If you’re still wondering why superhero movies are still prevalent and prospering in the face of saturation, it’s because many of the Marvel productions are experimenting and venturing down paths less explored for superhero cinema. In a year where Marvel has already shattered expectations with tales of politics (Black Panther) and pathos (Avengers: Infinity War), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is very much the most daring in scope, visuals, characters, and storytelling. All of this not only makes this movie the best animated film of the year but the best superhero film as well.
Present throughout the picture is the wonderful idea behind the very character of Spider-Man; with no visible skin, anybody could be Spider-Man. High school student Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) finds out he is indeed the next Spider-Man in line when he is bitten by a radioactive spider. He doesn’t think he’s ready, especially if he can’t master the spider powers that send him on a slapstick stumbling across his upscale school. But he’s going to have to learn quickly as the first Spider-Man, Peter Parker, has tragically died fighting supervillains. And with the evil Kingpin currently tinkering with a doomsday device, the clock is ticking.
Miles thankfully isn’t alone. Thanks to Kingpin’s experiments, other Spider-Man heroes from other universes come to his aid. One of which is another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) but not the same Peter Parker that Miles knows from his universe. This one is fatter, older, and much less inclined to help out Miles, let alone do away with sweatpants. The reluctant Spider-Man eventually comes around to helping this world’s new Spider-Man, mostly so that Peter can get back home and maybe give that relationship with Mary Jane another shot.
Other heroes join them, all of which have a different style of both web-slinging and visuals. There’s a Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) from a world where a girl has been bitten by the radioactive spider and becomes the straight one of the group. Another girl, Penni Parker, has her radioactive spider inside a robot that she pilots. She’s naturally from an anime universe that favors exaggerated 2D over slick CGI. A better marriage of cartoony and computery comes with Spider-Ham, a silly pig from a Looney Tunes style universe, armed with mallets and a mock voice of Groucho. Last but not least, Spider-Noir, a hard-boiled and black-and-white detective that looks like he escaped from Sin City. He is voiced by Nicolas Cage, marking the second animated superhero role he’s had this year. His dead-pan delivery of being colorblind and despairingly adrift makes him effortlessly amusing.
While there’s plenty of fun to be had with this scenario, including a brilliant slapstick sequence of Miles being unstable with his sticky-web powers by pulling a Fred Astaire on his school walls, I was astonished by how the film felt more like a real Spider-Man film and less of a softened riffing for the kids. Miles has a unique relationship with his father, a cop that loves his son and despises Spider-Man almost as much as his troublesome brother. There’s some genuine family love there that when tragedy strikes, as it often does with Spider-Man, it packs a wallop. And so the Spider heroes have to let Miles in on the darker side of being a superhero; “Sometimes you just can’t save everyone.” It should be worth noting that somber line came from Spider-Ham.
And I could spend hours gushing about the art style that not only blends comic book aesthetics into the computer animation but a plethora of other styles as well. One aspect I found the boldest and engaging was the use of color and layer bleeding in place of blurring for the depth of field. Along with the use of action lines and speech bubbles, it’s not the least bit of an exaggeration when this film, more than any other in the superhero genre, feels like a comic book come to life. Only in animation could such a brilliant feat be possible and the trio of directors – Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman – have taken the medium to its full extent with this production, far exceeding all expectations of what’s possible with computer animation. The climax is easily one of the best showdowns of a Marvel movie, boasting a surplus of trippy and colorful smatterings of dimension shifting craziness, so unbelievably elaborate and vibrant it could only exist in a computer-animated movie.
The film is so loaded with visual flair, unique characters, heavy drama, and knowing comedy that I have no qualms calling it one of the best movies of the year. And I’m well aware of how that may sound, that I’m praising the animated superhero movie and placing it up among the ranks of Annihilation and Sorry To Bother You for the best movies of 2018. But as Spider-Ham says so manically to a villain before going on a mallet-armed assault, “You gotta problem with cartoons?”