With the persistent critical and financial success of live-action superhero films in recent years, their animated counterparts have been surprisingly sparse. Writer and producer Phil Lord and producer Christopher Miller have taken to filling that gap, first with 2017’s “The Lego Batman Movie” and now “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a rollicking work of creativity that takes advantage of its form to tell a modern superhero story in an unprecedented way.
“Into the Spider-Verse” follows Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latin American teenager from Brooklyn struggling to adapt to a new high school. One day, he is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops abilities in a universe wherein Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is already Spider-Man. When a supervillain opens a portal to parallel universes, Peter is killed trying to stop him, and several other iterations of Spider-Man personas from other realities are pulled into Miles’s world. He must learn to navigate his abilities and stop the villain from opening the portal again and destroying the universe.
This incredible film creatively takes advantage of the animated form, featuring a mélange of graphic styles that come together for an exhilarating visual experience. Art directors Dean Gordon and Patrick O’Keefe led a team of 142 animators to present the bulk of the film in a beautiful, slick, and detailed fashion saturated with vibrant, atmospheric colors with elements of comic book style, like sound effect graphics, woven throughout. After Miles develops his abilities, several scenes are stylized like comic books, complete with narration in yellow text boxes and thought bubbles. More than comfortable with being meta, Miles also comments on these elements, and whole scenes are translated into pages of a comic book.
The premise of the film relies on multiverses, which are implicitly understood in the modern comic industry, and the film engages deeply with its roots by introducing each new Spider-Man with their own comic book cover. “Into the Spider-Verse” then takes this visual integration even further by using different styles to express the realities of its different heroes as well. For instance, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese girl from the year 3145, gets full anime sequences, while Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a literal pig, fights using cartoon tropes, ensuring that the visual experience is never anywhere close to boring.
In addition to visuals, the plot strikes a nice balance between hitting the classic notes of a superhero story and maintaining surprises for viewers of all ages and with varying degrees of familiarity with the Spider-Man story. Miles and his family ground the film’s emotional beats, but the different versions of Spider-Man contribute unique perspectives on family, loss, loneliness, faith, and heroism. Spider-Man is often considered one of the most relatable and accessible superheroes; he is neither a billionaire nor an alien, but a normal, awkward teenager who chooses to be great after crazy things happen to him. “Into the Spider-Verse” highlights this sense of universality, as the multiple realities attest that “anyone can be behind the mask.”
The film is purposeful in making room for diversity in a genre largely dominated by white male stories (although “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” are recent exceptions): the multiverse premise allows for an iconic and traditionally Caucasian male hero to instead be represented by a young Afro-Latin American, a woman, and an Asian American on the silver screen — all of whom are portrayed by a fantastic and diverse cast. Each character’s differences and unique backgrounds are not merely incidental, and contribute to their stories and capabilities. For instance, Miles tags graffiti in the subways with his uncle (Mahershala Ali), and his music preferences shape the film’s notable soundtrack, which features artists like Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Jaden Smith. Additionally, Peni codes and controls a futuristic spider robot, and Spider-Woman’s fighting is informed by her time as a dancer. The associations of African American youth to rap music or Japanese people to high technology may fall on stereotypical lines, but are thankfully complicated by colorful individual development. Even Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an older version of the hero, has a distinct personality and faces conflicts shaped by his age and new role in life, now that he worries he is past his prime.
The tactic of creating new versions of existing characters simply to enhance diversity has prompted controversy in the past, but the multiverse explanation presents these heroes as equally unique and important in their own realities — not for who they are behind their masks, but for who they choose to become. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” invites viewers on a fast-paced, funny, and thoughtful ride that lives up to — and differentiates itself from — any of the myriad live-action superhero blockbusters that have come before it.