When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko released “Amazing Fantasy #15” back in 1962, they created a superhero that truly belonged to the people. In a comic scene full of gods and god-like beings enters Peter Parker, a lower-middle-class, adolescent high school nerd with a big heart and a passion for the same superheroes comic readers know and love, taking on the persona of Spider-Man after getting bit by a radioactive—yeah, you know the story, and for good reason. Spider-Man has essentially been the face of Marvel since comics have entered our mainstream popular culture, and after 16 years of cinematic legacy, he’s in no position of slowing down.
You’d think that after three reboots spanning six films, appearances in MCU team up films and an entire PS4 game, the seventh Spider-Man film wouldn’t have much to say. If the seventh Spider-Outing were something on the level of Sony’s self-parodying disaster, Venom, then you’d be probably right. Thankfully, with Sony Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, that simply isn’t the case. Not only is Spider-Verse one of the best comic book films in a jam-packed year of superhero spectacle, but it is a triumph in animated storytelling that doesn’t just break the mold, but shatters it across dimensions. There are three directors attached to this project, but producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the subversive, creative force that binds the film together, lovingly delivering a story that revitalizes the comic book movie genre through its own powerful understanding of what makes our friendly neighborhood web-slinger so special.
Peter Parker takes the backseat in the first theatrical, fully animated Spidey film. Instead, we’re following Miles Morales in his very first big screen debut. Struggling with forming his own identity as he moves from his Brooklyn Afro-Latino community to a private, upper echelon private school, Miles is suddenly thrust into the center of an inter-dimensional conundrum as he’s visited by alternate reality spider-people. His jaded mentor figure, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), the spunky Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfield), a superpowered Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and more are stuck in one timeline and Miles must help them find their way back home. In the meantime, he’s tasked with learning how to be a proper Spider-Man. The writing shows tremendous restraint in that its scale manages to be so large and yet so distilled down to what really matters: Miles and his personal journey, the meaning of the mask and the importance of a support group. This is as much a story of legacy and generational pressures as it is about the space-time continuum.
You might be questioning how it can be possible that the freshest Spider-Man film in years actually is one that takes us back to an origin story, but the film’s reinterpretation of traditional tropes is where Spider-Verse absolutely shines. This is an origin story in a love affair with the idea of an origin story. The result is a sharply written, thoughtful, and sincere screenplay that explores all the emotion, adolescent struggle, identity issues, and trauma that makes a hero, a hero. Something that stood out to me is just how much Miles is allowed to fail before he becomes the hero we know he is. For a large portion of this story, he is at best a little help and at worse, a huge liability to the endgame. But every failure is a building block for the final moments of Spider-Verse, helping it feel just as gratifying and powerful as a narrative climax should be.
I’m enamored by how this film, like many other Lord & Miller projects, plays off of our own expectations and the iconographic image of Spider-Man. This is a full exploration of the ideology and cultural significance of Spider-Man, as well as a remix of the traditions of established Spider-Man narratives to dig into something deeper and meaningful about the legacy of this character. In many ways, it feels like a passing of the torch to newer fans, as visual references to Raimi’s trilogy are alluded to and Peter’s mentorship to Miles is center stage. With every iteration of Spider-Man, we’ve seemed to be growing far more distant with the core of the character. Where MacGuire’s portrayal didn’t get the playfulness right, where Garfield’s was not relatably nerdy, where Holland’s adventures are far less grounded and void of inner-conflict, Spider-Verse utilizes the decades we’ve spent with Peter’s Spider-Man and refocuses it towards Miles, and therefore, to the audience. Even when the film is making jabs at the genre’s well-known tropes and archetypes, it does so from a place of love instead of contempt. This is a proper use of narrative nostalgia, one that doesn’t feel invasive or cynical but instead thoughtful.
Oh, and that glorious animation. The blend of 3D VFX and cell shading achieved by shorts such as Feast or Paperman is such an obvious natural fit for the comic book aesthetic of superhero fiction, you’ll find it baffling that not all comic book movies are told this way. But perhaps it just wasn’t possible then, because the way Spider-Verse feels in full command of its neon-laced style seems like a technological breakthrough. I can’t say I’ve seen a film that looks or even feels like this one does. From the text boxes that cleverly convey Miles’s thoughts to the pops of color to the onomatopoeia flashing across the screen in action sequences, the team at Sony Animation have created a lively expressiveness that felt missing from even Disney’s two tentpole animated features this year. A few details I especially found so important were in the opening scenes of the film, where Miles walks past his old school and we get to see the different cultures of Brooklyn. It will honestly make you question why we rarely have seen that sort of care in representing New York’s diversity anywhere else outside of a few scenes from Black Panther this year. It’s small, but it means so much. The idea of kids growing up with a Spanish speaking Spider-Man warms my heart.
Spider-Man is a hero that belongs to everyone. This may be the first Spider-Man film that fully understands that idea on every fundamental level. Spider-Verse is a love letter to all types of Spider-fans, whether you’ve been following these characters throughout your entire life or just got introduced to this hero recently. Its ideas are huge and out of the box, but it always keeps its emotions at its center. It is a visual feast that will dazzle you, a force of positivity and inclusiveness in a genre defined this year by overwhelming cynicism. It simultaneously reimagines what Spider-Man could be while also serves as a rekindling with the character’s original spirit. It is the movie of this franchise that, more than any other entry before it, understands that anyone can wear the mask. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nervous teenager of color from Brooklyn, a down-on-his-luck goofball, a hardboiled detective, or a talking cartoon pig voiced by John Mulaney.