I love Spider-Man. To be more specific, I love Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. That isn’t to say I don’t love any other iteration of the character but it is the standard with which I judge all other iterations. Perhaps it isn’t the most objective, and it certainly isn’t the most ideal. While I think it is the purest and most meaningful distillation of the character, it only bears so much in common with other versions, which in turn often feel lacking.
The original comics are probably the closest in spirit, but the decades of continuity since then have mostly ruined the character for me. (I kid you not, one infamous resetting of the status quo involved Peter and Mary Jane making a deal with devil to dissolve their marriage so that Peter could regain his secret identity.) Occasionally, Marvel Comics will release a simpler, more accessible series featuring the character, but they rarely last long. A few years back the cartoon TV series Spectacular Spider-Man gave a highly functional, meat and potatoes adaptation, but it was cancelled after Disney bought Marvel and the two subsequent animated shows have left much to be desired.
The greater frustration I experience is the regular criticism the old films receive, including the routine mockery of Tobey Maguire’s (excellent) performance and the dismissal of Spider-Man 3, which is a far better movie than people remember. While many still consider Spider-Man 2 the greatest superhero film of all time, that crown is always at stake despite the lack of any serious challengers. Our culture will forever be out with the old and in with the new, and so every time a popular superhero movie is released, particularly one starring Spider-Man, a certain kind of historical revisionism takes place. This happened with the release of last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and likely will happen again when its sequel, Far From Home, is released next summer. In between those bland MCU entries, however, Sony managed to make what I never thought they would again: an exciting Spider-Man film.
Which leads me to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a movie I quite liked. Starring not one, not two, but six different Spider-heroes (Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man Noir, some anime character and… Spider-Pig), it offers a colorful, complicated, inter-dimensional twist on a story that has become too familiar. Nearly as many villains appear in the film, but it’s Wilson Fisk who is most central to the story. After an accident involving Spider-Man leads to the death of his wife and son, the gargantuan crime boss develops a portal to alternate realities in the hopes of getting them back. Predictably, this goes terribly wrong. Realities merge and threaten to destroy each other. Amidst this chaos, Miles Morales, a gifted teenager in need of some direction, is bitten by a radioactive spider, giving him a host of new powers but leaving him uncertain how to control them. Fortunately, a broken down, middle-aged Peter Parker from another dimension agrees to train him, and before long the two are joined by several other increasingly weird versions of Spider-Man. Together, they all set about undoing the damage done by Fisk so they can return to their own realities.
Of the many things Into the Spider-Verse has going for it, its visual style is the most immediately noticeable. The 3D animation would all be fairly standard were it not for the layers of cell-shading, thought bubbles, and a multitude of other subtle details. Similar to how Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The LEGO Movie emulated stop-motion animation, everything here is tweaked to evoke the look and feel of a comic book. Early on, I wasn’t overly impressed, until one quiet image of a church’s cemetery took my breath away. By the time the truly trippy finale came around, I was fully on board with the style. It struck me as the sort of feature film I would expect Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovksy to make, instead of the tedious Hotel Transylvania films he’s been pumping out the past few years. It might be a low bar, but this one of the most expressive 3D animated films ever released. Maybe it’s best if I show you what it looks like in action.
The visuals are complimented by the wonderfully creative and fast-paced story. Though it would be unfair to give them all the credit for a film they only produced and co-wrote, Lord and Miller’s hand can be felt throughout. Once again they have demonstrated a canny knack for deconstructing a genre while still telling a sincere story. As with the Jump Street series, there’s plenty of hilarious meta-commentary to be found here. The idea of the superhero origin story is frequently parodied, but Into the Spider-Verse is nonetheless a compelling one, largely because it understands the value of stories about regular people learning to be heroes.
But despite all the many elements worth praising, it is a merely good film. Of course it isn’t better than Spider-Man 2. Don’t be silly. I promised myself I wasn’t going to spend the entirety of this review comparing it to the Sam Raimi trilogy, but if I could make one distinction, it would be this: it lacks the profound moral clarity of those earlier films. Which isn’t to say Into the Spider-Verse is in any way immoral. Its themes and characters are all very sound, and occasionally the movie arrived at scenes that genuinely moved me, if only for a moment. The message is fairly standard for origin stories and family films. Miles’ only real flaw is self-doubt, which he quickly overcomes. Unlike Peter Parker, he’s never allowed to be truly selfish, but through his character arc and others, the story still rubs up against a lot of fascinating (if somewhat half-baked) ideas – death, divorce, fatherhood, masculinity, growing up and growing old, the inability to tell someone you love them. It’s all good stuff, but it never quite coheres. After leaving the theater, I felt the film fade some in my estimation.
As delightful as the supporting cast is (John Mulaney and Nicolas Cage in particular), they ultimately crowd the story. There just isn’t enough space to let the best moments breathe or to develop them further. Wilson Fisk is a compelling villain, especially when his hulking frame envelops the screen in darkness, but outside of one tragic flashback, he’s mostly forgotten about. Many of the best moments are disconnected from each other, never adding up to a greater sense of meaning. Into the Spider-Verse learns all the right lessons from Raimi and company, but it doesn’t quite follow through on them. Much of this is ultimately because Into the Spider-Verse is too busy being its own film, and that’s a good thing. It tries to do too much and that gets in the way of its greatness, but everything it is trying for should be celebrated.
In many ways, this is the closest we’ll ever get to a continuation of the original series, so much so that they almost brought Tobey Maguire back to play Peter. I’m not sure how I would have felt about that. Despite its flaws, the final shot of Spider-Man 3 is the most beautiful send off to the character I could ever hope for. There’s no sense messing with that. I like this movie better as a spiritual successor, teasing out connections and paying reverent homage to its predecessors, without overdoing it. Much like Miles, it needs to be its own thing. The character and the series still have some growing to do, but I will happily stick around for as many sequels and spin-offs as I can get.