Sony doesn’t know how to stop with Spider-Man. In the past sixteen years, it’s produced six instalments of the friendly neighbourhood superhero with three different actors: Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland. Every time they get panned by critics, the Sony executives ponder for a bit and then hit the reset button without any hesitation. They have even tried to create a universe out of Marvel’s web-slinging star on multiple occasions, which finally began with a disastrous note in Tom Hardy-starrer Venom earlier this year. There’s a simple reason for this mayhem. Put together, the Spider-Man stories have grossed over $5.6 billion worldwide in ticket sales alone. Spider-Man makes money for Sony no matter how bad the film is, and Venom’s haul is proof of that.
For a filmmaker, Spider-Man is essentially the most crowded, over-done superhero story of this century. And yet, here comes along another one in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — written by The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord, and Rodney Rothman, who also co-directed with Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, and releasing December 14 — that has half a dozen Spider-people (or is it Spider-heroes? The terminology is still being tabled). Sure, it’s centred on Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore, from Dope and The Get Down), the half-African-American, half-Puerto Rican version introduced in 2011 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, but there’s still a Peter Parker in here. In fact, there are two Peter Parkers: one voiced by Star Trek and Wonder Woman star Chris Pine, and the other by New Girl’s Jake Johnson.
But despite all that, Into the Spider-Verse still manages to feel fresh and unique, which is immense for any superhero story in this decade let alone one about Spider-Man. A big part of that is the animation style, which combines computer-generated art with hand-drawn techniques, all inspired by the aesthetics of the comic books. At times, panels are laid out in a row, sound effects are visually represented (BAM! BOOM!), yellow rectangular boxes that detail a character’s thoughts are retained and depicted as is, and the Spider-Sense is shown as squiggly lines. Plus, it makes use of a lowered frame-rate — 12 instead of 24, for the most part — that places it over a flip book but below new-age animation. Lord and frequent collaborator Christopher Miller, who’s a producer, wanted it to feel like walking into a comic book and boy, have they nailed it.
That is paired with some of the best self-referential, repeatedly fourth wall-breaking writing seen in the genre for a while. Carrying over his 21 Jump Street and Lego Movie sensibilities, the same that got him and Miller kicked off Solo: A Star Wars Story, Lord — and co-writer Rothman — reference and poke fun at Spider-Man’s on-screen backstory that everyone is well aware of. Into the Spider-Verse begins with a swing through the Maguire era’s highlights and embarrassing moments, and makes a running joke out of the whole bit-by-a-radioactive-spider thing. Additionally, it benefits a lot from the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of its six Spider-people, who range from being a pudgy 40-year-old, an insecure pre-teen, a self-assured teenager, a Japanese girl from the far-off future, a Nazi-fighting hero from the 1930s, or a cartoon pig.
The biracial Morales at the centre of it all has parents who are still alive — unique for a Spider-Man story — and is trying to balance their expectations of him and fulfil his love for street art. His dad (Brian Tyree Henry, from Atlanta) is a cop, who obviously disapproves of the vandalism. Out one night with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali, Oscar-winner on Moonlight), Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider and starts to develop powers. Soon after, he comes across Parker (Pine) trying to save the day and stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber, from Ray Donovan) from using a supercollider, but fails and succumbs to his injuries. As a disbelieving Morales grieves Parker’s death with the rest of New York, he meets the other Parker (Johnson), followed by Gwen Stacy aka Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).
Everyone except Morales is an experienced superhero, which contributes to many of the laughs in Into the Spider-Verse for much of the going, as he hilariously fails over and over in coming to terms with his newfound abilities. A common theme in the early running is how he keeps sticking to things (because of the webbing) and doesn’t know how to unstick. Being unable to control his powers is a reflection and exaggeration of Morales’ pre-teen worries over identity, and the juxtaposition with five other Spideys doesn’t dilute the protagonist’s presence but rather allows him to realise that there’s not a single way to be a hero. Morales struggles to figure out a place for himself, with the odds stacked up against him on all sides. But the film comes back to the age-old message: Spider-Man can be anyone or anything, though it’s rarely subtle about it.
It’s the part of Into the Spider-Verse that feels the weakest, as it tends to be a little too on the nose in delivering and emphasising its themes. At one point in the third act, all the cheesy lines that would allow Morales to reach a dramatic moment and fight out of an impossible situation are repeated for verbatim as voice-overs. Sure, the film is made for viewers of all ages, but the writers should expect its audience to be smart enough to remember and recognise, instead of playing them for recall effect. Plus, avid comic book readers will easily see one of the film’s big twists coming, though it still works emotionally even if you know about the character’s on-page history. And its big, climactic action set-piece has so much going on with several dimensions merging into one, that it suffers from a lack of spatial understanding and coherence.
Thanks to its unique look, which expands as new Spideys are introduced — what starts as Morales’ neon-dripping night-time Manhattan setting is infused with Spider-Man Noir’s black-and-white colour schemes, cartoony animations courtesy of Spider-Ham, and Japanese anime sketching for Peni Parker — a visual palette that feels like it’s pulled out of a kaleidoscope, and the smarts to know when to cut a joke, Into the Spider-Verse is a blast. And though Holland has been great as the new live-action Spider-Man for Sony (and Marvel), his first standalone adventure was still traditional in many ways. Into the Spider-Verse is anything but. It takes a wacky comic storyline with an outlandish concept, and transfers it onto the screen in a fascinating and fresh manner.
While all superhero movies — from the straight-faced Justice League to the perennially-jokey Deadpool — try to make sense of the sprawling history of their respective comic books, which have been endlessly rebooted over the decades, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse embraces that wildness and zaniness wholeheartedly. It celebrates and mocks it at the same time, with every new Spidey announcing how theirs is going to be “the one last time” you hear an origin story. That works, because in the case of Morales and his fellow Spider-people, it’s not just about Spider-Man. It’s a whole new Spider-Verse.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is out December 14 in India and across the world. There’s one post-credits scene at the very end, which features the voice of Star Wars star Oscar Isaac.