Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti/Peter Ramsey/Rodney Rothman, 2018) 4 out of 4 stars.
Created in 1962 by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Manhas long been a mainstay of the Marvel Comics universe, changing over time in ways both large and small yet remaining mostly true to the central premise of an ordinary young man, Peter Parker, turned extraordinary by a bite from a radioactive spider. There have been many moving-image adaptations of the character; in just the last 16 years alone we have seen three different actors incarnate the role, from Tobey Maguire in 2002(followed by two sequels) to Andrew Garfield in 2012(followed by one sequel) to Tom Holland in 2017(and beyond). Those are just the live-action, big-screen versions: the worlds of animation and television have offered up countless other iterations. As someone who has grown increasingly jaded by the overabundance of superhero narratives in our modern world, I had given up on seeing anything new or original come from this particular character, overdone and overused as he is. But then I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and realized how wrong I had been.
In this new animated movie – beautiful to look at as well as exciting to watch – we meet Miles Morales, a young African-American kid from New York who, like Peter Parker before him, is just minding his business when an enhanced arachnid forever changes his life. The twist here is that Parker also exists in this world, and in fact opens the movie, as Spider-Man, walking us through, in fast-paced voiceover narration, the countless facts we already know about him. Morales is just a high-schooler at this point, with the usual problems of a teenager, but otherwise normal. Soon, courtesy of Spider-Man’s long-standing nemesis Kingpin, that will change. Not only does Morales gain superpowers of his own, but is thereafter joined by a multiplicity of other manifestations of Spidey, all from parallel universes, transported into Morales’ world thanks to a portal created and opened by Kingpin. What happens when these different versions of the same superhero come together? Why ask, as we live in that world already (see first paragraph, above).
Launched by Marvel in 2011 – courtesy of writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli – the character of Morales offered a much-needed fresh take on the Spider-Verse, bringing not only diversity but also renewed wit and joie de webbing. As he plays out here, along with his friends from other dimensions, Morales is a delight, a smart kid in over his head who rises to the challenge of doing more than he thinks he can. He is our avatar, navigating a well-worn story as if it is the first time it is being told, even though it isn’t (again, see first paragraph, above). Indeed, the enormous pleasure that we experience throughout this manic adventure is that of familiarity mixed with novelty, or what the Russians, just about 100 years ago, called ostranenie. When what is known becomes unknown, the plot thickens anew, sending shivers down our spectatorial spines. Did I say I was tired of superheroes? Clearly, I was mistaken.
It’s not just Morales who engages, but the entire cast of Spidey clones, including Spider-Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen); Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, Joe), all decked out in a black-and-white fedora and trench coat, caught in a grayscale gradient surrounded by the vibrant colors of everyone else; and a second version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson, Digging for Fire), older than the first. As the voice of Morales, Shameik Moore (Dope) is pitch perfect, initially shy and wide-eyed, then bolder as the story progresses. Brian Tyree Henry (Widows) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), as Morales’ father and uncle, are also fine; so is Lily Tomlin (Grandma), as Aunt May. The real star, however, is the concept, itself, which uses the tired tropes of a seemingly exhausted genre and character as the very substance of the text. This is sheer pop-cultural brilliance, as well as an engrossing coming-of-age tale on its own terms. As such, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only the best animated film of the year, but one of 2018’s best works of overall cinema. The friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is back with a vengeance, and I couldn’t be happier.