By Preston Wilder
We seem to have hit Peak Superhero, both English-language new releases this week featuring title characters with ‘Man’ in their name. (The third one, White Fang, is dubbed into Greek.) Hollywood, meanwhile, is close to hitting Peak Spider-Man, with no less than three reboots launched, with three different actors, since the new millennium. These two depressing facts combine, unexpectedly, into a joyous experience: the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes the clichés of the superhero genre and makes them fresh again (it also makes Aquaman look pretty ordinary), while a plot that could almost have doubled as an inside joke on Tobey Maguire giving way to Andrew Garfield giving way to Tom Holland – how many Spider-Men can there be in the world? – turns into a film both wild and wildly accomplished.
Miles (voice of Shameik Moore) is a boy with possibilities. In one version of his life – one potential universe, you might say – he’d stay in the inner city, hanging out with friends and practising his street art. In another, he’d graduate from the private school he’s reluctantly attending and make something of himself. A third possibility arises by chance, when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider and turns into you-know-who. Admittedly there’s already one Spider-Man in town, but why can’t there be two? Or indeed – as a so-called collider plays havoc with the space-time continuum, bringing in possible Spideys from other dimensions – a lot more than two?
Whatever the collective noun for Spider-Men is (a web-fest? a stickiness?), this film’s got it. Nor is it just Men – though I won’t say more, lest I spoil the delightful moment when our hero says “This could literally not get any weirder!”, only to be proven wrong. The tone is predictably hyper, with much fourth-wall breakage – “I’m pretty sure you know the rest,” says Peter Parker, cutting short his narration – and arcane, kid-unfriendly jokes (“I think it’s a Banksy,” muses one passer-by to another, speaking of the sculpture-like jumble of matter produced by colliding dimensions). The creative team include Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who made The Lego Movie – and this film is similar in skewering a brand-name with anarchic glee, albeit without being truly subversive: Lego Movie was insane yet it also worked as a Lego ad, just as Into the Spider-Verse works as a Marvel instalment.
OK, fine; so it’s not truly subversive. That still doesn’t change how snappily the jokes keep coming, and how well most of them land. It doesn’t change how visually resplendent the film is, mixing a realistic foundation with comic-book effects, splashes of colour, brief forays into kaleidoscopic abstraction, and a general willingness to mix things up (villainous Kingpin’s lost wife and son have the look of a hand-drawn illustration in an old book). It doesn’t change how – just as I was scribbling ‘Too manic?’ in my notes – it becomes empathetic, even poignant. Being cool is not, in the end, so difficult; there are loads of high-energy films (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, say) which are endlessly cool yet still feel hollow, like something is missing. Into the Spider-Verse finds that elusive final element, heart.
“When will I know I’m ready?” wonders Miles, and he has a point. Turning spider has always been a metaphor for adolescence, but previous Spideys found their mojo in a couple of scenes; with this kid, it takes almost the whole movie. Decked out in a store-bought Spider-Man costume – a superhero so maladroit he’s wearing his own merch – Miles wrestles with his new powers like any awkward teen with his new body, and meanwhile there’s also Peter B. Parker (voice of Jake Johnson), a hero from a universe in which Spider-Man has broken up with Mary Jane and become fat and cynical. He and Miles need each other (PBP to become a father figure, Miles to appreciate his own, tough-loving father), a sentimental contrivance that should get in the way but instead adds to the impact.
Almost everything works in this movie. The formula isn’t all that different to most cartoons, ADHD wackiness with an undertow of bonding and family values, but everything cuts just a bit more deeply. The jokes are wittier, the look more lavish, the action more imaginative, the self-realisation more heartfelt. It even does the impossible, culminating in the extended climax of every superhero movie and making it thrilling, simply by abstracting it into a whirligig of beautiful colours. Even the final credits are terrific, offering – along with a dedication to the late Stan Lee – assorted mural-like tableaux of Spider-Men at work, at play, hanging out in mobs and just doing what Spider-Men do. A world composed of nothing but superheroes; we’re almost there, multiplex-wise, though I guess there’s always a silver lining. Into the Spider-Verse is the silver lining.
DIRECTED BY Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman
WITH THE VOICES OF Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld
US 2018 117 mins