‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ brings bold new style to classic story

A promotional poster for 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' is shown. via intothespiderverse.com

There is a shot of Miles Morales, the protagonist of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” running through the neon nighttime streets of New York in his Spider-Man suit for the first time.  Instead of imitating the skin-tight, muscular Spider-Man getup we’re used to, though, Miles wears a hoodie, shorts and high-top Nike sneakers over his black suit as he dashes through the city on his skinny teenage legs.  This new silhouette is young and contemporary, enhanced by a thumping hip-hop track in the background; however, Miles’ mask and web-slinging still remain hauntingly familiar to any “Spider-Man” fan.

Miles’ new outfit represents what “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” most effectively accomplishes: bringing a fresh style to the “Spider-Man” canon, while also staying true to both its comic and cinematic roots.  And, of course, it does so with a visual style that’s bold, bright and confident. The film is immaculate.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” tells the origin story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a middle schooler living in Brooklyn with his father, a cop. Like every other Spider-Man story, Miles gets bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him spider-like powers. However, this incident coincides with evil crime boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) testing out an inter-dimensional supercollider, which accidentally brings five Spider-people from other dimensions into Miles’ world, including Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), the original Spider-Man.  While Miles is still learning to use his powers, he must figure out how to stop Kingpin and get his new friends home to their universes.

Considering that plots involving inter-dimensional travel can get muddied pretty quickly, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s” story is tight, surprisingly straightforward and bursting with charisma. This charm is due in part to the fact that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously — While it still has its heartfelt moments, the script is filled with enough quips, jokes and references to keep the story fast-paced, engaging and, frankly, quite funny.  Miles’ budding mentor/mentee relationship with Peter Parker takes center stage, which not only gives the story another level of emotional depth, but also symbolizes a passing of the torch from one Spider-Man to the next.

Miles himself is a Spider-Man for a new generation — he’s younger than most incarnations of Peter Parker, he’s an Afro-Latino, he enjoys graffiti and he listens to Post Malone — which imbues his story with a fresh, cross-cultural and modern sensibility.  Part of Miles’ journey in the film is learning not just to be Spider-Man, but to be his own version of Spider-Man that lets him work with his strengths as a hero.  This facet of Miles’ story is a reconsideration of what it means to be Spider-Man. While we’ve all grown up with the distinct image of Peter Parker as Spider-Man, it’s not necessarily the only story that deserves to be told. This film shows that the story of an Afro-Latino teenager brings just as much, if not more, to the table as a traditionally white male character.

In addition to Miles’ new frame of reference, the film welcomes a host of zany new iterations of Spider-Man from alternate dimensions, such as Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage) and anime-inspired Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), all of whom are from real-life spinoff comics.  While this ragtag group could’ve easily become a shallow source of comic relief (John Mulaney’s hilarious anthropomorphic pig Peter Porker, for example, might not strike someone as a character with much emotional range), the group plays an important role by bringing new perspectives and takes to the Spider-Man story line — What is it like for a woman like Gwen to take on the responsibilities of Spider-Man, for example?  And, for what seems like such a random assortment of quirky characters, they work surprisingly well as Miles’ teammates, adding levity, personality and heart to the cast.

Obviously, the film grapples with a lot of newness.  Instead of completely reinventing itself, however, the film plays with well-known elements of the“Spider-Man” canon to ground it in its origins.  Not only does it incorporate familiar “Spider-Man” characters, villains and tropes, but it also specifically references moments from past movies, such as the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” films. Therefore, while “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” seeks to bring a new take on a timeless classic, it contextualizes itself within a well-known and well-loved universe so that the story still feels familiar and nostalgic alongside all of its newness.

From the first few minutes, it’s clear that “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s” animation is absolutely explosive.  It’s bright, colorful and ambitious, and clearly seeks to push the artistic bounds of animation.  All of its innovations, however, are driven by the old-school artistic style of print comic books, meaning that the animation does exactly what the story does — it uses its roots as a jumping-off point to create a new, contemporary masterpiece. 

Some comic-book influences are obvious — freeze-frames, comic-book style captions and sound effects appearing as words on the screen — while other influences are subtler.  Light is represented with Ben-Day dots (those little Liechtenstein comic-book dots); shadows have a layer of crosshatching, creating a hand-drawn effect; and in times of high emotional drama, characters will appear misaligned from a red/blue overlay, like a misprint in a comic book.  The film is also animated in 12 frames per second (as opposed to the regular 24), making the action feel jumpy, almost as though each individual frame of the film is a panel in a comic book.  And, of course, the film expertly incorporates the appropriate animation styles of the other Spider-people as well; Peni Parker’s animation is reminiscent of anime, while Spider-Pig’s is old-school cartoony.

While there’s a lot going on, the film’s adherence to the visual language of comic books means that while it’s clearly experimenting with a bold new style, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” doesn’t lose track of what it is.  Instead, the result is a nearly flawless feat of animation steeped in the iconic art style of comics.

All of these artistic feats aside, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is just like a comic book in that it’s a blast. It’s high-octane, it’s funny, it’s bold and it’s got heart, and I would urge anyone who hasn’t seen it yet to do so. Most importantly, though, it stylishly brings a new perspective to the classic Spider-Man tale while, at the end of the day, still feeling like a total love letter to comic books.


Summary

"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" puts a dazzling new spin on the "Spider-Man" tale while paying homage to its origins.

5 stars
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