Nearly thirty years after Tim Burton’s Batman became a box office behemoth, around fifteen years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man set a proper template for big screen superhero adventures, and ten years after Jon Favreau’s Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there remains an aversion to acknowledging the comic book origins of cinematic subgenre that currently rules the movie business. That’s changing in increments. Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, was rightly lauded for its sharp comedy, but what truly distinguished it was the embrace of endless possibilities of superhero storytelling, where believability is based on establishing basic rules and then adhering to internal logic, earthly facts be damned. These are beings equipped with superhuman abilities who don colorful costumes to fight similarly enhanced and garbed evildoers. Wild imaginings should come with the territory.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most beautifully unbound and freely imagined superhero story yet flashed onto a theater screen. It comes remarkably close to stirring the sort of thrilled sensations I experienced in my boyhood when I eagerly raced through monthly periodicals produced by Marvel and their distinguished competition. In part because working in animation makes gravity that much easier to defy, the film — co-directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman — is vividly, riotously committed to gleeful inventiveness.
A simplified but accurate description of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that it presents the origin story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a character introduced on the page in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe line. The film takes place in an alternate universe in which Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) is killed in action, fortuitously around the time Miles suffers familiar side effects after an irradiated spider chomps on him. Miles tentatively tries to step up and fill Peter’s wall-crawling shoes, getting assistance from a cadre of unique web-slingers from other dimensions (including an older, gone to seed version of Peter) yanked into the timeline by a colossal reality warping machine funded by the hulking mobster Wilson Fisk, also known as the Kingpin (Liev Shreiber).
The concept of divergent versions of Spider-Man teaming up is drawn from a comic book storyline that sprawled across a variety of titles a few years back. Enthralled by its own pained convolutions, that comic saga was dreadful, but it cracks open the freewheeling spirit of the form in the way it’s handled in the film. Trope-tweaking master Phil Lord developed the story for the screen and co-wrote the script with Rothman. They know the assemblage of bounding heroes needs to have a deeper purpose to avoid becoming mere narrative clutter, and so the characters represent a cross-section of the comic book form, including manga (Peni Parker, voiced by Kimiko Glenn) and funny animal stories (Peter Porker, the spectacular Spider-Ham, voiced by John Mulaney, a stroke of casting genius that deserves an award). Repeatedly returning the images of comic books as visual scorecards to discern among the players further emphasizes the loving homage.
Visually, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a knockout. The directors employ slightly different styles as further signifiers of the derivations of the different characters, managing to make it all meld with friction that drives that story but doesn’t obliterate needed consistency. The images are striking and densely full of wonder. Other superhero films, even those rendered in animation, have compacted the characters and scenarios in evident attempts to sate the skeptical. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse remains true to itself, inviting the viewer to meet it where it is. The journey is worth taking for anyone who longs to stand agog before the brightly impossible.