Special Effects: A-
Now, here comes something truly unexpected: the second superhero movie within the space of a year to qualify as truly exceptional and worth seeing — more than once, even. It’s no secret that as a general rule I avoid going to theatres to see superhero movies. This “Marvel Cinematic Universe” crap overstayed its welcome and over-saturated the market ages ago, ten years and twenty movies in having long since adopted the same story arc over and over, and over and over. Maybe their blockbuster special effects extravaganza aesthetic still wows the kids, but for bona fide grownups, it’s frankly boring as hell.
How many times do we need to sit through the same plot where the entire world — or hell, the entire universe — is threatened by less and less memorable villains, then “saved” by increasingly bland heroes in which we have no emotional investment because we know they are generally immortal? Okay, I hear — spoiler alert! — half the heroes in the latest Avengers movie perish, so one might argue that raises the stakes. I would continue arguing the opposite, in a cinematic world now characterized by remakes, reboots, and sequels that find creative ways to resurrect characters. I stopped caring because these stories stopped giving me reason to.
—Except! As with anything, I still make exceptions for the exceptional. And when one of these movies comes along that branches out from the primary goal of turning every multiplex into mere housing for superhero movies made to break box office records, and has something vital to say or represent, I will give it a look. I did for last year’s Wonder Woman, a solid-B movie with its heart in the right place but still marred by a forgettable villain who, as usual, just destroys everything in his wake in a battle meant to be climactic but in its roteness was rendered anything but. I did for this year’s Black Panther, a film so nearly perfect that it is rightfully expected to become the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture.
And now, I do it for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film that surprises at nearly every level: storytelling, themes, truly gorgeous animation, special effects, cinematography. How could a movie be this good coming after not one, but two franchise reboots in the past decade alone, or after the character has appeared in eight films in the past sixteen years? Well, it does it by changing the rules.
Here’s a novel approach: what if a comic book movie literally felt like you were inside the pages of a comic book? Characters read comic books about Spider-Man; the screen splits into panels; occasionally comic-book style text boxes appear in the midst of the beautifully rendered action. Mind you, this occurs relatively sparingly, which keeps the technique fresh.
3-D is another thing I generally avoid as a rule, finding it to be a racket to raise ticket prices for visuals not at all enhanced by the process. Again, there are exceptions, usually thanks to visionary directors deliberately doing something new with the medium. Actually being shot in 3D instead of having the effect grafted on retroactively is by and large a prerequisite. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 3D but found it to be my only option at the showtime I needed to see it. With an AMC Stubbs “A-List” monthly membership it comes at no extra cost, so I thought, what the hell. Now this is one of the rare films I would recommend be seen in 3-D. There is little doubt it works fine in standard 2-D, but the 3-D enhances the effect of being inside comic book panels, and does it quite well.
And then of course, does anyone remember the racist uproar over the idea of Marvel Comics introducing a black Spider-Man several years ago? As it happens, that was specifically about the character we are introduced to in film here, Miles Morales (charmingly voiced by Shameik Moore). He’s got a Black dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican mom (Luna Lauren Velez) and they live in Brooklyn. This is a story about a young Black/Latino Spider-Man and it’s wonderful.
It’s also effectively self-aware, with narration saying things like “Okay, let’s go through this one more time,” and quickly recapping how our hero was bitten by a radioactive spider. There being such a thing in the underground New York tunnels where Miles is doing spray art with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) doesn’t make much sense, but who cares? The spider logo eventually seen on the “Black Spider-Man” suit being rendered as though spray painted is an especially nice touch.
And I haven’t even gotten into the whole multiverse idea, have I? Here is where Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse mercifully ignores the typical MCU idea that all Marvel superheroes exist in the same world (thereby overwhelming virtually all stories about them) — here, there is only Spider-Man. Well, in this dimension, anyway. This film’s primary villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), has built a particle accelerator meant to retrieve his dead wife and son from another dimension, but when this world’s current Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) is fatally mixed up in its use, it brings several versions of Spider-Man from other dimensions into this one: “Peter B. Parker” (Jake Johnson); Gwen Stacey’s Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld); the anime-style Japanese girl from the future, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), with a robot friend powered by her radioactive spider from fourth-millennium New York; the black and white “Spider-Man Noir” (Nicholas Cage) from 1930s New York; and even the cartoon “Peter Porker / Spider-Ham” (John Mulaney).
This is a whole lot of detail to cram into a two-hour movie, what with its opportunities for humor as well as endless references to characters and stories that all previously existed in actual comic books (most of which I probably missed; this movie will be a comic book nerd’s dream). Amazingly, even with two writers (Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) and three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), all these references and comic touches are seamlessly woven into a tightly packed and tightly polished narrative. From beginning to end, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a swiftly paced, gorgeously rendered animated film authentically honoring comic book storytelling in a way other films about superheroes never do.
This is a film with nothing cynical at its heart, even as it recognizes how overplayed some of its tropes are. This is one movie that builds on those tropes rather than rehashing them, and it’s a consistent delight throughout.