Spider-Verse shows that there are no actual limits to superhero stories on the big screen, so long as they aren’t tethered to how many Robert Downey Jr. quips they can fit.
As more and more blockbusters adapted from superhero comics come to rely on intermittently believable CGI to bridge the gap between the real world and the fantastical elements of the source material, it’s a shame there aren’t more big-budget animated features exploring this fertile playground. Warner Bros. puts out a reliable slate of straight-to-video DC Comics adaptations, sure, but none of them are pushing boundaries visually. But the new Hail-Mary from Sony, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, makes a strong case for the future of this genre being removed from the restrictions of live action, if for no reason other than that animation can capture the true heart of comics storytelling a helluva lot better.
From jump street, Spider-Verse lets the viewer know this is a going to be a pure distillation of what makes Marvel work so well on the page, with a tongue-in-cheek “approved by the Comics Code Authority” card before the credits, and fourth-wall breaking voice-over narration from one of the film’s many Spider-Men establishing an easy to follow status quo. It’s a film that knows it’s going to throw a lot of complicated, comic concepts at the audience, so it starts by building off of recognizable imagery from the Raimi Spider-Man films to ease the audience into the new space.
The film is set on what feels like a conceivable future for Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, where a Spider-Man (voiced by a surprising easter egg actor who is NOT Tobey Maguire) has reached his apex potential and is a beloved hero in New York City. This Spider-Man is less the bumbling, tragicomic figure we know and love and more the platonic ideal of what Spider-Man can truly be, hewing more towards the aspirational mythos of Superman. He tangles with the usual villains, but Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is using a big sci-fi MacGuffin to crack into the multiverse, a plot that threatens to tear apart the fabric of reality. The ensuing conflict ends with this Spider-Man being unceremoniously murdered by Fisk, ending his story prematurely.
But that’s because this film isn’t a Peter Parker story. It’s a Miles Morales one. Miles, the half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man first introduced into Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe in 2011, was created by writer Brian Michael Bendis as a reaction to the campaign to get Donald Glover cast as Spider-Man in a movie. He’s the figure a lot of fans thought would be ol’ webhead when Kevin Feige got the character introduced into the MCU. While a lot of folks were frustrated that the Tom Holland iteration of Peter Parker borrowed so much thematically and supporting cast-wise from the Miles stories to feel new, Spider-Verse is ultimately a much better introduction of the character to the mainstream.
Dope’s Shameik Moore voices Miles as a regular teenager living in a world with one Spider-Man. His dad (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop, but his closest relationship is with his uncle (Mahershala Ali), who still lives a street life. He goes to a special private school where he doesn’t fit in. But then a spider bites him, but not a radioactive one. It’s a spider affected by the multiversal engine Fisk is toying with. He literally gets spider powers from a meta-arachnid transformed by the confluence of Spider-Men between the connected universes. Miles is there when the Perfect Peter dies, and he makes him a promise to use his powers to stop them from ever turning the machine on again.
It’s important that we see this iconic, ideal Spider-Man die right before being introduced to a group of mirror versions of the character. The machine brings five others to this world. There’s Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), an absurd “Sin City”-esque version of the wall crawler who talks like James Cagney, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a kind of Anime spider-character with her own mecha, Spider-Woman (Hailee Stanfield), a hero from a world where Gwen Stacey gets powers instead of her best friend Peter, and finally Peter Porker: Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a Looney Tunes spider-version with a cartoon mallet. It’s definitely concept-overkill, but it shatters the assumption that Spider-Man, as an idea, must be what has always come before.
The other Spider-Man is a different Peter Parker, one also heavily telegraphed to be a possible future for the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man audiences are familiar with. This one, however, mirrors the early ‘00s comic iteration of the character, a flabby, middle-aged, recently divorced Peter voiced by Jake Johnson, one who has to help teach and train Miles but is too depressed to be particularly effective at it. These other interpretations are all important because they play on the fact that the audience has already seen six other Peter Parker starring movies. They’ve seen the origin done to death. They’ve watched Sony get further and further away from what makes Spider-Man a compelling character in the first place.
Some may bristle at the fact that Miles finally gets his own movie and then has to share screen time with this sprawling, convoluted narrative, but the visual language of the film and the tone of the world are all borne from what makes Miles such an interesting protagonist. He feels like a modern teenager in a way Tom Holland’s Peter can’t quite match. The design elements incorporating graffiti and hip-hop culture into the aesthetics are a little on the nose for a black superhero, sure, but they still ring true.
It allows for a more idiosyncratic look and feel than we’re ever going to get in a live action MCU film, because the animators and designers jumped through hoops to create a singular, unified vision incorporating a 2D style from individual comics (like the heavy Bill Sienkiewicz influence on the Kingpin, or original Miles artist Sara Pichelli’s place in the facial acting and character design) with an immersive, 3D world that doesn’t bother trying to feel “real.”
By the time we reach the orgiastic third act set-piece where reality is caving in on itself and a smorgasbord of colors are clashing on the screen, it’s hard not to be bored to tears at the idea of sitting through another near three hour Marvel movie where half of the shit is animated anyway and none of the effects work will look as good as this. Let’s just, as a society, agree to cut out the middleman and make more animated superhero movies so we don’t have to keep watering the source material down to the lowest common denominator. Spider-Verse shows that there are no actual limits to superhero stories on the big screen, so long as they aren’t tethered to how many Robert Downey Jr. quips they can fit.