by Andrew Wyatt on Dec 12, 2018

Even hardcore aficionados of superhero films would likely concede that the genre has struggled over the last 20 years or so to replicate the giddy, astonishing sensibility of comic-book action. Perhaps paradoxically, cinema – a medium that combines color, motion, and sound – has never been quite as effective as flat, static images on paper, at least when it comes to conveying the hyper-real fantasy of spandex-clad heroes pummeling and blasting villains. There have been a few welcome exceptions: the delightful loopiness of Ant-Man’s (2015) scale-morphing; the psychedelic contortions of Doctor Strange’s (2016) mystical duels; and the ecstatic, Olympian spectacle of Woman Woman’s (2017) emergence from the trenches of the Great War. Overall, however, it’s not the fights, chases, and stunts but the characters that have defined the genre since X-Men (2000) ushered in the modern super-powered era of studio blockbusters.

Case in point: In a year in which Marvel Studios delivered two gargantuan box-office hits, the best superhero action sequence didn’t belong to Black Panther or Iron Man, but to Elastigirl in Incredibles 2 – an animated film with no built-in comic-book legacy. This suggests that perhaps cinema per se isn’t the sticking point, but rather live-action filmmaking. All the CGI wizardry in the cosmos can’t cover up the fact that the MCU’s Thor is clearly Chris Hemsworth jumping around awkwardly in front of a green screen while dressed in a goofy costume. (No patch on Hemsworth, of course: Thor’s meathead charisma and the evolution thereof illustrates how crucial Marvel’s pitch-perfect casting is to their mega-franchise.)

Now that the final superhero feature of 2018 has arrived, it seems inarguable that live-action filmmaking is never going to be as potent as animation at capturing the distinctive dazzle of comic-book action. After 16 years of Spider-Man sequels, reboots, and spin-offs – widely varying in quality, but none of them enduring entries in the genre – Sony’s Columbia Pictures has at long last cracked how to turn their film rights to Marvel’s iconic Web-Slinger into cinematic gold. Namely: Ditch the live-action actors altogether. The deliriously fun, dimension-tripping animated adventure Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t just the best Spidey feature ever. It’s one of the best superhero-comic films, full stop, and probably the purest cinematic expression to date of the experience of flicking through the ink-and-paper exploits of a favorite hero. It also has a cartoon pig named Spider-Ham.

At this point in the era of superhero saturation, any child from Baltimore to Belgrade to Bangkok can probably give the nickel summary of Spider-Man’s origin story, and co-directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman wisely capitalize on that familiarity. Taking a literal page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s superb All-Star Superman comics (2005-08), Spider-Verse disposes of the radioactive-spider bite, Uncle Ben’s death, and “great power, great responsibility” in its opening moments. “You know my story,” Peter Parker (Chris Pine) remarks knowingly, as he flits through the highlights of his storied multimedia career with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to the deeds of his past comic-book, animated, and live-action incarnations. (Including, yes, the dance.)

It’s an early sign of the encyclopedic, meta-textual quality to Spider-Verse’s humor, a trait it shares with another recent animated superhero feature, The LEGO Batman Movie (2017). However, whereas that film foregrounded its jokey fan service and rat-a-tat-tat DC Comics gag delivery before all other concerns, Spider-Verse uses its winking references primarily to set the film’s cheeky vibe and signal its fast-and-loose approach to the Web-Slinger’s convoluted continuity. A Ph.D. in Spider-Man Studies isn’t necessary to enjoy Spider-Verse. However, the viewer should be prepared for a dizzying plunge into ludicrous Marvel staples like time travel, parallel universes, and jarring genre mashups. (Indeed, the film at times plays a bit like one of Marvel’s goofy, speculative What If? one-shots, albeit a superb example of such.)

