Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has a lot of color, starting with its teenage protagonist Miles Morales, son of a black police officer and a Puerto Rican nurse. Presenting Miles as a possible heir to Peter Parker goes beyond racial tokenism — it’s an acknowledgment that a kid most in need of superpowers to survive in modern America would look a lot like Miles. Before he can take the inevitable step of wearing the famous red and blue tights, he has to learn the tricks of the trade from a series of Spidey rivals: the Japanese Peni (voiced by Kimiko Glenn), the original Spider-Man’s true, dead love Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and hard-boiled hero right out of Micky Spillane named Spider Noir (Nicolas Cage). To make things interesting, there’s even Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a pig with sass.
All these characters plus the original Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) are yanked from their universes by a particle accelerator gizmo created at the urging of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has his own reasons, familiar to spectators aware of the subtleties of the Fisk family, for rupturing the fabric of space and time. It could’ve been a mess of a movie, and while it’s loud and fifteen minutes too long and boasts one too many fight sequences, Into the Spider-Verse is the best Marvel film to date. Thanks to a hep, hip screenplay co-written by The LEGO Movie‘s Phil Lord and a gorgeous fusion of four-color process printing and 3D computer-animation, this Spider-Man caper has a freedom of movement and spritz missing from most live action pictures. The gamble works.
Part of the script’s ingenuity is the way it re-conceives familiar characters: the Green Goblin is as big as a Lord of the Rings cave troll; Dr. Octopus is Olivia Octavius, a scientist employed by the Kingpin who is herself mild-mannered when her eight robo-limbs aren’t flailing. Best is how Lord plays around with the Uncle Ben trope, the singular event in young Parker’s life. Miles and his own uncle Aaron (beautifully voiced by Mahershala Ali, compensating for Green Book) have a relationship defined by their devotion to art. Estranged from his brother for reasons I won’t share, Aaron disappears into the catacombs beneath the New York subway system, spray canning graffiti in prismatic tints. After the particle accelerator yanks the Spider People from their respective universes, the audience learns that each suffered their own version of the Tragic Uncle Story; it’s as if this trope formed a part of their collective unconscious like saviors and writing ranked lists of Beatles songs do in ours. As for the original webslinger, he’s a hero gone to seed, a white bro with a pronounced pot belly whose quiverful of quips won’t suffice in this new universe. No wonder Armond White is seething.
Of course, the shrewdness of the multiverse concept plays into the filmmakers’ hands: when the inevitable sequels roll out of the Columbia Pictures lot, expect Spider Noir, Gwen, Peni, et. al. to return, or, better, star in them (I’m sure the Peni one will do blockbuster box office in Japan). Into the Spider-Verse, whose success was preordained ever since Black Panther ruled the earth last February, augurs a potentially infinite number of variations on the material it presents. For a few years, though, the filmmakers can count on millions of devoted young spectators, the expressions on whose faces at my screening yesterday reminded me of photos I’ve seen of the children at Medjugorje. For older fans who’ve waited years for a Marvel movie whose characters look like the men and women of color that they are, Into the Spider-Verse fulfills adolescent hopes. Only in America can representation and cynicism harmonize so mellifluously.