We may be in a golden age of superhero movies, but even with the almost endless list of characters that have become household names of late, Spider-Man still stands out as one of the most recognizable characters in pop culture.
From Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield and now Tom Holland, the friendly neighbourhood web-slinger has been revisited time and again, to varying results. Sam Raimi’s films from the early 2000’s are much beloved (well, the first two are at least). The Andrew Garfield-led Amazing Spider-Man films are not remembered as fondly, but Tom Holland’s young, high-schooler Spider-Man as part of the MCU seems to be loved by all.
But there’s a new kid in town: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first major film adaptation of Spider-Man to be animated, as well as the first that sees young Miles Morales take up the mantle (though he is teased by Donald Glover’s character in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and appears in the 2018 video game). In both ways, this film brings a whole new perspective to one of the most widely known stories out there. Miles, voiced brilliantly by Shameik Moore, is a struggling high schooler, sent to a prep school against his will and struggling to fit in with a side of Brooklyn that he’s never seen before.
Miles isn’t even Spider-Man at the start of the film: there’s already a Peter Parker running around in this universe (voiced with great emotional depth by Chris Pine). Miles’ dad is a cop that doesn’t much care for Spider-Man, but there are news stories and comic books dotted around Brooklyn that cement Spider-Man as a pop culture figure in this world.
This is one of the things that I think Spider-Verse does fantastically. Spider-Man is already the stuff of legend at the very beginning of this movie; when Miles is bitten by the spider and becomes Spider-Man, his struggle to live up to that expectation and responsibility becomes the focal point of his emotional arc. This movie is aware of how much its audience has seen of Spider-Man and then hands over the mask and web cannons to a kid that never asked for them. High school is tough on him, he’s struggling to talk to girls and now a spider from an alternate dimension has made him a bona fide superhero? Not only that, but a superhero that his dad already hates? That’s a pretty wild coming of age story, if you ask me.
Of course, Miles isn’t the only Spider-Man in town. The aforementioned Chris Pine-voiced Peter Parker is slinging around, but thanks to a nefarious plot, dimensions are torn asunder and a number of Spider-people start turning up. It’s quite the ensemble: another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a 1930s noir detective (quite possibly the greatest role Nicholas Cage has ever taken on), an anime girl with a robot (Kimiko Glenn), and cartoon pig (John Mulaney) all show up alongside the newly spider-bitten Miles. It’s quite an ensemble; while only two or three of them end up being main characters, none of them are wasted and they’re all valuable pieces of the puzzle. Despite having this many versions of one superhero, the focus is never lost: Into the Spider-Verse is very clearly a Miles Morales story and the presence of so many other Spider-Men doesn’t distract from that.
And what a fantastic story it is. It’s a perfect coming of age tale, full of emotion and heartbreak and terrible advice from Miles’ uncle. All of the characters we meet are charming and the world they inhabit is vibrant and beautiful. This movie is gorgeously animated and truly feels like a comic book movie come to life: even the aesthetic of comic panels and text boxes is utilized, both for the sake of action and comedy. Spider-Verse allows itself to be as stylish as possible.
The highly stylized aesthetic doesn’t detract from the films emotional core, however: in fact it serves it, highlighting poignant moments in ways live action could never capture. It’s funny, fast-paced and often goofy, but that doesn’t take anything away from the moments of genuine heartbreak. Miles is caught in the middle of his transformation into Spider-Man and it’s not an easy ride: more than any other Spider-Man before him, he really has to struggle with his powers, learning as much about himself as he does about his new abilities along the way.
I have always liked Spider-Man, but I’ve never really understood why he’s easily the most beloved superhero. That is, I didn’t until I watched Into the Spider-Verse. Miles Morales is a young kid who doesn’t know quite how he fits into the world and this movie chronicles his journey to understanding himself and who he ought to be. I know there are more superhero movies than you can shake a Funko Pop at these days, but I promise you, you shouldn’t ignore this one.