Let's acknowledge, up front, that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a visual wonder. Combining modern computer-generated animation with 2-D hand-drawn techniques such as action panels, thought bubbles, Ben-Day dots, even the little squiggly-lined emanata that indicate “spidey-sense,” directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman have come darned close to capturing on the big screen the feel of old four-color pulp comics in textures that modern live-action superhero sagas do not.
Beyond its technical triumphs, however, the film offers a Spider-Man origin story (its fourth cinematic re-telling of the 21st Century) that actually expands the character's cinematic mythos. Literally, Spidey's standard alter-ego Peter Parker is not the protagonist this time around (although he appears in two different incarnations), and thematically, screenwriters Phil Lord (half the creative team behind The Lego Movie) and Rodney Rothman emphasize that Spider-Man is not defined by gender, age, nationality, even species, that heroism derives from character, meaning “Anyone can wear the mask.”
Drawing from a 2011 Marvel Comics storyline, Into the Spider-Verse introduces Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino high-schooler who is bright, talented but unsure of who—or what—he's supposed to be. Like most kids his age (and like Peter Parker before him), Miles is in search of a role-model, and while he's surrounded by several, including his strict-but-loving policeman dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and shady-but-hip Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), the question becomes even more complicated when he's bitten by the requisite radioactive spider.
After witnessing the Peter Parker Spiderman (Chris Pine) brutally murdered by hulking crime boss, the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) , Miles is left wondering if he can possibly fill his hero's unitard.
Not to worry, Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has also ripped a hole in the space-time continuum, releasing into Miles' world Spider-entities from multiple parallel dimensions, including hip new girl at school Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld); laconic, trenchcoat-wearing Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage); spunky pre-teen manga heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn); and Looney Tunes-inspired Spectacular Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), who even manages to slip in Porky's famous line before all the action's over.
Each of these alt-spider heroes is rendered with a distinctive animation style, coloring, and movement, which are preserved even in group scenes and amid on-screen action, a thrilling sight to behold. The voice talent on display is likewise impressive, including Lily Tomlin as a feisty Aunt May Parker and Kathryn Hahn as a creepy distaff Doctor Octopus.
Miles' best guide, however, turns out to be Peter B. Parker (New Girl's Jake Johnson), a disheveled, disillusioned version of the web-spinner (Miles initially describes him as “a janky old broke hobo Spider-Man”), who nonetheless manages to turn Miles' search for a role-model inward.
The plot is convoluted, the villains too plentiful (Green Goblin, Prowler, Tombstone, and Scorpion all make appearances), and self-referential moments non-stop as the heroes ultimately band together to save the universe and return to their proper dimensions. Yet the directing trio keep the film's focus squarely on Miles' journey as he learns about selflessness, faith and identity.
Right now, this is the superhero film to beat. Yet while the film's technical innovations may eventually lose their novelty, “Into the Spider-Verse” will remain relevant because of its its broad, inclusive vision and its big heart.