Anyone who’s ever cut their teeth on superhero comic-books — whether as a casual prepubescent collector or someone whose reader alter-ego skews a little closer to this — has almost assuredly gone through a Spider-Man phase. Maybe you prefer the Ditko-to-Romitas (Sr. and Jr.) era, or when he changed his suit to all black (long story); it’s possible that you pine for the days of Todd McFarlane’s Amazing run or skew toward the Ultimate reboots. You may even own several mint-condition copies of Web of Spider-Man No. 1, safely tucked away in their mylar bags. There’s a Spidey for all seasons. Some fans discovered the friendly neighborhood webslinger through the late-Sixties TV cartoon, the one with the Ramones-approved theme song, and sought out the books from there. (Never mind the live-action series.) And some discovered him through the movies.
Having worked its way through three different big-screen Spider-men at this point, including one still on active duty, Sony Pictures has now given us an animated addition to the ranks. And you would have every reason to view the very existence of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with emotions ranging from bleary-eyed weariness to hand-drawn-squiggles-around-the-head alarm. Is this just another pull on a cash cow’s udder — one more drop-wringing exploitation of an already globally recognized brand? Did we really need yet another Spider-Man movie to fill time between the Tom Holland entries? (Especially one with a Post Malone voice cameo in it?)
Yes. Yes, we most certainly did need this. You have probably heard, thanks to the early word on the social-media streets, that Spider-Verse is quite good. No — it’s great. Genuinely, jaw-droppingly, mind-bogglingly great. It’s probably one of the 10 best animated features you’re likely to see, non-classic-Disney division, and one of the five best superhero epics you’re likely to see. It’s almost assuredly one of the best Spider-Man films you’ll have the pleasure to sit through. And it is, web-shooting hands down, the best comic-book movie to date.
There’s a distinction to be made between superhero movies, the subgenre of Spider-Man movies and the larger arena of comic-book movies, of course, but first, a synopsis: There’s a guy named Peter Parker. He’s a twentysomething voiced by Chris Pine, and who was once bit by a radioactive spider, yadda yadda can he swing from a web?, yadda yadda great responsibility. When he takes off his mask, he’s blond, which is the first sign that something is a little different here. There’s also a kid named Miles Morales (Dope‘s Shameik Moore), a biracial student who loves street art and hates his live-in elite high school. He, too, gets bit by an enhanced arachnid. Due to a series of circumstances involving a jolly Green Goblin giant, a machine that can open up alternate dimensions and a particularly plus-sized version of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), Morales has to take up the Spidey mantle. Otherwise, it’s the end of the world as we know it, because of course it is.
Luckily, he has help, and here’s where things get particularly interesting. Naturally, you mess with the time-space continuum, there are going to be consequences. Enter Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an older version of what we’ll call Spider-Man Classic. He unexpectedly finds himself in a New York sort of like his own, but different — he’s in Miles’ timeline now. As is Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a character familiar to readers thanks to a legendary storyline from the days of yore, who exists in a world where she, too, was bitten by an eight-legged science experiment. Cue: Spider-Gwen. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a ’30s radio-serial take on the webslinger; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-like heroine who controls a giant Spider-Bot; and, ah, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), who is a webslinging pig. That is not a typo.
They have to band together — Spidervengers Assemble? — to fix things and get everybody back to their individual universes. Mentoring relationships are forged, and familiar faces from the books and movies show up, albeit in different forms than your used to seeing. (Four words: Aunt May, Ass Kicker.) Familial strife is present and accounted for, thanks to Miles’ protective cop of a dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry, killing it because that’s what he does) and his estranged Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). The usual awkwardness of learning how to climb walls and swing via buildings gets screen time; ditto some slam-bang-pow fight scenes. Each superhero gets to make their mark, especially Cage’s pulpy, pugnacious listen-here-see good guy. Each brings something to the mix, whether it’s a futureshock riff on an old ideal or an oversized cartoon mallet.
You can’t be blamed for thinking that, on the page, this all sounds very Oprah-ish: You get a Spider-Man! And you get a Spider-Man! Or that this is probably just a strictly-for-the-die-hards endeavor, something that will inspire little more than “but is it canon?!” arguments. But the trio of directors (Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Robert Rothman) and the two screenwriters (Rothman and Phil Lord) involved know exactly how to set this all up for maximum accessibility. There are deep cuts and in-jokes abound, but alienating newcomers or non-readers isn’t on the menu. Lord is 50-percent responsible for The Lego Movie, and that movie’s irreverence helps keep things buoyant — but there’s also a reverence for the material that does not talk down to Spider-lovers, either. The animation is a visual mishmash of styles, from Looney Tunes to Adult Swim, Saturday-morning toon-binging to psychedelic, that enlivens every story beat and scene transition. (Don’t just take our word for it.) Nobody skimps on the humanity in order to sell more toys.
It’s a superhero movie, one that nails the essential dilemma of the key Spider-Man narrative, i.e. the conflict between life outside the suit and the cost of trying to save everyone while you’re in it. Not even the Tom Holland screen version captures the teen angst as good as Moore’s Miles, which is saying something. The fact that it’s animated doesn’t make it any less significant or profound, as the legion of fans who swear by the animated Batman series will tell you, often whether you solicit their opinion on the subject or not. Superhero movies are as much a genre as Westerns or rom-coms at this point, and whether or not you feel they’re sucking up all of the oxygen around other types of movies, any omnivorous film lover worth their salted popcorn can tell the difference between good and bad entries. The way Spider-Verse‘s fluid lines and vibrant artwork, best described as modern-graffitti-on-‘shrooms with a splash of Bill Sienkiewicz, adds a funky, colorful, complex vibe but doesn’t diminish the with-great-power concept one bit. (Writer/critic Evan Narcisse said it best when he noted that, if Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is Shakespeare, then this is Rakim.)
But, and this is the key “but” among the many we’ve already mentioned, Spider-Verse nails what it’s like to enjoy the pleasure principle inherent in reading comics. People have long slagged the medium — people still do — yet for many, they’re the first step in visual literacy. Our ancestors had cave paintings; we have comic books. They resemble film storyboards, and vice versa. (This was not lost on Zack Snyder, when he made his faithful-to-a-fault adaptation of what’s arguably the most highly praised superhero comic of all time.) They’re also their own form, with their own set of rules to be broken, their own set of borders to be tweaked and warped. This Spider-Man movie replicates the look and language, down to split screens that replicate panels and word balloons popping above characters’ heads. It also duplicates the rush of being carried along by a great superhero comic story, one with depth and insight and yes, also men and women in tights and capes, throwing punches and dropping quips.
These stories exist, in all their three-color-and-beyond glory. They’re part of a well-balanced literary diet for many of us, even those who’ve outgrown childish things yet still recognize that comics do not have be childish by default. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may have kid-friendly elements, some of the same superhero-movie clichés as its live-action brethren and a do-gooder whose IRL name is Peter Porker. (Guess which hero?) It also has the sense to embrace what it is and love the form enough to expand upon it, even when or not a phoned-in take on a Spider-Man movie would have still made a gajillion bucks. With great power came great moviemaking. You’ll excuse the hyperbole in the headline above — it’s not like we’d turn down an incredible Hernandez brothers’ Love & Rockets movie. For two hours, however, you feel like there’s no other comic-book movie, Spider-Blessed or otherwise, you’d rather see.