The viewer’s entry point into this Spider-Verse is one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn Afro-Puerto Rican teenager with the usual assemblage of adolescent concerns: parents, school, girls, and the struggle with identity. Miles’ folks – NYPD officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and ER nurse Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) – are loving but discipline-minded, especially Dad. When their son lands a lottery slot at the prestigious public boarding school Visions Academy, it’s a given that Miles will be obliged to don the blue blazer and leave his neighborhood school (and friends) behind. Miles is a smart kid, but AP Science can’t hold a candle to the allure of his artwork, the latter encouraged by his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Jefferson’s laid-back, bachelor brother. It’s Aaron who takes Miles to an abandoned subway tunnel where the boy can practice his graffiti skills on a crumbling brick canvas, and it’s there that a strange spider slips into Miles’ hoodie to later deliver a seemingly innocuous bite. This leads to all sorts of awkward, um, changes for Miles: a growth spurt, sticky palms, and a psychic tingle that warns him of danger.

It’s familiar stuff, at least in terms of the broad story beats. Hold up, however: Miles’ NYC already has a Spider-Man, the aforementioned Peter Parker, and he’s an adored crime-fighting celebrity with his own merchandise and Christmas album. (Not beloved by Miles’ dad, though; being a cop, he’s hung up on the whole masked-vigilante thing.) Through the sort of unlikely coincidences that comic books are adept at hand-waving away, the nascently super-powered Miles ends up a witness to a violent showdown between Spidey and the monstrous Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone). Said brawl unfolds inside a colossal dimension-warping doomsday machine financed by hulking crime lord Kingpin (Live Schreiber) and overseen by scatterbrained scientist Dr. Olivia (Katherine Hahn). Fortunately, with an assist from Miles, Spider-Man manages to disable the contraption shortly after its activation. Unfortunately, even that briefest window of operation results in flickers of uncontrolled, inter-dimensional strangeness throughout New York. Even more unfortunately, Spider-Man is caught and unceremoniously murdered by the Kingpin right before Miles’ eyes.

Co-writers Rothman and Phil Lord – the latter one of the mischievous minds behind 21 Jump Street (2012) and The LEGO Movie (2014) – thereby commit to the unthinkable, killing Spider-Man by the end of the first act of a Spider-Man movie. Unlike many superhero deaths, Spidey’s demise appears to be real and permanent, leaving Miles to grapple with the possibility that his own emergent powers obligate him to take up the Web-Slinger’s identity, no matter how ill-prepared for crime-fighting he might feel. He is encouraged in this by Peter’s widow, Mary Jane (Zöe Kravitz), who asserts that her unassuming husband’s real legacy was that anyone can wear the mask and be a hero.

It’s at this point that Miles rather incredibly runs into a different Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), this one a decade older, more defeated, and a little softer around the middle. It seems that Peter v.2.0 hails from an alternate reality, having been unwittingly sucked through a portal into Miles’ dimension when Kingpin’s device was briefly switched on. Quickly falling into the pattern of the overeager, pestering student and acerbic, reluctant teacher – respectively – Miles and Peter formulate a plan to get the latter back to his own dimension. This scheme requires Kingpin and Dr. Olivia to rebuild and reactivate their reality-ripping contraption, before the heroes destroy it for good. (It all somehow hinges on a USB drive, which Peter terms the “Goober,” his word for any high-tech MacGuffin used to foil a supervillain’s plans.)

Miles and Peter are soon joined by Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), aka Spider-Girl, a teen from Miles’ school who it turns out was hurled through both space and time by all the dimensional craziness. Thereafter, the Spider-exiles from parallel universes start piling up quickly: Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), a hard boiled PI from a 1940s black-and-white world; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese-American middle-schooler who pilots the SP//dr mech suit via a spider-mediated psychic bond; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) aka Peter Porker, a wise-cracking, sledgehammer-wielding anthropomorphic pig. It’s all exactly as silly as it sounds, and yet utterly glorious in its reflexive nuttiness. (Man-Spider, Spider-Man 2099, Spider-Wolf, Spider-Monkey, and Spider-Hulk will presumably make appearances in the inevitable sequel.)

