Of the multitude of films that draw inspiration from comic books, few leave ink on your fingers quite the way Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse does.
Watching the film—an animated superhero movie that takes full advantage of the visual and thematic freedoms these genres provide—in the midst of the lugubrious “important movie” season feels like sneaking off into your parents’ attic to dip into that one lone box of comics that has survived the purge. The experience is simultaneously intimate and stirring; the film brings its audience to a thrillingly colorful and utterly relevant world of its own at a time when the primary purpose of other superhero movies seems to be to tease future installments and fill corporate coffers.
With upward of seven Spider-beings and three big bad guys, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is pop filmmaking at its maximal. Rarely has a film so overstuffed also been so focused and on point, never allowing its universe and genre-stretching visuals to overwhelm its emotion and ideas. The three directors—Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman—mix these characters, as well as idioms and influences that run the gambit from Roy Lichtenstein and anime to drug-soaked psychedelia, like expert DJs mixing tracks at a house party; never once do they let the beat drop. It’s not by accident that British composer Daniel Pemberton’s score prominently features turntable scratching.
But what makes it all work—the center around which this whacky Spider-verse revolves—is the character of Miles Morales, voiced with a deft combination of wonder and the burden of expectation by Shameik Moore (2015’s Dope). Originally created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Morales first appeared in comics seven years ago but had not—until now—made it to the silver screen, despite two relaunches of the Spider-Man franchise since then.
Miles is everything the Peter Parker I grew up with is not: He’s well liked, more thoughtful than quippy and has a full roster of parents—his mother Rio, a nurse (Dexter‘s Lauren Luna Velez) and his father Jefferson, a cop (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry) smother him with affection. He is also Afro-Latino which, even in the year of Black Panther, is noteworthy. After all, this is no Wakandan king; Miles is a Brooklyn straphanger with Beats headphones, a Chance the Rapper poster on his bedroom wall and a Charles Dickens book report due.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE ★★★1/2
But for the noisy Twitter minority who prefer their Spider-folk to more closely resemble residents of Mayberry, there are not one but two Peter Parker characters; one is blonde while the other has a dad-bod spare tire and divorce papers (both are voiced by New Girl’s Jake Johnson).
There is also Spider-Ham (John Mulaney); the futuristic pre-teen Peni Parker (Orange is the New Black‘s Kimiko Glenn), who rides a Spider-Robot, potential love interest Spider-Gwen (True Grit‘s Hailee Seinfeld); and a black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), who insults his enemies by calling them “hardboiled turtle slappers.”
The fact that each character is rendered in an artistic style distinct from the rest of the film—Spider-Ham seems like a refugee from the Animaniacs while Spider-Man Noir could have waltzed out of a daily newspaper comic strip—gives each of them a visual purchase that serves as an effective shorthand for character development. The villains are anchored by Liev Schreiber’s lumbering inkblot of a Kingpin, who is driven to create space-and-time-bending portals because he has the kind of tragic backstory normally given to heroes.
The Kingpin’s universe-collapsing subterranean device is not just his secret weapon; it is also the movie’s. It allows the filmmakers the opportunity to craft every kind of mind-twisting head trip they can imagine. The final face-off, for example, seems to take place inside an overly aggressive lava lamp, and sometimes when Spidey glides through the canyons of Manhattan, he leaves trails.
The greatest triumph and biggest surprise of the film is that it is an LSD freak-out on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Kubrick’s 1968 space epic, you are as likely to enjoy Into the Spider-Verse with your 12-year-old nephew as you are you with your stoner friends.