Both the iconic brand and character of Spider-Man is the quintessential breeding ground for the elements of fun, action, humor, romance, and heartache. How you can achieve the ideal balance, or even alternate between many extremes sounds easier said than done. Yet, walking out of the theater last Friday night I was amazed by how often I laughed, cheered, and came close to the verge of tears. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a triumph in more ways than one.
It was almost as if I was taught a lesson against the backdrop of the Spider-Man mythos. It’s especially poignant now, considering that Stan Lee is no longer with us, for two reasons. One: Spider-Man teaches us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The second reason, well, Stan Lee always advocated that his favorite character of Spider-Man was a very relatable guy. He may have been born out of a family tragedy like several superheroes, but Spider-Man also struggles with romance, inferiority, financial status, grades, paying the rent, you get the idea. The point is that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse carries this powerful overarching theme that anyone can be Spider-Man. Anyone can be under the mask.
There lies a great beauty in that idea. You can latch onto any character in the movie for any reason. To be frank, there’s quite a lot to love about this movie. That’s because Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse deliberately takes its time to weave one web of a story so that, in return, the audience is given a cast with characters whose motives are relatable and their drive to be a hero convincing.
Miles Morales, played by an energetic Shameik Moore, is a Spider-Man you want to root for to become a hero and a kid whose shoes you want to step into. Jake Johnson does his take on a disillusioned Peter Parker who’s reluctantly called in a Mr. Miyagi role, and his character progression doesn’t seem like it plays second fiddle to Miles. Hailee Steinfeld is instantly an incomparable Spider-Gwen. She exudes fun, independence, ferocity, and sentiment all in one. Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) is an adorable techie turned hero whose muffled fierceness is evened out by her equally cute craving for junk food. Nicolas Cage methodically brings a colorful performance to a literal monotone character in Spider-Man Noir, channeling the Humphrey Bogart gangster movies complete with a James Cagney accent. One mustn’t forget John Mulaney’s Spider-Ham and his deadpan delivery of one-liners reminiscent of classic Looney Tunes.
On the opposite side of the coin, I was surprised to see the direction that Into the Spider-Verse took with their iteration of Wilson Fisk, AKA Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). I was half-expecting to see a Fisk that wanted to destroy Spider-Man simply because he had the power and resources to do so. Instead, this Fisk has a powerful motive behind his actions, however blindsided or dangerous a motive it may be. In many ways, this Wilson Fisk became my favorite telling of the character on the big screen. He’s angry, brutal, reckless, and yet so empathetic.
In its stance as a superhero movie, I’m relieved that the writers decided to take their time in shaping Miles’ origin story. Honestly, I was sort of dreading to see the tried and true training montage because that trope seems to evoke only how a person becomes the superhero. By Miles coming to grips with a dark revelation, trying and failing to understand his powers, and the overwhelming feeling that restoring the shattered dimensions of the Spider-Verse rests mostly on his shoulders, by the time Miles comes into his own the audience not only sees how Miles became Spider-Man, but also why he became Spider-Man.
With so much personality brimming at the edges, it’s hard to distinguish whether the characters or the art style is at the forefront of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Simply put, it’s a harmonious marriage of the two that makes it work. Truly it can be said that it’s not just a comic book come to life but rather comic books come to life. That is to say that when every Spider-Person is introduced, they are joined by an art style unique to their own comic series. Eagle-eyed fans of the comics are sure to differentiate between Spider-Gwen’s splashes of hushed neon against the clearly faithful over-the-top energy of Peni Parker’s anime sequences. If each Spider-Person acts as an essential ingredient to a delicious cake, the added KAPOWs and WHOOSHs are just the sprinkles on top.
The film is also particularly clever in using speech bubbles, text boxes, and even the size and scale of its characters in the absence of spoken word to help the viewer piece the plot together themselves. Speech bubbles and text boxes shift from one side of the screen to the other, lending the audience to think, “hey that was just like a comic book.” It’s a great device in accentuating the film’s profound sense of humor where audible speech would otherwise fail. Moreover, each Spider-Person has an identity inside and outside of the superhero suit. Musical cues drive home the point that anyone can be Spider-Man. Miles is driven by the beats and hums of contemporary artists. It’s a stark contrast to Spider-Ham’s motif, which makes wonderful use of the “whistles” and “bonks” of a Saturday morning cartoon. Kingpin himself is depicted as a hulking mass of a man with a tiny head. While odd at first, the scale of his design ironically made the meager vulnerability hidden within him all the more magnificent.
That’s what I really took away from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s that I could feel something happening between me and the themes explored in the film rather than just observe what was happening in front of my eyes. Again, it’s truly amazing that Into the Spider-Verse’s definition of feel can encompass so much. It’s what you can see with an art style that doesn’t hold its punches. It’s what you can hear from one character to the next. My only critique is that it’s a shame we can’t have every Spider-Person together for just a little while longer, if only to joke around, fight together, or just grab a bite and talk about their feelings. Still, the payoff is quite worth it in the end. I’m already itching to go see it again, because I know Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an instant classic, and one that will continue to entertain for years to come.
That’s what happens when a Spider-Man movie is too good that you can honestly tell yourself at the end of it: I am Spider-Man too.