Ostensibly, the stakes here are to get all the Spider-People back to their proper dimensions and to stop the Kingpin’s plan, which has the potential to tear the multiverse asunder. (For all his brutality, the gangster isn’t without his humanity: The whole mad scheme is a means to see his dead wife and son again, a touch that echoes the post-Batman: The Animated Series iteration of Mr. Freeze.) In practice, the big dramatic gestures of Spider-Verse center on either Miles’ struggle to control his powers or the fraught relationship between him and Peter, who is simultaneously jealous of the Spider-Man identity and bitterly pessimistic about his own ability to change the world for the better. It’s a testament to the filmmakers’ deft handling of the material that all the story elements blend together with such effortless elegance: the wacky sci-fi premise, the web-swinging action, the timeless adolescent angst, and the proxy father-son melodrama. New complications in Miles’ relationship with his dad and uncle also emerge, and while there’s a rudimentary, kid-friendly quality to the emotional topography here, it consistently feels genuine and well served by the screenplay.

Perhaps it’s burying the lede somewhat not to discuss Spider-Verse’s astonishing visuals until 1,500 words into a review, but it’s worth observing that the film is a solid and authentically touching Spider-Man story, quite apart from its qualities as an animated feature. That said, what elevates the film from merely good to one of the best superhero films to date is its eccentric style, which establishes the feature's thrilling sensibility of a heightened, fantastical reality. The designers and animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks have truly outdone themselves, delivering one of the freshest and most innovative works of animation in the 21st century.

There’s so much going on in the film’s visual approach – which blends multiple methods of computer and hand-drawn animation to create a superficially busy style that still feels lucid and unified – that it's challenging to describe it without getting mired in the wonky details. In general, the filmmakers affect some of the traditional elements of Japanese animation, with broadly 2D character designs, extensive use of multiplane camera, and a jerky quality to the motion (i.e., twice as many static frames per second). The film’s color is often deliberately nudged out of line, in the fashion of misaligned four-color process printing or a stereoscopic 3D image seen without glasses. This paper-like illusion is further heightened by the profuse use of Ben-Day dots for shading, evoking the cheaply produced Silver Age comics of the 1950s and 60s; as well as iconic Spider-Man touches like the squiggly lines that represent his “Spidey sense.” The character designs in Miles’ world are recognizably comic-like, although the villains tend to have a more exaggerated look, with Kingpin’s inhumanly monolithic bulk squatting at the far end of this spectrum.

The cumulative effect of all this aggressive styling is intoxicating and immersive, establishing a universe that is instantly recognizable as a “world of superheroes”, but resembles nothing that the genre has produced before. It’s an unqualified triumph of design and animation, and it sets a high-water mark that should terrify other digital-animation studios, which have spent the last decade or so refining their house styles into uninspired blandness. (Only Dreamworks seems willing to flirt with modestly inventive design flourishes in recent years.) Most significantly, this evocative reality allows directors Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman to create spectacular, almost hallucinatory action sequences that offer both hyper-kinetic thrills and moments of exquisite beauty. Spider-Verse’s images feel like comic panels come to life, and while that phrase has been applied to ripped-from-the-page adaptations such as 300 (2006), Sin City (2005), and Watchmen (2009), the fussy tableaus of those films have nothing on this feature’s heady dynamism. Simply put, Spider-Verse feels alive.

Sometimes the pursuit of the “convincing” can rob cinema of its magic. Roger Ebert often observed that the obvious fakery of the original, stop-motion King Kong (1933) heightened rather than detracted from is otherworldly terror. When Miles-as-Spider-Man plummets like a stone to the ground, only to swing away at the last second, the moment is uncluttered by the effort it would take to trick the viewer into believing that he is a flesh-and-blood adolescent human soaring between New York’s skyscrapers. Instead, the directors can focus on making the moment as exciting, frightening, and blissful as possible. In the live-wire urban fantasy of the superhero genre, a cartoon can be more redolent than live action. Spider-Verse embodies this notion: Like all the best works of graphic storytelling, it stimulates the imagination rather than supplanting it.

Rather than evoking anime, the stuttering movements of Spider-Verse’s characters suggest flip-book animation and, by extension, the turning of a comic book’s pages as a reader follows the bang-pow action. It’s a tiny thing, almost subliminal, but it illustrates how Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sweats the artful details even as it swings for the fences. The film’s nimble facility in threading that needle – to be at once familiar and radical, modest and elaborate, earnest and ridiculous – is what distinguishes it as both a fantastic work of animation and a long-overdue jolt to the superhero genre. Excelsior, indeed.

Rating: A-