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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is dazzling, hilarious, and unique

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It’s the beginning of its own interconnected animated universe

Image: Sony Pictures Animation

Back in 2013, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced plans for its own elaborate, interconnected universe based around Spider-Man. Among the planned titles: Amazing Spider-Man 3 (which never happened), Venom (which arguably shouldn’t have happened), and The Sinister Six (which hasn’t happened yet, though writer-director Drew Goddard would still love to tackle it). Instead, Sony went a different way, partnering with Marvel two years later to make Spider-Man part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, leading to Tom Holland’s portrayal of Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming and other MCU films.

It was a concession that perhaps Marvel Studios knew how to best handle the marquee version of the character. But in spite of Spider-Man’s successful MCU integration, Sony continued to work on many of its expanded universe ideas. The most intriguing of the bunch was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated film meant not only to step away from the world of live-action superheroes, but to put the spotlight on Miles Morales, the character writer Brian Michael Bendis created in 2011 to take over the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker was killed. With the project being creatively shepherded by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street films, the project had the potential to offer a fresh, radically different take on the character that would actually warrant a standalone film in a sea of interconnected franchise titles.

The finished film is all those things and more. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a raucous, smart, self-referential adventure. The comics-inspired visuals are stunning, and the emotional coming-of-age story is relevant and inspiring, even as it acknowledges the many Spider-Man movies that have come before it. Sony is clearly looking for a way to launch its own distinct take on Spider-Man that can stand up to the live-action MCU version, and that franchise now has its first installment.

Unpacking the storyline in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a bit tricky because the film is so fast-paced and filled with so many meta-references that it becomes a bit of an interconnected puzzle. It starts off with Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) trying to dismantle a massive supercollider built by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Spider-Man is killed in the battle, leading all of New York to mourn the loss of their hometown superhero. Then the film shifts to teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), whose artistic inclinations don’t necessarily please his police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry). One night, Miles’ uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali from Moonlight and the recent Green Book) takes him to a hidden tunnel in the subway system to spray-paint a mural, and Miles is bitten by a mysterious spider. Soon, he’s developing Spider-Man-esque powers.

That’s just the beginning of a story that pulls different iterations of Spider-Man from alternative universes into Miles’ own. A flailing, middle-aged Peter Parker (also Johnson), the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) are just a few examples of the larger Spider-Man metaverse that Miles learns exists. Soon, they join forces to stop Kingpin so Miles can harness his emerging powers, and so the other characters can use the machine to jump back to their own dimensions before it’s too late.

For a film with such a mind-bending premise, Into the Spider-Verse is remarkably efficient in the way it sets up the various characters and the world’s stakes, largely by relying on the audience’s knowledge of comic book movies and these characters. An opening montage, for example, tells the backstory of the soon-to-be-deceased Peter Parker, which essentially establishes him as the Tobey Maguire iteration of the character from the Sam Raimi film trilogy. The upside-down kiss with Mary Jane from Raimi’s 2002 original, the train rescue from Spider-Man 2, and the regrettable Spider-Man 3 dance sequence are all referenced, and when he dies, it serves as a clean break from all other iterations of the character.

Image: Sony Pictures Animation

The knowing meta-humor present in that opening montage never relents. The script from Lord and co-director Rodney Rothman is filled with the kind of irreverent takes on pop culture and movie tropes that pepper Lord and Miller’s own films. And with each of the different multiverse characters embodying their own genres, there are plenty of different gags to play with. Cage’s Spider-Man Noir is a parody of goofy film noir clichés. The storyline of the anime-influenced Peni Parker is remarkably earnest, yet winking in the way it utilizes that particular animation style. The talking pig Spider-Ham (yes, a real Marvel character, voiced by John Mulaney) serves as broad comic relief, with the sheer absurdity of the character allowing the others — as heightened and bizarre as they may be in their own right — to feel relatively grounded by comparison.

That balance is essential because while this is an animated film, Miles Morales is one of the most relatable, vulnerable lead characters to appear in a Spider-Man movie. His desire to establish his own identity separate from his father’s, his awkward teenage clumsiness when he meets someone he likes in school, and his frustration that he can’t easily master his newfound skills with ease all create a storyline that echoes the struggles of any teenager battling to discover and establish their identity. These are themes present in most Spider-Man origin stories, but setting them against the backdrop of the multiverse — which allows Miles to learn that there are multiple interpretations of what he can be as Spider-Man, all of them valid — brings the point home further.

It also underscores the importance of this film choosing to focus on Morales in the first place. In movies, the Spider-Man franchise has for far too long focused on the same character doing the same things, often in the exact same way, no matter what strides the comic made in terms of diversity and representation. Into the Spider-Verse shows what a wasted opportunity that has been. In this film, Spider-Man isn’t one particular person; it’s an idea accessible to anyone, no matter where they come from or what they look like. And it’s almost certainly no accident that the older multiverse Peter Parker who Miles teams up with — an out-of-shape, middle-aged white dude who’s totally screwed up his own life, in spite of all the built-in advantages of being a superhero — ends up learning quite a bit from Morales about how to repair his own life and respect other people.

Image: Sony Pictures Animation

Along with the story insights and laughs, however, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is undeniably a visual powerhouse, with a style unlike any previous comics adaptation. The film pulls both from traditional 3D computer animation and comic book aesthetics, mashing them up into a dazzling, kinetic style. In one moment, the film lays out multiple panels on the screen. In another, it uses written captions to mirror Miles’ internal monologue. In yet another, it deploys familiar written sound effects to match the action. It allows the directing team — Rothman, Bob Persichetti, and Peter Ramsey — to litter every frame with as many flourishes and blink-and-miss-it gags as possible. (My personal favorite is when the word “Bagel!” is used as a sound effect. Trust me on this one.)

Sometimes the film does reach visual overload. In the final act, particularly, so much is happening on-screen that the movie’s style seems to undercut the narrative, turning everything into a blur of shape, color, and movement. But for the most part, the highly experimental style works extraordinarily well. It’s a testament to Sony that the studio was willing to let the filmmakers go so far with the visual treatment, and it becomes one more element that distinguishes Spider-Verse as something completely distinct from other Spider-Man movies or even other animated films.

That last aspect — the fact that it feels honestly, truly unique — is one of the most invigorating aspects of Into the Spider-Verse. Superhero movies clutter the cinematic landscape these days, and with rare exceptions like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther they often look, sound, and act alike. They’ve become more consumer-friendly products than storytelling endeavors, with specific moments and stylistic approaches that are carefully honed to create films with the greatest possible chance of success. That doesn’t mean they’re all good (as many of Sony’s Spider-Man releases prove), but it does mean that they’re safe and often extraordinarily similar.

Image: Sony Pictures Animation

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is incredibly exciting because it eschews all of that. It’s innovative, irreverent, and dynamic. It’s hilarious but exceptionally earnest, with a lead character worth caring about. It’s the kind of cinematic ride that invites more franchise installments — not just to learn more about the many, many characters it introduces and worlds it hints at, but just to see how Miles Morales’ Spider-Man will grow and change.

If Sony really wants to find a way to separate itself from Marvel, DC, and every other comic book adaptation out there, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to jettison its upcoming live-action Spider-Man spinoffs and just work on expanding the Miles Morales Spider-Verse. The framework is already there, as are a multitude of new characters embodying different takes and new points of view. That’s no doubt why the studio has already quietly started development on a sequel, as well as a Spider-Women movie that will focus on Gwen Stacey and other female heroes. There have been a lot of Spider-Man movies over the last 16 years, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is unique in a way none of the others can match.