Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
As the opening credits shutter and strobe across the screen, cementing the colliding-of-universes idea, we eventually hit the Columbia Pictures logo. Several versions of the studio’s logo begin to flicker by and, for a very brief moment, it stops on the Cat Ballou animated intro where an animated cowgirl pulls out a pair of pistols and proceeds to shoot up the screen. It was from this moment I felt we were in for something special. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best animated feature of the year and is one of the best Spider-Man related anythings to ever be released.
Spider-Verse nails what it takes to be Spider-Man and as well as all the joy and pain that can come with a thankless job, one that demands great responsibility. We all know Peter Parker’s story and he does play a vital role here, but the genius of this film comes from its decision to follow a black/latino teen named Miles Morales as he struggles to figure out his newborn abilities. Spider-Man can be anyone and Miles Morales represents just that. Who better to teach and guide Miles along the way than a bunch of different Spideys from multiple dimensions? Stating the obvious here, but I feel it bears repeating: seeing a POC as the star of a huge animated production playing Spider-Man is a lovely and most welcome thing to see. Each with unique abilities and something new to bring to the table, “The Rookie” Miles is thrown into the deep end with a team of seasoned heroes and the training is both unrelenting and life-threatening. Everything is fight or flight for poor Miles, fitting in nicely with the world-beats-up-Spidey motif. Can he figure out how to be full blown hero before it is too late or will the baddies shatter realities with their weird collider contraption?
Spider-Verse keeps us engaged with that trademark Lord-and-Miller rapid fire delivery where virtually every joke not only lands, but adds so much to the weight of our hero's journey. The film has the grace to slip in and out of a vast amount of Spider-Man pop culture without heavy-handed homage. It goes to the museum, but never steals any of the pieces and claims them for their own.
The amount of detail crammed into this thing is so staggering that I’m not even sure where to begin. The animators that worked on this film will have highlight reels that should give them work for life if anything is right in this world. Spider-Verse is overflowing with incredible animation techniques and style choices. Backgrounds sometimes have the texture of a comic page, as if the backgrounds came straight off of a printing press. Thought panels pop up on screen and font explodes across the whole frame. Character design in Miles’ world is great enough to carry an entire film, but once the other versions of Spider-Men and Spider-Women enter the piece, all bets are off as the animation begins to warp around what they are doing. For example, Spider-Ham, voiced by funny man John Mulaney, has a wacky Looney Tunes-style complete with hand-drawn animated running feet and ACME-like weaponry like huge mallets and heavy anvils at his disposal. An unapologetic 2D design that shines in a primarily 3D project, Spider-Ham is perfectly executed joy to behold.
Another interesting animated design belongs to Spider-Man Noir whose rich black silhouettes still manage to feel so alive despite having zero color. It also doesn’t hurt that Nicolas Cage brings so much swagger to the Nazi-punching, ‘30s-inspired hero. Each character deserves paragraphs but we’d be here forever. Just know that the animation department goes way above the call of duty on one of the best known properties in the world. People are going to freeze frame this film to death, study it, say things like “every frame a painting” and so on. Visually, Spider-Verse is a monster, a complete success from all animation departments and a milestone for 3D animation.
The voice work deserves a mention because it is performed and delivered with razor sharp comedic timing. Every single actor was perfectly cast from top to bottom, each of them given a standout moment or two to make the performance resonate. Miles Morales is voiced by Shameik Moore, who brings that perfect teen awkwardness of trying to be smooth, while still trying to figure yourself out. Jake Johnson plays a burnt out Peter B. Parker, a guy that has saved the city a million times over and unfortunately divorced Mary Jane in his dimension. His stellar performance will have you rolling as he toggles from mentor to a depressed sack of bones. He made a meal out of this thing and he stands out big time. The women bring the goods as well, with Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy being smarter than everyone in the room. Her Gwen is no fool, dropping very hard truths on Miles that can sting the audience at times. Kathryn Hahn’s delivery as a villainess (you can IMDB the villain, I’m not going to ruin it) was funny but it was also mildly psychotic. Spider-Verse oozes talent with every actor keeping up with the spastic nature of it all. Speed of a screwball comedy trapped in today’s 3D-animated landscape with all characters standing out vocally. Beautiful stuff to hear popping out of such gifted voices.
It's quite hard holding one’s tongue about how special this film is. As a work of animation, it is a new explosion that will be felt years later. As a Spider-Man property, it gets everything right about that character’s purpose here in the real world and what he means to us. Every beat in Spidey’s history, from his extreme lows to his greatest achievements are all game to be mined and weaponized by all talents involved. It is bursting at the seams yet it is never unapproachable with its electric presentation. I am hoping it inspires a new crop of animators to shake things up with their films or, better yet, gives studios the courage to try to make wild projects where animators can truly cut loose. I had a huge grin throughout, nearly cried twice and I can not wait to see it over and over again. Finally, stay after the credits for a note-perfect end stinger.