I remember reacting poorly when I first heard that Sony and Marvel were working on an animated film featuring Miles Morales Spider-Man. Part of the reaction was from the fact the announcement came right around the time when Tom Holland was beginning his run as the third Spider-Man since 2002, but mostly it was from the fact that while Peter Parker has gotten three different live action versions, Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager, felt relegated to a lower budget, lower profile debut in an animated movie. It was as though Sony and even Marvel were claiming that a non-white lead couldn’t generate enough interest for a big budget film. Of course, Black Panther has since gone on to shatter that delusion, but by the time T’Challa broke through Into the Spider-Verse was already well into production. But now, having watched Morales’s big screen debut, what’s clear is that Into the Spider-Verse isn’t limited by being an animated feature. No. For this Spider-Man – Miles Morales Spider-Man – animation is the feature which removes all limits.
Spider-Verse‘s fun and immersion begin even before the film does with the Columbia Pictures logo flashing through several alternate versions into a sequence which includes a large Comics Code Authority approval logo and several real-life Spider-Man drawings by the likes of Keith Pollard and Erik Larsen taken from the pages of the “true life” stories of Spider-Man. This is quickly followed by the first of several voiceover narrations reciting the origin of Spider-Man, this time incorporating several of the most famous, and infamous, scenes from all three of the modern live action Spider-Man incarnations. This introduction services as both a background for where we are in this Spider-timeline and establishes the major plot conceit of multiple parallel timelines. Rather than entering yet another world where Spider-Man is an awkward teenage nerd, we’re in one where Spider-Man is a modern urban legend, a celebrity, and an essential hero responsible for protecting an entire city from destruction. We know the Spider-Man story, we don’t need to tread that ground again. And yet we do, over and over. For the best reason.
Perhaps more importantly than its narrative purpose, the opening minutes of Into the Spider-Verse act as a stylistic primer to the film’s visual palette. While films such as Hulk and Deadpool have attempted, to varying degrees of success, to mimic the elements of a comic book, Spider-Verse goes much farther than any other film in history with not only word balloons and panels but even blurs, color bleeds and Ben-Day dots filtered over the screen. Although at first distracting or off-putting, once accepted these early flaws in the comic book printing process become intentional in the verisimilitude of Miles’s world, establishing Spider-Verse as the most comic book movie of all comic book movies. As well, by now faster-than-a-blink Easter eggs are practically the norm for any clever film, but Spider-Verse amplifies the effect by filling its alternative version of New York with parallels to Netflix series, cult cartoons, and Broadway shows, and of course tons of references to previous Spider-Man artists and creators; among my favorites are “B. Bendis” in Miles’s phone contacts and a television playing Donald Glover, a real life inspiration for Miles Morales, wearing Spider-Man pajamas in a scene from season two of Community. (Would that make him another alternate version of Spider-Man? The possibilities are endless!) Between the sharp line work, the onomatopoeia, the visual flaws, the bright colors, blend of jittery and fluid motion, and the brilliant photo-realistic shadows, Spider-Verse looks like nothing else in Western animation, easily rivaling the best of anime for immersion and flair.
Yet beyond merely being gorgeous – and to complete the full circle that is Spider-Verse‘s merging of visual and thematic – the animation style itself serves to further the narrative. By thrusting the viewer into a stylized comic book world we come to know that this is a separate universe from our own, complete with twists on real world elements like Fed-Ex and the NYPD. Other alternate dimensions are given their own visual versions, the best being a running gag using color in a black-and-white world. But the best of Spider-Verse‘s visual prowess comes in a relatively simple scene featuring two Spider-Men discussing the idea of alternate dimensions while walking up and down the sides of buildings with the camera positioned to make what is parallel upright and what is upright inverted. Regardless of genre, few films in recent memory match Spider-Verse‘s merging of style with substance, so much so that one could not exist without the other. Again, Morales isn’t limited to an animated feature. Nor is animation, and child-friendly animation at that, limited to simplistic storytelling. And to think it is, frankly, is just wrong (Bill Maher). Not even time serves as a limit on animation.
More than box office returns, film rights, actor contracts, or anything else what has caused the frequent reboots of the Spider-Man films is simply that real people get older. On film, Spider-Man has always been depicted as a young man, uncertain of who is his and who he is supposed to be, In contrast to other heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Batman and Superman, who can get older and more grizzled, an expiration date immediately begins on a Spider-Man actor. Tobey Maquire was already 27 when he played a high school-aged Parker and in his 30’s by the time he left. Andrew Garfield was even older at 29, graduating to college two years later. Even the youngest of the live action Spider-Men, Tom Holland, was 20 when he debuted in Captain America: Civil War. Spider-Verse, however, takes a very different approach, not only by being animated in which (as the Simpsons has taught us) characters don’t age, but by also giving us an older, more experienced Spider-Man along with a younger, uncertain one. In this sense, we get the best of all possible worlds: an awkward young man trying to come to grips with what he is capable of and a superhero with the confidence of years of web-slinging and wise-cracking. Everything that has ever been great about Spider-Man as a character is great in Into the Spider-Verse. We have Spider-Man as both mentor and student. Further, Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Spider-Ham move the expectation of Spider-Man beyond anything so limiting as his traditional depiction. There is truly no end to who can be Spider-Man. The costume always fits, eventually.
The same break from live action additionally serves Spider-Verse by allowing for actors who otherwise wouldn’t be able to play these parts. While Hailee Steinfeld might be conceivably cast as Spider-Gwen, and performers like Live Schreiber, Marhershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry (from the current best show on television, Atlanta, also starring Donald Glover. …it all comes together), Lily Tomlin and especially Nicholas Cage could remain in their roles, the central performances by Shameik Moore and Jake Johnson would be lost. Despite being as much older than Miles as previous Spider-Men were to Parker, Moore wonderfully captures the budding superhero’s juxtaposition of confidence and self-doubt. Meanwhile Johnson’s comedic delivery and timing are wonderful in embodying a Peter Parker whose universe has not been particularly kind. Both actors provide the type of self-depreciating bravado which has always so well defined the Spider-Man character. It is also necessary to mention that there is a Stan Lee cameo. In a film of strong but understated emotions the minute spent with Stan the Man is the most effecting: sad and profound, but not without humor. As the first film since Lee’s passing, his part here is perfect.
Ultimately, Into the Spider-Verse serves as an expansion of Spider-Man in both the fictional and real world sense. Fictional of course by introducing a half-dozen new variations, and a whole new world and medium for the character. Real world by allowing several generations and groups to bring themselves into the myth of the Spider-Man. Spider-Man was always a character on which awkward teenage boys projected themselves, myself included. With Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and the rest, this identification is offered to millions more, regardless of their demographics.
Anyone can be Spider-Man. You just have to take that leap.