Brian Tyree Henry
Luna Lauren Velez
1 Hr., 57 Mins.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse January 3, 2019
he Spider-Man story has been cinematically revamped twice this decade. So one wonders, when hearing of the latest renovation, the animated Into the Spider-Verse: Why now? Certainly, the new movie is refreshingly not of the years-strong formula: It’s presented in a bracing comic-book-come-to-life style, going against the grain of the long-familiar penchant for live-action storytelling. And it feels like a sprightly one-off adventure
rather than a high-stakes franchise starter. These days, this sort of levity is much needed. Yet while I admired Into the Spider-Verse’s shaking-up of genre orthodoxies, and while I enjoyed its pinprick-pointed comedy and savory animation, it nonetheless undergirds superhero fatigue. Take away its presentation and it becomes a charismatic but thin adventure-comedy told with spunk but not necessarily fresh-feeling drive.
When Avengers: Infinity War came out last spring, Marvel dubbed it “the most ambitious crossover event in history” — a statement that was, of course, much derided. Into the Spider-Verse follows in its footsteps, only the crossing over does not entail multiple, distinctive supers, but rather multiple Spider-People. Most of its story builds on the presence of a weapon that can combine alternate dimensions and thus form one big mess of a universe.
In the movie, the chief locale is the one lived in by Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a high schooler who lives in Brooklyn. His story diverges from the standard Peter Parker story. He has been brought up by his parents, a police officer named Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and a nurse named Rio (Luna Lauren Velez); has recently begun attending a private school — a change of pace that has been been difficult to adjust to; and is, eventually, bitten by the infamous radioactive spider in the annals of a subway station, where he and his uncle (Mahershala Ali) graffiti a blank wall one evening.
Parker exists in Miles’ world. He is, in the same way Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were by the time they landed at part two of their respective franchises, a local hero. Miles, though, is forced to assume the Spider-Man role when Parker is killed by a literally screen-filling lug of a supervillain named Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who recently has tested the previously mentioned dimension-mixing machine and is planning on activating it, to a more permanent extent, in the next few days.
Even though the weapon is only turned on for a second or two at the beginning of Into the Spider-Verse, it nevertheless stirs up trouble in paradise. By the second act, multiple Spider-People are wandering around Miles’ world, desperate to get back home. They are soon-to-be reluctant mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who is reeling from a divorce from his beloved M.J. and has taken to overeating and drinking to cope; a version of Gwen Stacy who has assumed a Spiderwoman role (Hailee Steinfeld) after her world’s interpretation of Parker dies; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese, anime-styled girl genius from the 3000s; Peter Porker (John Mulaney), an oinky-boinky Looney Tune; and a 1930s-era, detective-hero-like film noir rendition (Nicolas Cage).
The mission is simple: this assortment will team up to defeat Kingpin so its members can return to their dimension of choice. In the meantime, Miles will struggle to adjust to his new identity, not just because of the responsibilities that come with it, but also because of the way he feels he cannot divulge anything without his father, who has long spoken ill of Spider-Man’s vigilantism, cutting him out of his life.
Into the Spider-Verse is largely uninvolving as a character study. Though Miles is rendered with care, and though his anxieties feel tactile for the most part, the movie's comedic stretches are more involving than its dramatic and action-oriented ones. Here, the action sequences, while animated energetically, sometimes even with a kaleidoscopic edge, are relatively connect-the-dot. The dramatic pauses are convincing, but familiar in how it informs the larger storyline.
I was most enamored of the movie during scenes primarily focused on the rapport between the Spider-People, whether they all be together or ensnared in a more intimate, heart-to-heart conversation. Phil Lord and Rodney Rotham, who wrote the screenplay, air out the absurdities cleverly. The jokes involving Spider-Ham, whose every movement comes with springy, comical sound effects, and Spider-Man Noir, whose Philip Marlowe-like cynicism makes for a thrilling contrast from the rest of the film’s wide-eyed wonder, are staggeringly funny.
But other subversions are few and far between. The movie, in lieu of offering a notably different visual spectacle, does not add much untasted flavor to the superhero mythos. (Though I still hope similarly animated offerings proliferate down the road.) I do wonder, though, if I would have taken to it more if it were released a few years from now instead. With the likable but nonessential Holland reboot so fresh, a sense of redundancy takes a bit of the joy away. Would a longer break from Spider-Man change things? B