Review: ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ Is a Spider-Man Movie Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
It was the moment that a fight broke out in Aunt May’s house between Scorpion, the Prowler, Doctor Octopus, and the Spider-Men of six different dimensions that I fell deeply in love with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
It wasn’t the fight, per se — even though it was an outstanding sequence with fluid animation, crisp camera movements, and inventive fight choreography. It wasn’t even the fact that there were six different Spider-Men all onscreen at the same time (technically one was a woman and another was a cartoon pig, but you get the idea). No, what really blew my mind was the moment where the brouhaha paused so the film could show us that lovable Aunt May’s couch cushions are ... covered in plastic. Six Spider-Men onscreen and slick action and weirdly detailed comedy about how old people love to cover their couches in plastic? Be still my heart.
The couch gag is indicative of Spider-Verse’s overall approach, which is to ground a fantastical, multiverse-spanning story in granular character drama and observational comedy. The Spider-Man you know is on hand — Peter Parker, the friendly neighborhood hero of comics, movies, and cartoons for more than 50 years — but he’s joined by a new Spidey, Miles Morales, who was introduced as a replacement for Peter in one particular comic series called Ultimate Spider-Man. Sony didn’t give this movie that title, but they could have — Into the Spider-Verse really is the ultimate Spider-Man film in a lot of ways, the one that crystallizes the character’s moral philosophy, his life lessons, his arachnid athleticism, and his quirky sense of humor into one hugely appealing package. It’s pure dorky fun.
It hews fairly closely to Miles’ comic-book origin — at least until the cartoon pig with spider powers shows up. Miles (superbly voiced by Shameik Moore) is a new student at a Brooklyn charter school with a loving but overbearing police officer dad (Brian Tyree Henry, also outstanding) and a patient mom (Lauren Velez, who admittedly doesn’t get much to do). Miles’ dad warns him to stay away from his troublemaking Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), but Aaron’s the only one in Miles’ family who nurtures his artistic side, so he has a hard time staying away. On a jaunt to a hidden graffiti spot beneath Brooklyn with Aaron, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider. You don’t need to be a comic-book nerd to guess what happens next.
What you might not expect is the way the film’s visual aesthetic — designed by directors Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman — bursts to life from the moment Miles gets bitten and begins his transformation into the new Spider-Man. Suddenly, the frame is filled with comic book panels, visual sound effects, and floating captions. The images are shaded in with Ben-Day dots like the classic Marvel books of old. Into the Spider-Verse translates the visual language of comics onto the big screen better than any movie since Ang Lee’s Hulk.
The film gets even more comic book-y after Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) creates a machine that can bridge the gap between dimensions – which is how Miles meets Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who’s an older, more jaded version of the character than we’ve seen onscreen before. In his universe, Peter’s almost 40, divorced, and essentially retired as Spider-Man — not because he’s lost his powers, but because he’s lost his mojo. Miles needs Peter to train him in the ways of Spidey, and Peter needs Miles to remind him that with great power comes ... well, you know the rest.
Kingpin’s interdimensional doohickey brings even more Spider-Persons into Miles’ world. There’s a Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) from a universe where Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy got bitten by the special spider instead of him, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-inspired Spidey who controls a giant robot with her mind, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a cartoonish pig who’s like a superheroic Bugs Bunny, and Spider-Man Noir, a gritty black-and-white Spider-Man who talks like a gumshoe from a ’30s gangster movie. He’s voiced by Nicolas Cage, who is somehow the hammiest thing in Spider-Verse even though the movie has an actual character in it called Spider-Ham who is a talking pig.
It might sound complicated, but the extra Spider-Men are mostly on hand for comic relief and color; the script by Rothman and producer Phil Lord manages to juggle a large cast without losing focus on Miles and Peter and their relationship, which is just as warm and rich as it is in the comics. Even as it expands the boundaries of who Spider-Man is, Into the Spider-Verse distills the character down to his essence, making literal an abstract idea that has resonated through generations of Marvel fans: Spider-Man is special because he is not special. He chooses to help people, therefore anyone can be Spider-Man. In Spider-Verse, that almost literally comes true. It has a Spider-Man for everyone. Even sentient cartoon pigs.
As a Spider-Man fan almost since birth, I could pretend Into the Spider-Verse is the Spider-Man movie of my dreams, but that would be a lie. Into the Spider-Verse is beyond anything I’ve ever dreamed is possible — even after Sam Raimi gave us his incredible Spider-Man films and Kevin Feige and Jon Watts brought him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even at their best, the live-action films still seemed bound in little ways by the rules of the real world; Into the Spider-Verse gets to embrace Spider-Man’s weird physicality and kooky imagery in ways they never could. As I wrote here on ScreenCrush a few months ago, this is the best time in history to be a Spider-Man fan. And this movie is yet another reason why.
-Jake Johnson’s Dadbod Spider-Man (Spidad-bod-man?) is just a shameless attempt to pander to comic-book fans who are now unshapely fathers, and I want you all to know that it worked embarrassingly well for me.
-Into the Spider-Verse has one of the best comic-book movie post-credits scenes ever. Don’t you dare leave before the end of the closing credits.
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