Unrelated fact: Tobey Maguire is the best Spider-Man we’ve ever had and the Sam Raimi trilogy is the best superhero saga ever put to film. Ok. On with the review.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an animated telling of the titular character (the ninth in many a year). It features Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, a Hispanic/African American teen in Brooklyn who is bitten by a freaky spider and soon discovers his universe has merged with others, resulting in multiple different Spider-Men. Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Vélez and Lily Tomlin also star, while Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman direct.
Spider-Man is up alongside Batman as one of the superheroes that is so mainstream, even non-comic book nerds show out in droves to see (unless he’s in an abysmal mess like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”). Depicting Morales as the titular rendition of the character, especially when we have Tom Holland swinging around the live-action MCU, is a bit revolutionary, and (mostly) fulfills Donald Glover’s dream of having kids see a minority Spider-Man in the big screen. And while the film is never overly revolutionary in its narrative, the voice performances and animations still leave a lot to ooh and aah at.
The film is animated like nothing I’ve really seen before; basically, it looks like a comic book. To achieve this look, the filmmakers took rendered 3D character models and placed them over 2D backgrounds, and added dot pigments to the frame. Most of the time the film comes off colorful and alive and their goal is realized, but there are a few instances where the shot is straight-up out of focus, as if you’re watching a 3D movie but the kid at the counter forgot to hand you the glasses.
As Miles Morales, Shameik Moore (great in his breakout role in 2015’s “Dope”) conveys the mixture of anxious, confused and scared as he begins to discover his powers, and cracks a few one-liners, too. Jake Johnson takes on this universe’s version of Peter Parker, playing the “grumpy old hero who no longer believes in what their image stands for” that we’ve seen from Bruce Wayne in “Batman v Superman,” Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi” and Logan in…well, “Logan.”
The rest of the cast is perfectly assembled, from John Mulaney voicing Spider-Ham, a Porky Pig-type Spider-Man, to Hailee Steinfeld as Gwenn Stacy (who here is her own Spider-Man and isn’t getting her neck broken) and the perfect Nic Cage depicting a noir Spidey. There are also a few fun surprise cast members, and you’ll play everyone’s favorite animated game “dammit I know that voice” until you see their names in the credit.
Where the film falters is that while these are characters and an animation style we’ve never seen before, the plot is been there-done that. There’s nothing new about seeing a young teen struggle to figure out his new spider-like powers or him yelling at his mentor that he is ready to take on the big bad guy even though he isn’t. The film throws some quips in there and a few fun Easter eggs for fans, this is co-written and produced by the guys behind “The Lego Movie” after all, but they’re mere momentary distractions from a rinse-and-repeat plot.
Also, the climax goes on for a little too long and by the end is essentially nonsensical, full of colors slamming into each other without much rhyme or reason.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is basically like a cover album of all of the highlights from the previous eight takes on the character, packaged in a pretty box with a stylish bow. The soundtrack is at times infectious and the voice performances inspired, which are at times enough to keep you entertained if the plot is not. There have been better Spider-Men films before and there will be after (especially if some of these characters get their own spin-offs) but as far as December superhero entertainment goes, you can do a lot worse than this.
Critic’s Grade: B
It should quickly be noted there is a Stan Lee cameo in the film (recorded before his death last month) and it’s perfect. Funny, yes, but more importantly it’s an accidentally brilliant and poignant sendoff to a creative legend.