The Spider-Man movie franchise has received so many reboots since the early 2000s, each promising a fresher, shinier, wittier version of the immortal web-slinger, that you’d be forgiven if you approached “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” with a jaundiced eye.
But this latest installment is not just another attempt for a fanboy director to present his own take on the familiar origin story, the immaculate quip, the inevitable montage of the neophyte superhero learning his craft among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. OK, the new movie has all of these elements too, but it’s as wide a departure from the Marvel orthodoxy as we’ve seen from the character. It doesn’t just reboot the mythos; it remixes them, as a great DJ might, until they come out sounding genuinely fresh.
For one thing, this is the first big-budget ($90 million, if you were wondering) Spider-Man film that happens to be animated. More importantly, it’s the first Spidey movie with a protagonist of color. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), introduced as a Peter Parker alternative in the comic-book world in 2011, is an Afro-Latino adolescent who loves hip-hop and street art. Shoehorned into a private school blocks away from his urban neighborhood, he’s failing his classes, less out of lack of smarts than a sense of willful resignation. He’s raised by his withholding, doctrinaire father (Brian Tyree Henry), who is also a police officer; he’d rather hang with his cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who has had a falling out with his family.
With Aaron’s encouragement, Miles has just finished tagging a wall in the NYC underground when a radioactive spider sinks its teeth into his hand. He swats it off and goes about his day. When the side effects begin to manifest—uncontrollable sweating, sticky fingers—he assumes he’s just going through puberty, with all of its hormonal discharges and emotional valleys. It’s one indication of the film’s subtext: the way young adults process and overcome fear, anxiety, change and uncertainty.
But what of that other Spider-Man? Yes, Peter Parker is still swinging, and he’s voiced by Chris Pine, dashing and nerdy-handsome even in digital form. It’s only when he’s felled by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), the film’s enormous but tiny-headed arch-villain, that Miles must learn to hone his abilities and become Peter’s bona fide replacement—but not before Kingpin, in a desperate attempt to resurrect his dead wife and son, experiments with a molecular supercollider and warps space-time.
Yep, you read that right: This is a young-adult cartoon that deals with quantum theory and the multiverse with the elegant simplicity that a child could understand. It also references Banksy and Charles Dickens. Pretty cool.
The funniest and most playful entry yet in the character’s movie-verse, “Spider-Man” is a trove of self-referential inside jokes, with enough Easter eggs to fill the White House egg roll. When Miles purchases his Spider-Man suit from a comic book shop, it’s Stan Lee, in all his posthumous wisdom, who sells it to him, prompting Peter Parker’s zinger that “Most superheroes don’t wear their own merch.”
The most delightfully bonkers aspect of the film is the multitude of Spideys that become “entangled” in Miles’ world—a ragtag group that includes a female version as well as anime, noir and porcine variants. One is voiced by John Mulaney, another by Nicolas Cage, decisions that speak to the story’s cheeky, geeky spirit.
Visually elaborate in a mind-bending, kaleidoscopic, “Dr. Strange” sort of way, “Into the Spider-Verse” only suffers from the same sense of clutter and excess that transform every Marvel movie, after a certain point, into a cascade of cataclysms, in which every villain—and this film has many—must be vanquished, each in a fashion grander than the last. If I was epileptic, I might have fainted; as it happened, I was just bored through much of the final act.
What I’ll most remember isn’t the frenetic action sequences but the movie’s ability to seesaw between winning comedy and touching pathos. For Miles, part of growing into Spider-Man means accepting loss and dealing with grief, a personal evolution that no interdimensional colleagues can experience for him.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” opens Thursday, Dec. 13 at most area theaters.