More so than any other genre in recent memory, superhero films have become vessels for bottled-up rage, the perfect outlet for sparring, hyped-up fans looking to blow off steam or pick a fight. Marvel and DC supporters cross swords made of vibranimum and Nth metal, while critics and audiences grow farther apart. In some ways, the environment surrounding superhero movies has become toxic and painful. But if there were ever a film that could unite the masses, it’s Sony’s excellent animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Directors Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr. and Rodney Rothman breathe new life into the visual language of comic books through their bold stylistic choices, including some hallucinogenic imagery that puts Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk to shame. The comedy flows effortlessly; the film’s meta jokes and observational humor is strengthened by its characters’ pitch-perfect timing. The DNA of producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) is all over this film. Most important, though, Spider-Verse would not work without its protagonist Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who anchors genuinely emotional moments that bring all the feels. He is heartfelt, courageous and, above all, real. Miles is a reluctant hero, which underscores the difficulty—the actual humanness—of being a hero. “Anyone can wear the mask,” he says in one scene. “You could wear the mask.”
And just like that, Sony may have solved the big nagging problem plaguing the superhero genre: reboot fatigue.
As we’ve noted previously when discussing the future of superhero movies, remakes and sequels may eventually grind our idols into tired old dust (no help from Thanos needed). We’re getting new versions of both Batman and Superman soon, while live-action, big-screen Spidey and the Incredible Hulk have been played by three different film actors each. But Spider-Verse represents a passing of the torch to a fresh face that further reinvigorates the property and, in doing so, lays the groundwork for other blockbuster franchises to do the same.
Peter Parker (this time played by Jake Johnson) is a comics evergreen, and he’s still present and accounted for in Spider-Verse, though here he’s an aging vigilante who has grown more and more jaded throughout his hero career as his personal life has fallen apart. Meanwhile, Miles—first introduced in 2011’s Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man—is a scared teenager who after getting bitten by that pesky radioactive spider (origin stories are used as a running punch line here) wants nothing more than to avoid the hero life altogether.
The pair help each other evolve, the elder statesman shedding that chip on his shoulder and the young upstart embracing his new destiny. By using Parker, the mainstay of the franchise, to help set up the next chapter of the series, Spider-Verse enables Miles to effectively carry on the legacy with a fresh set of adventures and themes, though he doesn’t have to carry the entire load by himself.
The idea isn’t exactly novel for comics readers and fans of superhero animation—iconic mantles have been turned over before. Riri Williams recently donned Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor; Thor’s longtime love interest Jane Foster was given his power in 2014; even Batman relinquished the cape and cowl eventually. We’ve also seen a modified version of this approach in the MCU, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark mentoring a young Peter Parker (Tom Holland), and DC Films is pivoting away from Henry Cavill’s Superman in favor of a Supergirl movie.
This is the way forward for superhero movies. Not only does it allow for more diversity in these blockbusters—Miles is a half-black, half-Latino kid leading a $90 million extravaganza—but it also alleviates some of the pressure on these new characters to do all the heavy lifting. Audiences are far more willing to invest in a reboot if they feel the original has given it its blessing (we’d love to see Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight offer his stamp of approval to whoever leads Matt Reeves’ The Batman, though that’s unlikely). It’s an easy maneuver to sidestep the waning star power of a Bruce Wayne or a Clark Kent as they’re cycled through multiple iterations, and it provides the potential for thematically rich connections between the old guard and the new (think Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine teaming with Dafne Keen’s X-23 in Logan).
As long as the genre remains Hollywood’s bread and butter, the superhero debates will rage on (just look at the comments sections of think pieces and all those overzealous Twitter threads). But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that rare movie that will appeal to every type of moviegoer. Its innovation—both in form and storytelling—can be transferred to other ongoing cinematic universes to help keep their beloved franchises from growing stale. Besides, the internet can only handle so many Peter Parker memes.