For anyone who’s followed the development of Marvel Comics’ unevenly implemented diversity push over the last few years, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will feel like a breath of fresh air. For anyone completely unaware of anything related to the realm of comic books outside of what turns up on multiplex screens, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will feel like a breath of fresh air. And for anyone who waited a decade to get the rotten taste of Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 3 out of their metaphorical mouth, this is the film to finally dispel the memory of such past traumas. In short, writer Phil Lord and producer Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) have made a Spider-Man film that authentically captures the feel of its source material, a feat that, depending on your opinion, may constitute a cinematic first.
Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that this is not really even a Spider-Man movie about Peter Parker, but “Ultimate Universe” Spider-Man Miles Morales. While I appreciated Spider-Man: Homecoming a great deal, that was MCU Spider-Man, a distillation of decades of convoluted comics continuity. Lord and co-writer Rodney Rothman have taken a different tack, mining one of Marvel’s least likely and most complicated sources with writer Dan Slott’s 2014 “Spider-Verse” storyline, in which a plethora of Spider-Men from parallel universes join forces to overcome a central threat. While the specifics of that threat — as well as the cast of Spider-People — are substantially different than in the comics, the film does borrow the central conceit of Slott’s plot.
In this cinematic Spider-Verse, we’re dealing with Morales (Shameik Moore), who’s joined by Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) after the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) tries to tear a hole in the fabric of reality in order to reunite with his deceased wife and son. The mechanism through which the various Spider-People are united in the film diverges from the source text, as does the primary antagonist, but the impetus remains the same: to get as much Spider-Man on screen as humanly possible. Lord and Rothman pull this off admirably, juggling half-a-dozen story threads without crippling their pacing or compromising their story structure while still developing one of the most diverse and inclusive casts of comic characters to date.
But as entertaining as the narrative of the film often is, it’s really the visual style of Into the Spider-Verse that proves innovative and distinctive. Directed by Rothman along with Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, Spider-Verse is animated with an odd approximation of comic book style, rendering the characters as flat and going so far as to include thought bubbles and illustrated sound effects. While this choice to strive for visual verisimilitude is jarring at first, once the eyes acclimate to the quasi-comic appearance, it becomes engrossing. The runaway box-office success of Into the Spider-Verse means that we’ll definitely see more of Spider-Gwen at the very least, although I probably won’t get my wish for a Spider-Ham spinoff. Still, if the subsequent sequels are on par with this one, Sony may prove that Disney isn’t the only company that knows how to make money off Marvel intellectual properties. Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language.
Now Playing at AMC River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande.