The life of New York high schooler Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is thrown into disarray when he is stung by a radioactive spider and whipped up into an inter-dimensional conflict involving not one but six alternative iterations of Spider-Man. Together they must defeat the city’s famed criminal boss Wilson Fisk before he opens a portal with the potential to access multiple parallel universes – or destroy them entirely.
When is a genre creatively spent? It is a question asked quite often in relation to the past two decades’ growing penchant for big-budget comics-inspired superhero films, which has been growing in both popularity and frequency ever since a combination of Batman, Blade, and the X-Men films spearheaded an entire mini-industry of similar pictures. Walt Disney’s Marvel Studios alone have been responsible for more than 20 films alone in the past decade, grossing billions of dollars in theatrical box office alone. It is understandable to question just how much longer can this colourful fantasy bubble grow before it bursts.
Take Spider-Man, a popular Marvel Comics hero who was adapted into three fims starring Tobey Maguire, another two featuring Andrew Garfield, and two starring Tom Holland tied directly into Disney’s MCU. Between the two Holland pictures, Sony even saw fit to insert the independently developed and canonically separate animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Superficially it seemed the straw to break the comic book movies’ back. It was the seventh Spider-Man feature since 2002, it had an awkward and clumsy title, and more than that it was a cartoon. It seemed precisely the sort of cynical, unnecessary commercial cash-in that the superhero boom was leading towards. Superficially it did, at any rate.
Once a cynical viewer peered a little closer, however, it turned out to be one of the surprise hits of 2018. It was vibrant, energetic, and stunningly beautiful to watch. It boasted a rich and diverse range of superhero characters – each spun from a similar theme, but distinctive from one another and independently appealing. It had a story with genuine heart too; one that provided depth and soul not only to its heroes but its villain as well. It was savvy with adult viewers and carefully suited for younger ones. It was a rare occurrence for Hollywood: an honest-to-goodness family film, with appeal for the widest audience possible.
The film’s humour is excellent, as are the action sequences. The entire production is dominated by a distinctive jerky animation style that accentuates its comic book origins, and allows for a more emotionally expressive tone. The design work is top-notch, and the vocal performances and music are superb. On a technical level it is close to unparalleled in recent American animation.
Where the film truly excels is in its writing and characterisation. By focusing on Miles Morales – a comic book parallel Spider-Man first published in 2011 – Into the Spider-Verse gains a contemporary and relatable grounding. He is a different person to regular Spider-Man Peter Parker. He is more fallible and vulnerable. His biracial background gives him a comparatively unique perspective and personality. Miles is outrageously sympathetic, and while the film allows the other Spider-heroes to be portrayed more broadly, Miles is very sensitively developed. He is what shifts the entire production from enjoyable eye-candy to a genuinely heartfelt and emotionally gripping work.
This was an enormous and pleasant surprise. While the superhero movies are still coming thick and fast, seemingly without end, it is good to know that now and again this seemingly endless conveyor belt of capes and criminals just occasionally really knocks one out of the park. Into the Spider-Verse seems a minor miracle.