This Halloween, watching trick-or-treaters parade down a city street, I realized that Spider-Man has triumphed over all other heroes. I saw Spideys of all races and ages, plus occasional Spider-Women and one sleek hoodied “Spider-Gwen” — probably a convention cosplayer, judging by her suit’s comic-book accuracy. Sure, there were a couple of Supermen, Batmen and Captains America, but Spidey was dominant and diverse, the hero of choice for kid after kid. This brought to mind a truth that comics writer Paul Jenkins hit on when he set a 2001 issue of Peter Parker: Spider-Man in the mind of a young African-American boy who daydreams, as his mother succumbs to drug addiction, that he becomes pals with Spider-Man and eventually gets to meet the man beneath the mask. In that story, in that boy’s imagination, Spider-Man is a black man, because why wouldn’t he be?
Unlike Supes, Bats or Caps, Spider-Man wears a mask that hides his entire face. But rather than limit the hero’s relatability, Spidey’s mask broadens it, invites anyone to envision themselves in the web-slinging life. Kids understand this; Marvel Comics has in recent years come to understand it; now, with the gobstoppingly good Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the movies do, too.
Bold and boundlessly inventive, Spider-Verse is the best Spidey movie since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and the best superhero movie since 2008’s The Dark Knight. Its funky pulse, vibrant cartooning and neon-graffiti aesthetic make the other movies about Marvel superheroes look staid and safe by comparison. Suddenly, it’s more obvious than ever that too much of Captain America and The Avengers take place in same-y steel labs and drab frontage-road office parks. Like the Lego movies, from which its creators borrow a spirit of creative license, the Spider-Verse ethos is one of play, of the joyous mash-up, as its story smashes universes together. It sets a host of alternative Spider-folk running amok in the New York City of Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, the mixed-race Spider-Man (his father is black and his mother Latinx) invented for the comics in 2011 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli.
Here Spidey-ness is something like open-source software, and any possible permutation any kid or comics creator ever doodled is likely to show up: Here’s Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s girlfriend who got murdered in the comics and the miserable The Amazing Spider-Man 2, swinging in from an alternate universe where she’s the hero, and it’s Peter Parker’s death that haunts her. And here’s Peter Porker, Spider-Ham, a heroic pig from some Looney Tunes counter-Earth of falling anvils and enormous mallets that fit right in your pocket.
I admit that, before seeing the movie, I carped that the first time Sony dared to give us a black Spider-Man onscreen they also planned to give us a spider-pig. But in the giddy gush of it all — such breathless web-swinging! such bravura Spider-brawls! such clever and intuitive use of comic book frames and narration boxes! — those worries seemed absurd to me, especially since the writers and directors have achieved something rare in comic book films. This Miles Morales has a more textured and convincing life and world onscreen than in his actual comics. The Peter Parkers we’ve met onscreen have always been guilt-burdened outer-Queens science geniuses positioned awkwardly on a continuum from skateboarding spaz to hunky depressive; I could root for them, but they never suggested anything like actual humans you might actually know.
This Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), though, is a fresh and convincing creation, a specific kid, one with tastes and hobbies and quirks, rather than the latest effort at updating a bunch of character traits Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr. came up with 50 years ago. His familial relationships are loving and precisely rendered. In an early sequence that finds him crossing town from his own neighborhood to the fancy-pants prep school he’s not sure suits him, his language and bearing altering as he goes, we learn more about him than we ever did about any Peter Parker. The film’s through line is the origin story of Miles’ black-suited Spider-Man, especially his coming to grips with the ol’ questions of power and responsibility. But it’s clear from the start that he won’t struggle with the secret-identity part of a hero’s life: The world already makes code-switching kids like Miles present variant selves.
Meanwhile, the alt-universe Spideys who turn up get varying amounts of screen time and development. A 40ish Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), set toward the depressive end of that continuum, serves as Miles’ half-assed mentor, scoring some of the film’s biggest laughs as he disinterestedly lumbers through what for him seems just another business-as-usual crossover adventure. Hailee Steinfeld’s Spider-Gwen, a punkish flavor-crystal of a hero in this decade’s best new superhero costume, haunts the edges of the story, but she steals her every scene and deserves her own movie, stat! That’s especially owed her considering the fact that much of Spider-Verse’s look — those mad jabs of color over electro blue and pink cityscapes — come from Marvel’s Spider-Gwen comics by Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez.
Spider-Verse succeeds so wildly because it embraces what’s great in its source material — the freedom to try out any bonkers idea — and uses that to justify its own existence. I’ve heard scoffing at the idea of another Spider-Man movie, of an animated Spidey universe to keep track of in addition to the live-action one introduced in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, of a cartoon Spider-Man, no less. “Even if it is great,” one smart friend said to me, “aren’t audiences going to be confused?” Spider-Verse’s creators seize that confusion and create art from it: Miles isn’t another Spider-Man, he is Spider-Man, just as Tom Holland is, and Tobey Maguire was, and that pig and all the kids on my street in costumes are, too. The movie trusts that audiences will roll with the craziness so long as the craziness is fresh and exciting. In that, it’s a breakthrough.
Aging fandoms for film and comic franchises have often splintered in recent years, as older dudes especially howl about fresh approaches that might help the characters they love resonate with new audiences. Spider-Verse demonstrates that it’s infinitely more fun to share.
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