Since the dawn of the 21st century, there have been six different Spider-Man movies, and that’s not including a spate of spin-offs, franchise crossovers, and already planned sequels. Three talented actors (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland) have played the role, making the web-slinging superhero this generation’s James Bond—a mantle solemnly passed from handsome 20-something to handsome 20-something. The world doesn’t really need another Spider-Man movie, which is exactly what makes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse such an unexpected delight: Here’s the latest entry in a fully saturated genre that somehow, through sheer creative gumption, does something new.
First, it’s an animated film that smartly uses the visual language of comic books to have its heroes move in ways that couldn’t be accomplished in live action, even with an expansive budget. Second, Into the Spider-Verse exists outside of any other Marvel continuity, so it doesn’t have to worry about setting up several sequels or referencing past editions. And lastly, it’s produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who’ve long specialized in translating unwieldy-sounding projects into likable blockbusters, such as The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street.
Lord and Miller aren’t the film’s directors (though Lord co-scripted); that credit goes to Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. But the duo’s anarchic fingerprints are all over this movie, which plucks various Spider-men and Spider-women from multiple dimensions and brings them crashing into the life of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), an Afro Latino teenager who finds himself blessed with spider-powers. A comic-book character created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli in 2011, Miles was a refreshing take on the hero that clicked with audiences; his film counterpart is sure to do the same.
Though Into the Spider-Verse is an origin tale, it takes care to avoid tiresome backstory tropes. Yes, Miles gets bitten by a magic arachnid, and yes, he has to come to grips with his wall-crawling powers. But the film refracts and satirizes that process through its phantasmagoric visuals (which beautifully blend two-dimensional comic-book art with three-dimensional movie art) and its delightfully vast ensemble. Each version of Spider-Man knows that with great power comes great responsibility, but that message can be translated in a thousand ways.
In Into the Spider-Verse, Miles finds himself in the middle of a pitched battle between the classic Peter Parker Spider-Man (Chris Pine) and his longtime enemy the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who is animated as a gigantic 10-foot cinderblock of a person. Kingpin is tooling around with a machine that opens portals to other dimensions; it goes haywire, kills off Peter Parker, and belches out various alternate iterations of him into the world, including a sad-sack 40-something version voiced by Jake Johnson. This new Peter takes Miles under his wing and tries to train him for the Spider-Man role, but quickly enough the lessons start to flow in both directions.
Alongside Johnson’s beer-bellied Peter Parker, there’s Spider-Woman (a cool-headed, teenage Gwen Stacy voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (a black-and-white ’30s throwback voiced by Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (a Japanese student, voiced by Kimiko Glenn, with a futuristic robot in tow), and Spider-Ham (a cartoon pig-person voiced by John Mulaney). Each is given a distinct visual style: Spider-Ham is straight out of Looney Tunes, conjuring giant wooden mallets seemingly from nowhere, while Peni Parker has stepped out of an anime world and Spider-Man Noir is constantly followed by howling winds and rain.
Watching all of these characters clash alongside Miles is endlessly entertaining, and the directors manage to make each visual approach co-exist organically within the same frame. The voice ensemble—which also includes Brian Tyree Henry as Miles’s straitlaced policeman dad and Mahershala Ali as his sketchy but charismatic uncle—imbues every character with a specific personality. Johnson, in particular, is a revelation, bringing the spirit of his disaffected-slacker character in New Girl to a superpowered hero who knows the basics of do-goodism but who long ago lost his passion for his work.
As Miles, Peter, and the gang work to take on the Kingpin and restore all of the characters to their rightful dimension, Peter relearns how to have fun, helped along by a script that’s overflowing with mad energy. Into the Spider-Verse should feel like a brand exercise gone wrong, a corporate mandate to sell different kinds of Spider-toys to willing kids. Instead, it’s a film that every other comic-book movie needs to take notes from, one that’s exuberant, inventive, and thrilled by heroism in a way that many of these films forget to be. No doubt it will suffer the same fate as its brethren and spawn sequel after sequel. But for now its ingenuity is something to be championed.