Into the Spider-Verse is the best-animated CGI movie ever made, 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 is like a comic book come to life, moreso than any other film I’ve ever seen. The film’s cel-shaded texture is evocative of the colors printed on thin, pulpy sheets of comic book paper, and the flourishes only amplify 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 of an arcade game, but even more striking.
It’s not just the basic visual profile. 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, and two or three more as a transition between scenes.
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 constructed and abstractly splatters it on our retinas, reminding me of the film-closing breakdowns of cinematic fabric in movies like Suspiria and Tokyo Drifter.
Just to say it explicitly one more time before I move on — this is one of the most visually stirring movies I’ve seen, animated or otherwise.
Back in 2010, there was a small online movement of Community fans, me included, trying to get Sony to cast Donald Glover in the 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 rich layer to the story. Eight years later, Into the Spider-Verse bears that argument out: 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 and 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.
And then there’s the multiverse aspect. Into the Spider-Verse really piles the brilliant ideas high. 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 totally different visual identities), the film doesn’t just add visual and comic anarchy, but builds a sense of destiny and mission for Miles.
Into the Spider-Verse threads the needle for emotional impact, too. Miles faces strife and loss (plus adolescent awkwardness) that really clicks and fuels the film; when his uncle dies (in very different circumstances than Uncle Ben), it is gut-wrenching.
The movie arguably belongs just as much to Peter B. Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson — one of my favorite comic actors of the generation delivering a brilliant vocal performance — 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 notable henchmen. This is a dense film in both the screenplay and the visuals. 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; enough to leave an impression, but not enough to feel really essential to the story except as one piece of the expanding scope.
The other issue that I can’t decide whether or not is a flaw or just a neutral reality is that this film is so 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 sold us on the concept from scratch.
And I suppose that’s why Spider-Man 2 remains my favorite film in the history of this teenaged superhero 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 with that fact. But it’s the main reason that I conclude this review marking it just a fraction of a hair short of a masterpiece.