It’s difficult to imagine much credibility in recommending Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse given that I’ve found nearly every film to come out of Marvel Studios (and its adjacent co-producing studios) to be an absolute, cortex-withering slog. Even those I “like” I tend to recommend out of fatigue, predicating my sentence with, “If you have to watch one those films, I’d go with option A, choice B, or bitter pill C.” But with the unfortunately titled, robustly directed Spider-Verse, I can enthusiastically deploy any number of superlatives: it’s the best film produced under the Marvel moniker, the best animated superhero film since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and one of the best animated films, superhero or not, of 2018. It is, above all, a refreshing change of pace from the factory-produced mentality, world-building nonsense that comes from our contemporary crop of superhero films. From its textured animation, emotionally terse voice-acting, and complex but fundamentally human narrative, Spider-Verse achieves the paradoxical feat of making you feel like a superhero by evoking everything that makes you a human; from coursing through your day to day, abating anxieties over an uncertain future, or simply contending with your own self-imposed deficiencies and doubts, Spider-Verse suggests that true acts of heroism come from our capacity not to just live for ourselves, but for others.
With a screenplay by Phil Lord and directed by the triad of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, Spider-Verse offers our first introduction to Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore). The New York teenager was a product of the Obama era, a character that debuted in 2011 to replace Peter Parker under the “Ultimate” banner of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man series. Only familiar with the character by name, yet never having read any of the comics, I was immediately drawn by the character’s initial plight: the son of a Puerto Rican nurse and black cop, Miles is first seen in Spider-Verse going to a private charter academy, passing by his local Brooklyn school where his old friends let him know he’ll be missed. His father (Bryan Tyree Henry) picks him up to drop him off to school, an elitist academy dominated by white faces. The short exchange between Miles and his father offers a lot of insight about what he’s preoccupied with: he is a street artist (he slaps homemade stickers all around the city) that’s been stripped away from the comfort of his friends. He goes to a school where he feels inadequate (Miles mentions that he only lucked into a spot at the school because of a lottery), and can’t relate to the rigidness of his father. What follows is an examination of this confluence of anxieties and preoccupations, where this normal teenager needs to confront a harsh new reality that leaves him to take hold of a mantle that he’s ill-equipped to handle.
It’s an origin story and as all origin stories go, there’s a measure of derivativeness associated with how they proceed. But as is the case with Phil Lord’s previous films (21 Jump Street, The LEGO Movie), there’s a self-awareness to how the narrative unfolds that enlivens the picture. Normally, I’ve been averse to Lord’s propensity for self-referential rejoinders and snarky asides, but contextually, within the framework Spider-Verse’s paneled, tactile visual design (the film summons the fundamental muscle memory of turning the page of a comic book with your finger tips), it all coalesces into something both unfashionably classical yet new. Even as the film gets visually busier and complex, the filmmakers remain rooted in what makes Miles such a compulsively likeable character: he is everything we are, riddled with self-doubt, feeling like a cog whose gears are out of sync with the rest of the moving world, who just needs to make that leap of faith. It’s not about feats of strength, invisibility, or slinging through NYC with webs – superherodom is about finding faith in something, anything, larger than yourself. So few superhero films grasp this fundamental, elemental perspective; this is one that’s all about it.