Review: Spidey gets wonderfully Lego Movie’d in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Art: @markinternet

Across half a century of comic books, movies, animated series, and—ugh—Venom , there have been dozens of iterations of Spider-Man, with much hay being made about the fact Sony debuted three separate big screen versions of Peter Parker in just a decade. Recognizing that the confused continuity of unending reboots and variants has gotten pretty tiring, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse finally just leans into it, jumbling a bunch of Spider-Folks together in a movie—like clutching Bungee Jump Spider-Man in one hand and Steel-Shock Spider-Man in the other so they can team up to fight bad guys. Fittingly, producers (and Jump Street/The Lego Movie wunderkinder) Phil Lord and Chris Miller got Sony itself to make this goddammer—a reverent, subversive, sweet, funny bit of populist entertainment with a top-notch cast that somehow ends up being way better than it deserves to be. So, y’know, vintage Lord-Miller.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a bright, artistic, Brooklyn kid who’s dealing with the normal high school growing pains. He gets bitten by a funky, glitchy spider while tagging a sewer wall and, as will be familiar to anyone who’s aware of Spider-Man, now he’s really strong and can cling to any surface. He, likewise, recognizes these abilities and their supposed origin from Spider-Man comics, based on the exploits of the very real vigilante superhero of the same name; so, he goes back to investigate the now-dead spider in the sewers. There he stumbles upon Spider-Man fighting a few of his familiar rogues under the employ of a full-on rendering of Bill Sienkiewicz’s Kingpin (Liev Schreiber, handily besting Michael Clarke Duncan and Vincent D’Onofrio), who is testing a particle accelerator that aims at accessing parallel universes (that sparest of narrative contrivance) and, hopefully, an alternate version of his dead family. The experiment malfunctions before it can complete—and Spider-Man (revealed as Peter Parker) is killed by the Kingpin—but not before Miles is able to escape with a MacGuffin (or “goober,” as the film dispassionately insists) that can disable the accelerator once and for all. Galvanized to stop the Kingpin before his plans destroy New York, Miles meets and teams with five other heroes like him, from five other dimensions, who help in his quest as they attempt to get home before their atoms disintegrate.

Credit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse‘s improbably strong, The Lego Movie-style cocktail of disparate elements for making the movie work as well as it does—especially its likable, offbeat characters inhabited by spot-on, wonderfully inspired voices. As for Miles’ Spider-Cadre, there’s Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), the literally anime-style kid genius from the far-flung future and piloting a biomech; hard-boiled, aphorism machine, Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage); cartoon anthropomorphic pig Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney); punky, loner Spider-Woman/Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld); and best of all, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an older, crankier, sad-sack of a Spider-Man begrudgingly forced into being a mentor by Miles despite his obvious depression and beer gut. (Read: every Jake Johnson character.) The likewise stacked supporting cast counts Kathryn Hahn as a hipster Doc Ock; Mahershala Ali and Brian Tyree Henry as Miles’s miscreant uncle and adorably doting father, respectively; Jorma Taccone in a basically wordless role; and a few other note-perfect cameos. And how did it take this long to cast Lily Tomlin as a hyper-intelligent, ass-kicking Aunt May?

The unlikely combination of characters is so colorfully winning that it makes up for the pretty hollowly rote Saturday morning cartoon nonsense (credited to Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) about alternate universes and doomsday machines. There’s heart to spare in Milo’s various relationships, sure, but the heavy-handed messages about family and inclusivity ring sappy as often as not. (There may be as many Touching Final Words in this as a certain, dancier Spider-flick.) Story be damned, though, because Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is really about the visuals; taking advantage of its computer animated format, it sports more vibrant, eye-popping, inventive images than any comic-book film ever made. It takes that cutesy comic book motif shit that Ang Lee tried to pull off in 2003’s Hulk and amplifies it to the point of delightful absurdity.

The character designs and animation in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are awesome: models boast a look halfway between Batman: The Animated Series and any number of Telltale Games, while everyone’s animated with a charming, deliberately herky-jerky style more in line with stop motion than a proper CGI animated feature. More than that, the art direction of the whole project is so keenly versed in—and in love with—print processes and comic book tropes that it just tosses ’em in there whole-hog. Entire backgrounds are colored in pure swaths of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black; Ben-Day dots texturize many a surface; and actual comic panels appear to frame and guide the action. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rothman even fake color registration misalignment because, man, why not? Not comic-y enough? Characters’ thoughts are visualized by yellow captions and thought balloons; stink, impact, and Spider-Sense lines are ever-present; and, when a scream needs a little more volume, a train of big, bold Ashley Wood-style A’s will fly across the screen. Even on mute, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would be quite the corker.

As far as a comic book movie resembling an actual comic book, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is pretty impossible to top. Not only does it have that goofy, go-for-broke sensibility of a team-up issue, it actually looks like a damned comic book. (Sorry, Avengers: Infinity War) It’s a weird, unnecessary Spider-Man movie greatest hits compilation that defiantly justifies its own existence by being a kinetic as all get-out eye-candy animation spectacle on top of being just a damn fun time. If Spider-Man 2 hadn’t already nailed it, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse would be Spider-Man’s best movie by a lot.

Grade: B+

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman 
Studio: Sony Pictures Releasing
Runtime: 117 minutes
Rating: PG
Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber

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