I want to live inside of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. I want to simultaneously wallpaper my brain with this thing, and erase all memory of it so I can watch it again for the very first time. And look, I know I’m an easy target for a movie like this, given that it ticks basically all of my boxes (comic book characters? animation? Nic Cage?). But when I say that the hype on this one is real, I don’t simply mean that it will live up to your expectations — I mean that it will surpass them. This movie is more than the sum of every Spider-person, easter egg, clever nod or surprise cameo in it. Its charm is in the confident balance it strikes between all those things and the story that drives it, the technical genius of the animation, that bangin’ soundtrack, and the message it leaves you with.
That message? That Spidey could be any of us, or all of us, underneath that mask — which is an interesting point of view for a movie that is, essentially, yet another Spider-Man origin story. But what makes Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse work is that it does manage to deliver a fresh take on the character’s origin — and not just because it’s a movie about Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, instead of one about Peter Parker. What makes this origin fresh isn’t down to the differences in the characters — their race or their borough or their families or their circumstances. In fact, the whole point of the film is that those sorts of details are specifically what don’t make Spider-Man who he (or she, or it) is. What sets Into The Spider-Verse apart is that it shows us a Spider-Man who doesn’t have to figure out how to be a hero on his own. It shows us what happens when he has peers who understand him: his pain, his uncertainty, his fear. It shows us what happens when a hero has help. And that’s a Spider-Man origin I’ve never seen.
But this is also a fresh take on the TELLING of Spidey’s origin, too. It’s acutely aware that you’ve already likely seen at least the three live-action cinematic Spideys, and that maybe you’re familiar with the many (multiversal) permutations of the character from the pages of Marvel comics. Maybe you’ve even seen the old cartoon series, or at least are familiar with some of the jokey memes (Tobey Maguire Emo-Spidey?) that have sprung up online. The point is, this film embraces all that complicated Spidey canon, and runs with it. It knows you’re probably sick to death of Spidey origin stories… so it makes sure you get one for EVERY SPIDER-PERSON IT INTRODUCES (don’t worry, they’re short). It’s packed with clever nods for the fandom, but you don’t have to catch any of them to enjoy the tale. It makes sure to break down the important bits of information (spider bite, awesome powers, responsibility, villainous plot, save the multiverse) without forcing you to absorb more lore than you want to. And though the innovative patent-pending animation technique makes the film look like a four-color comic, complete with misalignments and thought bubbles, it also takes pains to make Miles a fully-formed Black Latino teenager in a vibrant world of family and friends and music (the soundtrack includes Jaden Smith, Vince Staples, Nicki Minaj, and Post Malone — who also voices a bystander in the film). This may be a Spider-Man story seemingly constructed out of deep-cuts, but it manages to be one of the most broadly accessible, funny, and joyfully exuberant takes on the character I’ve ever seen.
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a Brooklyn teen with a loving, if overbearing, family. His dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop and his mom Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) is a nurse. But while they have pushed him into a private school he’s struggling to fit into, his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is his real role model. A cool guy of mysterious means who definitely does not have the approval of his law-enforcing brother, Aaron offers Miles an escape from everyone else’s expectations. And one night that escape involves ducking into a forgotten subway tunnel to get a lesson in graffiti art — where a weird glitchy spider bites Miles. And you know how that tends to work out.
Miles spends a few embarrassing days struggling to cope with his sudden growth spurt, unexpected strength and newly adhesive hands while trying not to embarrass himself in front of the cute new girl at school (“Gwanda” — or Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), until he falls into a pile of his roommate’s Spidey comics and realizes just what’s happening to him. Because you see, Miles’s world already HAS a Spider-Man — a Peter Parker who happens to have lived a life not unlike the Tobey Maguire version from the films. And THAT Spidey is a hero with a following and plenty of merchandising. Miles heads back into the tunnels to track down the spider that bit him and test his hypothesis, and that’s where he meets Spider-Man (Chris Pine) in the flesh — and discovers that the villain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is building a reactor that opens portals to other dimensions.
Which is how we end up with the grand Spidey team-up we saw in the trailers: the older, paunchier Peter (Jake Johnson), who becomes Miles’s de facto web-slinging tutor; Gwen, or Spider-Gwen; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a tough private eye from a black-and-white world; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a kawaii girl with a special spider-bot friend; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), who is a pig with the powers of a spider and the sensibility of Looney Toons character (right down to the possible copyright infringements). Part of me wanted more time spent with this crazy collective, but the film is right to give them each their own look and feel and not let them overstay their welcome. Any one of those other-versal heroes could easily hijack the film — but they need to return to their dimensions before the strain of being in Miles’s world destroys their cells, which means they need to go up against Kingpin and his goons (including a female Doc Ock voiced by Kathryn Hahn). And Miles needs to decide if he can become a hero in his own right — someone who can protect his family, his universe, and help them all get home again.
Like I said, Into the Spider-Verse offers us a look at a Spidey who doesn’t have learn the ropes by himself. But if the message of the film is basically that Spidey could be any of us underneath that mask, what it’s saying isn’t just that we can all be heroes — it’s that our differences aren’t as significant as our similarities. The details of our existence, whether we’re a boy or a girl or a pig, are all distractions. What matters is that we do exist, and that life brings us all pain and uncertainty, and love, and hope, and maybe some radioactive spiders — and those experiences are ones we all have in common. Everyone has an origin story, after all. But if the choices we make — the leaps we take — are what define us, then Spider-Verse is a reminder that we’re never leaping alone.
And hopefully neither will this movie, because the door has been wedged wide open for a whole slew of sequels — and the after credit sequence teases another big actor who could join the fun next time.