Unexpectedly, this latest Spider-feature – the hero’s first to be animated – has taken up the mantle of legacy and epitaph. Released in the same year the creative world lost both Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Into the Spider-Verse celebrates the friendly neighbourhood character their collaboration gave birth to back in 1962 and does so in style. The best Spider-Man film since 2004? You bet.
Eyebrows were raised when Tom Holland became the third actor to be cast in the role of Spider-Man in the span of a decade. Although Homecoming’s surprisingly fresh interpretation of the veteran webslinger waived much of the critique, it didn’t help that Holland was the third Caucasian male to play the character. This is no longer an issue. By the close of Into the Spider-Verse, a further eight actors have joined the cohort, including Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld and Kimiko Glenn as the first black, female and Asian iterations of the character to hit the screen.
Conceived by The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord, Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just diverse in its vocal talents either. Perhaps inspired by Disney’s hybrid hand drawn, computer animated short Paperman, but certainly drawing on numerous eras of comic book squares, Into the Spider-Verse boasts some of the most startling animation cinemas have ever seen. A variety of stylisation techniques and moulds are plastered across the screen with seamless ingenuity and to breathtaking effect. Whilst the whole aesthetic of the film seems to belong in the Lichtenstein era of pop art, there are joyful nods throughout to painted-cell tradition, contemporary Anime and even Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes: ’Can he say that…legally?’
The principal story is crafted in such a way as to make its characters appear to have been pulled into three dimensions from their own comic strips. Miles Morales (Moore) is just a regular – albeit very bright – kid in Brooklyn when we first meet him. He’s got a tough love Dad (Brian Tyree Henry), caring Mum (Luna Lauren Valez) and questionable Uncle (Mahershala Ali), a passion for music and eye for art. Regular. Miles is also the too cool for school type; he’s the one who flunks off at the first opportunity, and it is on such an excursion that Miles winds up being bitten by a radioactive spider. So far so conventional, as origin stories go, but don’t be fooled. It’s around this point that things get a little trippy and thereafter that the whole film goes full on psychedelic.
While trying to learn how to use his newfound super skills, Miles runs into Peter Parker’s original Spider-Man (Chris Pine) and witnesses his sticky end, having failed to stop the crime lord Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) in his dastardly tracks. And then he meets another, plumper and more world weary, Spider-Man (Jake Johnson – great), who’s fallen into Miles’ world from a parallel dimension, and another and another and another. Each Spider-Person – two men, two women and a pig called Peter Porker (John Mulaney) – brings something different to the table and it’s a tribute to directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman that their shared adventure never feels cluttered. The script itself, from Lord and Rothman, is a thicketty endeavour. Never hard to follow and consistently grounded in a pleasing wealth of emotional integrity, the story isn’t so groundbreaking as its medium but packs some terrific surprise punches.
If this isn’t the greatest superhero film ever made – there’s tough competition nowadays and the product placement here is dire – it must be the most charming. Miles is instantly likeable as our lead and shares lovely exchanges with Johnson’s Parker, in a relationship that is nicely comparable to that of The Karate Kid. Of the rest, Nicholas Cage wins the largest share of the laughs as Spider-Noir, whilst there’s definite scope for more from Steinfeld’s Spider-Woman. A Spider-Ham spin-off would also be welcome.