Peter Debruge/ Variety
Just when you thought you couldn’t take another Spider-Man reboot, along comes the movie to put them all in perspective. Or maybe you can’t get enough of Marvel’s friendly neighborhood crime-fighter and are already beside yourself in anticipation of a project loaded with half a dozen parallel-universe Spideys. Either way, the brilliance of Sony’s snappy new animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” shows itself in the project’s uncanny ability to simultaneously reset and expand all that has come before, creating an inclusive world where pretty much anybody can be the superhero … even you!
In what amounts to yet another high-concept, heavy-meta home run from “The Lego Movie” mavens Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — serving as producers, while directing duties fall to Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman at Sony Pictures Animation — “Spider-Verse” applies the retro look of four-color process printing to its 3D computer-animated characters. The effect is fresh, like a street-art riff on a Roy Lichtenstein print, intricately textured with halftone dots and hand-drawn accents to suggest a vintage comic book come to life. Against this bold visual aesthetic, matched with a pulsing hip-hop score, Lord and co-writer Rodney Rothman (“22 Jump Street”) shift the spotlight from Peter Parker to his successor, Miles Morales.
The teenage son of an African-American cop and a Puerto Rican nurse, the character of Miles Morales first appeared in 2011 as a way to diversify the Marvel universe. Looking fly in a modified black-and-red Spidey suit, Miles boasts all the same powers — super strength, boosted speed, heightened senses, web-slinging, and wall-crawling — plus a few bonus skills, including “venom strike” (the ability to shock his adversaries) and invisibility (whereby he can camouflage himself under pressure). But unlike this year’s more overtly politicized “Black Panther,” which treated the Wakandan identity as a kind of super-empowerment, “Spider-Verse” views Miles’ background as a nonissue. Again, the takeaway here is anybody can be Spider-Man — and that’s a revolutionary idea for a generation of kids eager to identify with Marvel’s most popular superhero.
The genius of “Spider-Verse” doesn’t stop there. Presented in a playful, pop-culture-savvy comedic package, the movie effectively expands Sony’s hold on the Spider-Man character to include a potentially unlimited number of spinoff projects, the first of which — a femme-centric installment featuring all the women from Spidey’s world — has already been announced, with countless permutations to come. From here, Sony can slice and dice the so-called Spider-Verse (a comics conceit in which Marvel first tried to unite the many different versions of the Spider-Man character) for viewers’ infinite amusement, and the studio’s infinite remuneration.
Imagine, if you can, that historic moment when, after a long list of white men had trod the boards as Hamlet, audiences first decided whether to believe or not to believe an actress in the role. No doubt that was the question when a person of color first played the Danish prince. Call it a consummation devoutly to be wished, but as breezily as it parodies the many incarnations of the character that have come before (from the late-’60s cartoon’s catchy theme song to the “so-so popsicle”), “Spider-Verse” dismisses the idea that there was anything inherently special about Peter Parker. A radioactive spider just as easily could have bitten someone else.
That’s exactly what happens when Miles (voiced here by “Dope” star Shameik Moore) follows his renegade uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) down a shady subway tunnel. The next day at school, he’s dealing with all the same symptoms Peter Parker did after his arachno-encounter, making things awkward with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), the new girl in school and the first of several alternate-dimension Spideys — which also include a paunchy older Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), a hard-boiled black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime-styled Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).
Venturing back to the site of the bite, Miles spies the “real” Spider-Man duking it out with a version of the Green Goblin far more menacing than the live-action films ever offered (in appearance, at least, although the fight scene leaves something to be desired). He sticks around long enough to witness his comic book hero not only unmasked but murdered, clearing the way for this shy teen to step into his hero’s suit — which, conveniently enough, is available by the dozen in a costume shop operated by a guy who looks an awful lot like the late Stan Lee.
Here, the villains are more or less familiar, but look far different from the depictions fans most likely have in mind. Liev Schreiber voices the Kingpin, a massive bald-headed goliath with a personal motive for opening a portal to other dimensions. Kathryn Hahn puts her own wacky spin on a mad-scientist type with an unexpected alter ego. Prowler (who plays a key role in the pulp Spider-Verse storyline) appears as a cloaked purple silhouette with shiny metal claws, while turbo-charged interpretations of Tombstone and Scorpion round out the rogues’ gallery.
Superhero movies tend to feel overcrowded when stuffed with too many villains, although “Spider-Verse” essentially requires it, seeing as the movie serves up enough Spider-Whosits to field an amateur soccer team. It’s perfectly amusing to observe these eccentric alterna-heroes banter amongst themselves about how they got there (the effect is not unlike watching Homer Simpson adapt to being computer-animated in the “Treehouse of Horror” episode where he steps into the third dimension), but it’s not quite as fun watching a squad of mismatched Spideys take on a supercollider full of goons.
All this is to say that the screenwriting is strongest when supplying lively character detail, but the execution flags whenever those wonderfully fleshed-out individuals are supposed to do battle. Except for a scenic high-speed chase through treetops outside Kingpin’s lab — which has been relocated from the earlier subterranean set to upstate New York, effectively varying the sight of Spidey swinging through the skyscrapers that serve as his natural habitat — the action tends to feel clunky and over-stylized.
It may seem daring to kill off Peter Parker, but in a scenario where the space-time continuum is constantly in flux (sparking a wild “glitching” effect that combines the movie’s many styles at once), one assumes that all fatalities are reversible — à la the ridonculous apocalypse with which “Avengers: Infinity War” wrapped earlier this year. Ironically, the script’s postmodern sense of humor is so savvy about comic book formulas that one can’t help feeling disappointed when the plot later resorts to the same clichés.
For example, it may amuse to call the USB device that disables the Kingpin’s supercollider a “goober,” but that doesn’t erase the fact the film opts to recycle this tired device. And one too many times, mid-fight, something big and heavy falls from nowhere to smack these baddies in the head. In the end, while the movie’s wit is its most satisfying selling point, “Spider-Verse” proves too clever for its own good. But in this universe, where audiences are suffering from the very real phenomenon of superhero overload, ambition and originality are to be encouraged, especially when it broadens the mythology to include women, people of color, and yes, even that hammiest of scene-stealers, Peter Porker.