Written by: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer
Miles Morales might not have the universal recognition of Peter Parker, but with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, he soon will. This wildly entertaining and visually inventive animated adventure untethers the beloved wall-crawler from his well-worn mythology and introduces a web of possibilities and heroes—including this biracial teen from Brooklyn with a brain for science and a talent for graffiti art.
“There’s only one Spider-Man and you’re looking at him,” Spidey (Chris Pine, Outlaw King) informs us during an early recap of his origin and exploits, including comic-book covers and a Christmas album. He’s had the job for about ten years and notes, “I have an excellent theme song and a so-so Popsicle.”
Miles (Shameik Moore, Dope) is a high-schooler like Peter was when a radioactive spider first bit him, but the similarities seem to end there. Nudged into a local boarding school that his police officer father (Bryan Tyree Henry, Atlanta) and nurse mother (Luna Lauren Velez, How to Get Away with Murder) hope will challenge his intellect, Miles has little to no expectations except getting back to his familiar neighborhood. He’s a good kid, but he’d rather hang out with his friends and ne’er-do-well Uncle Aaron (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali, Green Book), who takes him behind fenced-off parts of subway tunnels so he can spray-paint his designs.
He’s creating such artwork when a spider with suspiciously glowy feet drops onto his hoodie and bites him. Panicked at first, Miles soon realizes he can leap through the air like the well-known web-slinger. He sets out to find the spider that bit him and encounters a hidden lab, where Kingpin (Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan) and his cohorts have opened a portal to other dimensions—bringing other spider-powered heroes into Miles’s world.
Miles then has to learn how to use his newfound skills to help the others stop Kingpin and get home, even though he’s never taken this huge a leap of faith in his life.
Directed by artists and animators Bob Persichetti (The Little Prince) and Peter Ramsey (A Wrinkle in Time), as well as writer/producer Rodney Rothman (22 Jump Street), the film boasts tense action that’s clear to follow, nimble humor, an amusing self-awareness, and honest emotional moments.
Miles first appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics in 2011, inspired both by then-President Barack Obama and rapper and actor Donald Glover, then of Community (he plays the character’s thinly veiled uncle in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming). Although Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man included a “Spider-Verse” storyline, Into the Spider-Verse is Miles’s big-screen debut.
Part of this energetic film’s charm is how the animation resembles a comic book come to life, replete with panels spelling out characters’ thoughts, neon colors, ink splatters, and Ben-Day dots.
Another delight is in meeting the other Spider folk. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld, Pitch Perfect 2 and this month’s Bumblebee) is a police chief’s daughter, drummer in a rock band, and graceful fighter in aqua ballet shoes. Middle-schooler Peni Parker (the cheerful Kimiko Glenn, BoJack Horseman), depicted in an anime style, pilots a psychically-powered mech suit. Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, Mandy) is perpetually black and white with a trench coat full of angst and the tough-guy slang of the 1930s. Spider-Ham looks like a Looney Tune under a Spidey costume but with the dryly erudite delivery of comedian John Mulaney. (“Do animals talk in this dimension? Because I don’t want to freak him out,” he asks with predictably inappropriate timing.)
Mainly, there’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, New Girl and Jurassic World), a Spider-Man for 22 years who is now divorced, paunchy, and a bit depressed. This Peter first strikes Miles as a lousy mentor (“Why did I get stuck with the janky old broke hobo Spider-Man?” he asks), but Johnson voices him with a disarming blend of sardonic humor and sincere encouragement. It’s endearing to watch these two learn from each other.
Zoe Kravitz, Lily Tomlin, Kathryn Hahn and Oscar Isaac round out the cast in some surprises. Also appearing is Stan Lee, Spider-Man’s original co-creator, in a heart-tugging and funny cameo recorded before his death this year. (The film includes a note at the end honoring both Lee and Spider-Man’s other creator, Marvel Comics artist and writer Steve Ditko, who died in June.)
The animation team does a splendid job of rendering the spectacular—colored glitches that paper the city whenever the portal opens, for instance—alongside tangible, everyday touches of Miles’s world. His slouched posture, untied shoelaces, and height notches on a doorjamb. Gwen’s guarded then hopeful gaze. Peter B. Parker’s five o’clock shadow that lasts for days.
Spider-Man is so adored because beneath the superpowers, he’s a regular person with a family, school, work, and worries who just wants to do the right thing. Miles may be somewhat new to the mask, but he’s cut from that same cloth, and how he resolves whether he’s worth these powers and has what it takes to be a hero is inspiring to see.
Screenwriter Phil Lord (The Lego Movie) sometimes leans into the bathos, but he knows when to rein it in and let sentiments soar like Miles does between New York City’s skyscrapers. That’s a sight that still makes my film senses tingle, even after watching many film Spideys take flight.
Valerie Kalfrin is a multiple award-winning journalist, film and culture critic, essayist, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She’s a “Tomatometer-approved” critic on RottenTomatoes.com and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Hollywood Reporter, The Script Lab, Script magazine, ScreenCraft, The Guardian, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere.