory 1960s comic panels. I think Miller and Lord just made the first Cubist family film, and it’s a masterpiece.
★ ★ ★ ★
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Written by Phil Lord, based on characters created by Steve Ditko, Brian Michael Bendis, and Sara Pichelli. With the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, and John Mulaney . At Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading. 117 minutes. PG (frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language)