Despite the earth-shattering hype and rabid enthusiasm, I was still hesitant to embrace the idea of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”. As a long-time comic reader I had grown tired of Marvel’s lazy idea of diversity – taking someone from a marginalized group and putting them in the suit of an already established character instead of investing talent and resources into creating new heroes with new origins and new voices.
Without question there is some of that in “Spider-Verse”. I mean one of the film’s main taglines is “Anyone can wear the mask“. But all of that is easy to overlook if the character behind the mask is compelling and he or she has a unique and personal story to tell. Miles Morales is and he does. Unfortunately storytelling isn’t this movie’s strength.
The three-headed directing team of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman are given a lot to juggle including a bunch of characters making their first appearance on the big screen and a revolutionary new art style. Both manage to be fresh and exciting while also disappointing in ways I wasn’t expecting.
Starting with the characters and the story, writers Rothman and Phil Lord give themselves creative carte blanche by using the old tried-and-true ‘multiple dimensions’ framework for their story. In their dimension Miles Morales (voiced by a very good Shameik Moore) is a bright teen from the Bronx, popular in his community but struggling to fit in at his new private school. He’s pushed hard by his black police officer father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and his Puerto Rican mother Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez).
I was instantly grabbed by this family dynamic and it’s what interested me the most. But it also feels shortchanged the most. The filmmakers set up a tension between Miles and his father but barely gives it much attention. The few scenes we do get are the film’s very best. But they are few and far between. And his mother all but vanishes and has no real impact on the story.
Then you have the relationship between Miles and his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). For Miles his uncle is his confidant despite the fact the Aaron and Jefferson don’t get along. Again, another interesting family thread with a ton of potential (especially considering where the story goes) that ends up feeling half-baked and underserved. Miles and Aaron share a couple of great scenes including one deep in the city’s subway tunnels. It’s there that Miles, while painting graffiti art, is randomly stung by a radioactive spider from……somewhere.
While trying to get a grasp of his new powers, Miles stumbles upon the ‘real’ Spider-Man (Chris Pine) duking it out with Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who has built a machine to connect parallel dimensions. After a weirdly bland first meeting between Miles and Peter Parker, the fight continues, Kingpin’s device explodes, and a series of otherworldly complications arise. Most notably – the arrival of five other Spider-‘Men’ all pulled from their own dimensions and desperate to get back.
As for the animation, it gets a ton of points for being fresh and often jaw-dropping. It’s an impressive combination of computer animation and hand-drawn techniques with the intent of giving it a classic comic book look. Most of the time it looks absolutely amazing. But sometimes it goes over the top with its style. There is no better example than the big finale – a familiar bombastic ending filled with blaring music and rapid-fire cuts while bathed in splashes of loud pastel backgrounds. Some advice – don’t watch it with a headache.
“Into the Spider-Verse” is a film loaded start-to-finish with fan service and I was surprised at how well most of it landed. Great bits from nearly every pop culture iteration of Spider-Man are scattered all through it. And whatever you do stay for end credits scene. It’s fabulous and well worth the wait.
So where to land on this highly praised sure-fire award winner? The voice acting is fantastic, the animation (when not drowning in its style) is ground-breaking, and the film’s message offers hope and encouragement. But then you run into the storytelling – a frustrating swirl of highs and lows that shortchanges its most interesting component and emotional core. That’s what would have made this a truly stand-out superhero picture. Instead it feels a little like all the others, only with a beautifully animated new coat of paint.
VERDICT – 3 STARS