A rush of air snatched out of my lungs, up my throat and through my lips, which sit agape in awe. Breathtaking. Too often “breathtaking” is employed as a casual synonym for beautiful. But Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is literally breathtaking. With an inventive animation style so groundbreaking that Sony is patenting its process, this superhero adventure pushes the boundaries of a genre that risked stagnation in live-action. But a bold look that blends CG animation with an illustrator’s flare is just one of the big risks this mainstream movie dares to take.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse centers on Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager whose fateful bite from a radioactive spider comes while he’s surreptitiously spray-painting a mural in a forgotten subway tunnel. Adapting to his strange new powers is hard enough. But things get really sticky when multi-verses collide, tossing a handful of other Spider-people into Miles’ dimension. The next collision could catastrophically splinter reality. To stop this, Miles teams up with a down-and-out Spider-Man (Jake Johnson), the a super-chill Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), chipper Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), the comically grim Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a ludicrous cross between Spider-Man and Porky Pig.
Live-action superhero movies have chiefly forged franchises on comic’s most iconic characters, which are often white men. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse shakes things up, by bumping Peter Parker to quirky sidekick, focusing on a relatively new Spider-man (created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli in 2011), and including lesser-known heroes who each require a cinematic introduction. But the film has fun with what could feel episodic, making a running gag out of running down each backstory with a few flips of comic and a winking voiceover. And by putting people of color and women in major roles, this animated adventure makes inclusive casting seem as easy–and thrilling–as swinging through the New York skyline.
This cast is preposterously stacked with talent. Moore, who won praise for the coming-of-age comedy Dope, brings a contagious enthusiasm to Morales. Brian Tyree Henry — who has been awing critics this year with Atlanta, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Widows — offers an enveloping warmth and dizzying tenderness as Miles’ strict but loving father. Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali delivers grumbling gravity as Miles’s mischief-encouraging Uncle Aaron. Liev Schreiber gives spine-tingling sneers as Wilson Fisk, while Kathryn Hahn brings a fresh zaniness to a classic Spidey villain. Johnson’s breezy bravado gives a stoner charm to his pudgy Peter Parker. Steinfeld delivers superb sass. Glenn is bright and bubbly. Mulaney goes gamely goofy, and Cage burrows into a self-aware grittiness that wins giggles as he waxes poetic about the mystery of a Rubik’s cube. And all of these performances collide to create a symphony of emotion, with swells of elation, tension, and sadness. It is, after all, a Spider-Man movie. Life-changing trauma is part of the package.
Tears streaked down my face throughout this enthralling film. Sometimes the tears came in a stinging response to the heart-wrenching tragedy unfolding onscreen, which was mercilessly underlined by voice performances resonating with pain. Sometimes they were happy tears, streaming into the corners of a smile born of Miles’s whimsy and joy. And once they came because I was so utterly overwhelmed by the astonishing beauty of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse’s animation. There are callbacks to comic art like thought bubbles, accent lines to signify Spidey sense, Ben-Day dots, and the willful recreation of color separation flaws that would appear in misaligned printings. All this signals the film won’t have to play by the rules of its more realistic peers. Character designs from other dimensions offer distinct styles, like anime for Peni, grey-scale for Spider-noir, and a Looney Tunes elasticity for Spider-Ham. All this look can be literally dizzying. But in the its very best sequence–teased in the trailers–it is keenly focused. Confident in his abilities, Miles dives headfirst off a skyscraper, down into the city. The camera spins to reflect his rising spirit, making it appear as if he’s flying upward. It’s a moment of pure cinematic bliss. My lip trembled. My heart swelled. My breathe was taken.
Freed from the constraints of a photo-real look, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse took the opportunity to return this genre to its comic roots, where anything was possible. With this creative freedom, a screenwriter Phil Lord built a story that is poignant, thrilling, and full of surprises. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman brought together an impeccable ensemble of actors to bring life to its colorful characters, who could spin from irreverent quipping to raw vulnerability in a New York minute. And an amazing army of animators and engineers joined forces and took a leap of faith in a project that is dazzling not only in its spectacle and successes but also in its outrageous daring.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com