Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Into the Spider-Verse is the best-animated CGI movie ever made as of mid-2022, which is not the same thing as the best CGI-animated movie ever made. It’s probably top 10 among all CGI-animated features I’ve ever seen, though — so close to the borderline of a masterpiece that I’m not even sure whether I’m going to give it that label when I’m done writing this review.

The visual identity of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a genuine artistic achievement. It really is like a comic book come to life. The film’s flat blocks of color are evocative of the colors printed on thin, pulpy sheets of paper, and the film’s many flourishes — like wiggly lines to convey Spider Sense and blocks of text for internal monologue — only increase the sense that the screen is a frame from a Spider-Man comic in motion. It makes me think of the way that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World channeled the aesthetic and trimmings of an arcade game.

It’s more than just the texturing style and throwaway touches that make the film inviting to look at. The animation in motion is staggering. The team behind the film has designed set pieces that are space-bending constructions of free flight. The story feels so effortlessly kinetic, as if the writers and animators were unbound by the usual limitations of spatial restraint — individual scenes can fly through five settings as part of a continuous thought as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

The film’s remarkable use of color could make up a doctoral thesis by itself, exploding in the film’s climactic moments into a shapeless deluge of bright hues. It takes the tension and danger the film has built and abstractly splatters it on our retinas, reminding me of the film-closing breakdowns of cinematic fabric in movies like Suspiria and Tokyo Drifter.

In short, this is one of the most visually stirring movies I’ve seen, even including, animated or otherwise.

Back in 2010, there was a small online movement by fans of the TV show Community (myself included) to try and convince Sony to cast Donald Glover in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, a role that eventually went to Andrew Garfield. Among the arguments we articulated for why circa-2010 Glover would have been a perfect casting (which I still maintain) is that having a young man of color at the center of urban vigilante justice epic would add a resonant layer to the story of Parker’s feeling of isolation and otherness. Eight years later, Into the Spider-Verse bears that argument out: Irrespective of the film’s look, this is one of the best Spider-Man stories I’ve encountered, in part because the protagonist, Miles Morales, offers emotional dimensions impossible with Peter Parker. He’s the black son of a cop. He’s an aspiring graffiti artist, forced to attend a gentrified magnet school, placing him at the crux of urban decay vs. reform, authenticity vs. appropriation, justice vs. brutality, etc. Miles makes for a terrific, compelling protagonist.

And then there’s the multiverse aspect of the story. Spider-Verse made the idea feel both fresh and intuitive before it was quite so played out as it is in blockbuster movies the past two years. By bringing in five other Spider-Heroes from vastly different visions of the character (two of which basically resemble Miles’ world, three of which incorporate radically different visual identities), the film adds terrific visual and comic chaos to the story. But it makes for great storytelling, too: the many Spider-Heroes collectively build a sense of destiny and purpose for Miles.

Into the Spider-Verse threads the needle for emotional impact, too. Miles faces strife and loss (plus adolescent awkwardness) that registers as genuine. Caring about the character as more than a baddie-punching crusader fuels everything else the film: when his uncle dies (in very different circumstances than Uncle Ben), it is gut-wrenching and tearjerking.

The movie arguably belongs just as much to Peter B. Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson — one of my favorite comic actors of the generation, who is brilliant here — as it does Miles. Giving Miles a mentor who is a bit lost and broken himself provides a world-weary counterpoint to Miles youthful wonder. It brings out interesting and admirable angles in both Peter B. and Miles as they help each other overcome their adversity.

If everything I just described makes Into the Spider-Verse feel like a busy movie… well, yeah. There are at least three major villains plus a few memorable henchmen; an entire multiverse dynamic with numerous timelines to explain to the audience; plot threads to trace for nearly a dozen characters. Into the Spider-Verse is a dense film in both the screenplay and the visual design. So much to take in. It is ambitious and simply bursting with ideas to the point that it would have been nice if a few of them had more time to breathe or develop. Take, for example, the three novelty Spider-Heroes: Spider-Ham, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir. Each only gets a few beats to shine; enough to leave an impression, but not enough to feel really essential to the story except as one piece of the movie’s expanding puzzle.

There’s one other issue with the movie. I can’t quite decide whether it is a flaw or just a sign of the times: This film is boisterously postmodern in a way that only Phil Lord and Chris Miller movies can be. (I now realize I’ve somehow gone this whole review without mentioning their names; neither gets directing credit, but both are producers and Lord is a credited writer, and their fingerprints are all over this. This is neck-and-neck with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs as my favorite film by them.) Into the Spider-Verse can only exist if everyone watching it already knows who Spider-Man is; and, in addition, is so worn out on his origin story that Spider-Verse’s detached and repeated recap is an astonishingly effective meta-joke. This is a film that stands on the shoulders of a giant named Sam Raimi, who made us believe in the concept from scratch.

And I suppose that’s why Spider-Man 2 remains my favorite film in the history of this teenaged superhero: it can be an earnest and direct telling of a familiar story while still being so stirring. At this point, Spider-Man is a hero whose saga is so fractured and constantly reshaped that Into the Spider-Verse, a film centrally about how many different versions of Spider-Man there are, is the logical end-point. It’s not Into the Spider-Verse’s fault that it was birthed in an era of superhero oversaturation, and it certainly does everything it can to zig-zag against that environmental challenge. But it’s the main reason that I conclude this review marking it just a fraction of a hair short of a masterpiece.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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