Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey (director)
1h 57mins (length)
13 December 2018 (released)
19 December 2018
Marvel Comics' lead character Spider-Man has had more reboots than a faulty laptop, so you could be forgiven for viewing this new animated iteration, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with some trepidation.
It's welcome then that The Lego Movie's Phil Lord, who has created the story behind this new version for directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, has taken a light-hearted, meta approach to this latest Spidey film.
This playfulness is made clear before we even meet our hero, teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the son of an African-American police officer Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican nurse Rio (Lauren Velez). The film begins with a tongue-in-cheek recap of Spider-Man lore - riffing off the Sam Raimi films in particular and explaining that Peter's web-slinging alter-ego (Chris Pine) is now established as a revered New York crimefighter.
Miles' intelligence and his dad's demands mean he is a reluctant student at a fancy boarding school across town from his home and friends in Brooklyn. To escape, he hangs out with his cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) and practices their graffiti. On a trip to one prime tagging spot under the subway, the teen is bitten by a radioactive spider - and begins to change just like Peter once did.
As in all Spider-Man movies, the main character's transformation is an obvious metaphor for the awkwardness of adolescence - and Miles' becomes more awkward than most. Things then take a dark turn when Peter, the 'one and only' Spider-Man is killed by villainous mogul Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) while trying to thwart his attempt to open a portal to other dimensions using a supercollider.
This has the side effect of dragging in various Spider-Men from other universes. There's Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a washed-up, bloated version, Spider-Ham, aka Peter Porker (John Mulaney), a superhero pig from a Looney Toons-style world, Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), who acts like a character from a 1930s crime film, and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a young anime Japanese girl who pilots a robotic Spider-Man.
Except for the second Peter Parker, who acts as a reluctant mentor, Miles is initially unaware of his fellow heroes' presence - and is more focused on impressing Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), a new girl at school who shares his both his sense of humour and social difficulties - and may be more like him than he knows. However, they realise they must band together to stop Kingpin's plan coming to fruition in order to get home to their dimensions and save Earth.
As you'd expect from the people who brought us The Lego Movie (Lord's filmmaking partner Christopher Miller is a producer), the animation looks stunning. For the most part, it is pseudo-realistic. However, its trio of directors slip between styles, alternating between the visually spectacular set-pieces we expect from superhero movies and cruder slapstick animation.
The premise may sound complicated but it works in the manner of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as it's set in a world not unlike our own but whose reality can quickly be bent into any cartoonish shape. The jokes land like dextrous arachnids - with Cage's Humphrey Bogartesque Spidey a particularly rich vein of humour. Its central coming-of-age tale is deftly dealt with and emotionally affecting, as is its theme that anyone can be a superhero.
If there's one criticism it is that the film ends up rather caught between its directors' desire to fully explore the outlandishness and humour of the 'Spider-Verse' and the need to focus on Miles' human story. As a result, we end up steering back towards traditional superhero movie territory - which is mildly disappointing given what has gone before.
However, on the whole, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a rare achievement in this day and age - a comic book flick that feels fresh and inventive, with an inspiring message to boot.