Does Whatever a Spider-Man Movie Can
Spider-Man is dead. Long live Spider-Man! Imagine dearly departed nonagenarian Stan Lee tripping his balls off and you’ll get a sense of the BLAM! ZING! POW! day-glo hallucination also known as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
A pop-art revelation overflowing with wit and panache, this maniacal animated hoot ranks up there with the best of Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks, and Fleischer Studios. Brace for sheer cartoon lunacy, from the caffeinated jitters of the Sony/Columbia/Marvel logos (including a cute shout-out to the Comics Code Authority stamp) to the WTF end-credit spirographic hilarity of Spider-Man chorines doing gonzo Busby Berkeley numbers. Sure, this arachnid-laced acid test is a swollen-hearted valentine to comic books. But it’s also a full-throated declaration that even a long-in-the-tooth, re-re-rebooted I.P. like Spider-Man still has some life kicking in its spindly legs.
Leave it to mass-culture C.P.R. expert Phil Lord, re-invigorator (with Christopher Miller) of otherwise D.O.A. assignments like The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street. As producer and co-screenwriter here, the storytelling savant clearly got carte blanche to tweak, stretch, shred, explode, and torch the webslinger mythos. Dipping into canonical funhouse oddities like the superhero’s multiverse variants allowed him to realize his most frenetic, meta-tastic fantasy. He also, amazingly, still stayed true to the core mission: Showing a friendly neighborhood outer-borough kid grapple with high school angst while wrestling power-hungry super-villains. Here’s hoping the self-serious idiots over at too-precious Lucasfilm are green with galactic envy for kicking him off their flaccid franchise flop Solo: A Star Wars Story.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfield, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage
Running time: 117 min.
The spine of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is Afro-Latino teen Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who made waves with the Comic-Con cognoscenti in 2011 for adding some color to the White Male Privilege of Marvel’s foundational stars. After being bitten by a radioactive bug (natch), Miles stumbles into a battle royale between Spider-Man (Chris Pine) and Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). The two are fighting over some kind of massive subterranean collider that creates a rift in the space-time continuum. Cue the arrival of myriad mutations: Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld); Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her psychic-linked robotic cohort; Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney); the black-and-white, nihilistic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage); and, last but not least, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson).
It’s a gleeful assault on the senses, with each of them bringing their own baggage and skewed points of view to the task of returning to their respective homes before their increasingly glitchy metabolisms self-destruct. “Atoms aren’t jazzed about being in another dimension,” chirps one of them.
Peter B. Parker is Miles’ reluctant sensei, a wan, flabby Spidey in his late 30s with a penchant for sweatpants and a longing to get back with estranged wife Mary Jane. Miles calls him a “janky old broke hobo Spider-Man,” but Parker can still deliver on-the- job tutorials in shooting THWIP! THWIP! webs from his wrists. Also: disinfect your mask and don’t forget baby powder for the suit.
Despite all the originality, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse still groans with more than a few platitudes that feel less like organic insights and more like guard-rail studio notes. “What makes you different is what makes you Spider-Man,” says Peter B. Parker. Huh? Whatever. Just get back to the HELLO MY NAME IS sight gags for each new character intro.
The villains are also a bit second-tier. Preposterously mountainous Kingpin is kind of fun to watch. But Tombstone? Scorpion? Really? Maybe it’d be different if the film did something clever with them. Right now, though, they’re more like fan-base chum. And the threat levels come off as preposterously bombastic. “Destroy this machine before the space-time continuum collapses!” That sounds bad. Also ridiculous. Of course, being a 21st century superhero movie, everything comes to a head in a maelstrom of technicolor confetti that strains to double as an emotional climax.
So maybe the conflict beats need some work—especially a villain reveal that’s groan-inducingly obvious. Don’t let it get you down, though, since what really makes this movie swing are all the bespoke touches, like Miles’ spray-paint chest design, red hoodie and Air Jordans. Or the Spidey-sense tingling that radiates from his head like Keith Haring squiggles. Or the thought bubbles that pop up as cartoon boxes, or the deliberate pixilation, flourishes of half-tone shading, and red-blue penumbras that mimic off-color printing presses. There’s a graphic-novel soul behind this flick unlike any in the Marvel cinesphere. And that’s pretty marvelous.