Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may be definitive proof that the full potential of comic book movies can only be attained through animation. Unburdened of live-action superhero cinema’s tethers to reality, the film embraces the elastic properties of comics. Throughout Into the Spider-Verse, characters are rendered in expressionistic fashion. Take Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who looks like a massive ink blot with a pale face located halfway down his torso, as if his body were so colossal that his spine lacked the tensile strength to support it.
Recent live-action Marvel movies have tended toward phantasmagoric colors and trippy effects at their climaxes, but they cannot hold a candle to the kaleidoscopic imagery of Into the Spider-Verse‘s animation. Drawing inspiration from the rich palettes of most comics, the film compounds its chromatic intensity by mimicking the strobe effects of rotoscoping, creating color separations that add to the feeling of constant motion. So many superhero movies get bogged down in longueurs of exposition and somber reflection, but this one is purely kinetic. Into the Spider-Verse is a film that vibrates with youthful anxiety and energy, even when its narrative slows down.
Crucially, Into the Spider-Verse avoids rehashing Peter Parker’s story for the umpteenth time. The film’s protagonist is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager introduced nearly a decade ago by Marvel as an alternate-universe Spider-Man. A gifted, sardonic kid, Miles shares traces of Peter’s wit and intelligence but differs from his precursor in ways that are relevant to his context. Accepted into a local private school for his academic achievements, Miles understandably feels self-conscious about losing his sense of authenticity and his connection to his neighborhood.
Miles’s avoidance of his father, by-the-book police officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), isn’t your typical display of teenage alienation from a parent, as the boy’s anxiety stems from being seen by his friends and neighbors as a policeman’s son. That Miles prefers to spend his free time tagging graffiti with his ne’er-do-well uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali), exacerbates his desire to act out from being seen as clean-cut. Though the film deals with Miles’s origin story, he emerges almost immediately as a fully formed character, someone clearly defined well before he gains his superpowers.
Soon after Miles is bitten by a genetically altered spider and begins to experience all of the classic Spidey abilities, he comes into contact with Peter Parker, who tenderly recognizes that he’s found a kindred spirit and promises to train Miles but dies while preventing Kingpin from tearing a hole in space-time with a dimension portal. Before dying, Peter gets to save the day one last time, but some slippage between dimensions occurs, effectively flooding Miles’s world with alternate spider-powered figures.
The film takes great pleasure in assembling some of the more obscure what-if characters from Marvel lore, from a superpowered version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), to a Japanese girl, Peni (Kimiko Glenn), who pilots a robot, to Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a porcine figure who is, quite hilariously, actually a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig. The meatiest of these dimensional trespassers is another version of Peter (Jake Johnson), this one a divorced, depressed, out-of-shape cynic approaching middle age who takes to mentoring Miles exclusively out of a sense of lingering moral obligation. This Peter’s trademark wit has curdled into sardonic bitterness, illustrating just how easily Spider-Man’s juvenile spirit can wilt into a display of insularity.
These characters, in addition to having their own backstories, are distinctly animated. Spider-Ham has flattened, two-dimensional edges befitting his cartoonish nature, while Peni is, of course, rendered in an anime style, with sleeker lines and wider facial expressions. Comics have always relied on panel sequencing and the kinetic impression of individual compositions to convey a logical sense of movement, and Into the Spider-Verse translates that through staccato editing. Recalling the lower frame rate of silent film projection, motion in the film is rendered in jittery displays of an action.
And every character’s unique attributes, from Gwen’s lithe, acrobatic leaps to the chubby Peter’s languid swings, is folded into this approach. The unique body languages and movements of the characters does much to define their personalities, in much the same way that Spider-Man was arguably first established far more by Steve Ditko’s subtle anatomical proportions of the character and logically drawn action than Stan Lee’s purple prose.
With its fine-tuned comic timing and feeling of constant action, Into the Spider-Verse is downright invigorating, and that’s evident even before it gets to its dazzling, dimensional-colliding climax. Most impressive, though, is the way that the film also uses various permutations of Spider-Man to pinpoint the core of the hero that remains no matter who’s under the mask. Only Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man ever approached this level of empathy.
By juxtaposing an older, beaten-down Peter with a young, insecure Miles, Into the Spider-Verse reveals several stages of Spider-Man’s emotional journey at once, from his juvenile self-doubt and brashness to his later struggles with personal loss and the impact of sacrificing his happiness and peace for the greater good. There are moments of delicate tenderness throughout the film, such as a one-sided conversation that Jefferson has with his son where the policeman briefly drops his guard, or Peter occasionally letting his lifelong doubts and traumas slip out from behind the mask of his cynicism. Spider-Man remains the most memorable and relatable of Marvel’s creations, and Into the Spider-Verse is the best tribute to date to the seemingly bottomless depths and pleasures of Lee and Ditko’s iconic comic book character.