In the past two decades, Spider-Man has swung across our screens more times than one could count. From the Tobey Maguire era to Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, there have been many faces underneath the famous web-slinger’s mask. That’s not to say that each one lacks their own spin on the character, but such frequent reboots for the same hero can eventually become stale. Thankfully, the Spider-Man mythology gets a fresh spider-bite from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Rather than placing Peter Parker at its center — again — Spider-Verse instead explores an origin story for Miles Morales, the second iteration of Spider-Man. Much like Peter Parker, Miles (Shameik Moore) is an ordinary teen who finds himself on the outside looking in. He’s just started at a new prep school where he doesn’t fully fit in, and while his father (Brian Tyree Henry) loves him, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the pair.
Soon, however, Miles will realize he’s not as alone as he thinks; shortly after he endures the spider-bite that gives him his superhuman abilities, an explosion from a particle accelerator caused by Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) connects Miles’ world with alternate dimensions — and alternate Spider-people. Miles must then team up with Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) and other versions of Spider-Man to stop Fisk and get everyone back to their respective dimensions.
The style of animation is like nothing I’ve seen on screen before. Upon first seeing it in trailers, I wasn’t convinced it would work, but in context, the film is quite a spectacle. Although it is digitally rendered, the imagery often feels like flipping through the pages of a comic book, complete with intermittent thought and voice bubbles for the characters. The vibrant color palette sets this story apart from previous iterations of Spider-Man, and the character design for each Spider-person is distinct and fun, from Gwen Stacy to Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage). The visual storytelling alone should be enough reason to give this the Oscar for Best Animated Film.
By the nature of its premise, the film necessarily becomes a balancing act between these characters — both in giving them personalities and keeping them distinct from one another. As I mentioned at the onset, though, Spider-Verse thrives through its decision to place Miles, not Peter, at the forefront. Part of the fun is the inclusion of these different versions of Spider-Man, but everything stems from Miles’ own journey towards becoming the hero his universe needs. In fact, he is the vehicle by which the film conveys its main takeaway: anyone can wear the mask.
This meaning is two-fold; anyone, even you as the audience member, has the ability to act heroically. That’s the feel-good message, but within the Spider-Man mythology, it’s also a statement that Peter Parker isn’t the only one who’s allowed to be Spider-Man. Miles Morales can take the mantle, and so can people like Gwen Stacy — a character who’s been relegated to the role of a romantic interest in previous Spider-Man films. It’s this through-line that places Spider-Verse into a fresh focus.
Speaking of the other Spider-people, the way the story actually does balance these characters is both humorous and effective. Character introductions tend to feel needlessly expository, but Spider-Verse flips this problem on its head by making said introductions a formal device of the film each time a new Spider-person pops up. In doing so, it also provides a subtle critique on Spider-Man’s origin story, which we’ve seen play out more than once on screen. This, combined with excellent voice-work across the board from the cast — most notably from Moore, Johnson and Steinfeld — makes for a story that is largely innovative and wholly fun.
For all its aesthetic and narrative ingenuity, though, Spider-Verse does share a common weakness with other superhero films in that its villain is generic and underdeveloped. Kingpin is a staple in both Spider-Man and Daredevil’s rogues gallery, so it’s a logical choice to include such a formidable foe. Without giving anything away, Kingpin’s motivations could be quite affecting, but the film doesn’t take his character nearly far enough, reducing him to a brutish, hulking figure — both in demeanor and design.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sets itself apart by taking what is essential to the character of Spider-Man — his relatability — and placing that element into a vibrant story featuring faces both old and new. Its villain doesn’t quite reach the same level as its heroes, but this animated universe will undoubtedly open the door for new narrative possibilities and new heroes at the helm.