MOVIE REVIEW

There are some pop culture phenomena where intense popularity is an inscrutable mystery, but Spider-Man is not one of those cases. It's not only the fact that the web-slinger was introduced as a teenage protagonist (much closer to the age of young readers than most superheroes initially were), but because of the ideal his character represents. Life is unkind to Peter Parker -- his parents are dead, he's a bullied nerd, and he has perpetual bad luck -- but when burdened with the epic responsibility of actually being able to help people he doesn't hesitate to bear every ounce of it. Life threatens with intense danger, extreme cynicism, and seething hate, and he is the hero who is never kept down and always fighting back.

All of this has been at the core of the character for over 50 years, but in that time he has also been a morphing subject based on the approach and creativity of the creators. Without losing sight of the most important elements, writers and artists have told thousands of Spider-Man stories not only on pulp and glossy pages, but in all mediums, and not always about Peter Parker. There have been multiple television series, a Broadway show, and even in the last 16 years alone we've seen three different live-action interpretations of the wall-crawler on the big screen, with Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland all bringing distinct and unique energies to the role.

Spider-Man's legacy is long and fluid, seemingly impossible to fully depict in a single film. But not all filmmakers are Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and as a result we now have Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. There are many ways in which it is different than every Spidey movie we've seen -- it's animated, it doesn't center on Peter Parker, and it features a depiction of the multiverse -- and each of those elements plays a major factor in making it a unique and special event. However, what stands above all else is the way in which it cuts to the core of what makes Spider-Man not only an entertaining icon, but an important one, and in doing so coalesces as both a phenomenal and breathtaking experience that is one of the best superhero features ever made.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is as meta as any previous Lord and Miller project, opening with a voice over acknowledgement that the tale of the friendly neighborhood hero is one that you already know and have heard countless times. But that's the story of Peter Parker, and alluded to, that's not the origin that this movie is here to tell. This is the story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore).

In many ways, Miles couldn't be more different than Peter. He lives with his two loving parents -- his police officer father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), and nurse mother, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) -- and while he's intellectually gifted he's also immensely charismatic and popular. Hell, he's even lucky enough to win a lottery that gets him into a prestigious prep school (though it's a change he actually hates).

Miles is a kid that has everything going for him, but it all flips upside-down when a scientifically-engineered spider sinks its fangs into his hand and permanently alters his DNA. It's a familiar part of the origin story, including powers like sticking to surfaces, spider-sense, hyper agility, and super strength, but what makes Miles a bit different is that shortly after acquiring his new abilities he witnesses first-hand the death of Peter Parker. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has plans to use a super collider to open the universe, and the red-and-blue-suited Spider-Man dies shutting it down.

As Miles continues to question what it means that he has Spider-Man's powers and everything that goes along with it, the world reacts to the devastating news. And that's when things get weird. A trip to Peter Parker's grave leads the young reluctant hero to meet Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), an alternate universe version of Spider-Man who needs Miles' help getting back home.

While Miles works alongside this 40-something, divorced, out-of-shape skyscraper-swinger, he discovers that he isn't the only Spider-Man who has found himself dimensionally astray as a result of Kingpin's machine. Instead, there is a full group of them, including the rocker Gwen Stacy a.k.a. Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld); the cartoonish Peter Porker a.k.a. Spider-Ham (John Mulaney); the anime-inspired Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her psychically-linked robot SP//dr; and the black-and-white Nazi-fighter Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage). Miles not only finds himself with the responsibility of helping these Spider-People get back where they belong, but grappling with whether or not he has what it takes to join their ranks.

The question of what it takes to be Spider-Man drives Into The Spider-Verse, and honestly elevates it to become something tremendously powerful -- particularly for those of us who spent childhoods imagining ourselves on the same journey. Miles' couldn't be more different than Peter's, his choices and sacrifices with different contexts and consequences, but it's emotional and impactful to see him grapple with it. After all, it's meant as a metaphor for the intense, frustrating, terrifying and universal struggle to understand one's place in existence.

This so far may paint Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse primarily as an existential drama, and that's certainly a crucial, special aspect of the film, but it's also just one color on this vibrant and brilliant canvas. One can't understate just how fun the movie is, both in its thrilling action sequences, and its amazing character repartee. On the first front, it's always a delight watching the web-head bounce around a scene causing enemies endless grief, and that's true for all the Spider-People here (plus we get to see an assortment of creative takes on classic baddies never seen before). That leads into the second front as well, as the heroes are all blessed with the same snarky gift of gab that equally drives the baddies batty, and lends to uproarious laughter from an audience.

Adding to that, while there is never any question who the lead of this film is, there is a scene-stealing competition that plays out all the way to the end of the post-credits sequence. Jake Johnson's Peter Parker is definitely the movie's second most significant character, operating with his own perfect mentor/personal redemption arc, but he also delivers some of the best material the script has to offer with his proven excellent comedic timing.

As for the rest of the team from around the Spider-Verse, while they don't have quite the same level of narrative devotion, each of them does have qualities that make them exceptional and standout. Cage delivers some wonderful pulp fiction-esque monologues in between bouts of clear fascination with a Rubik's Cube; Peni and SP//dr's bond is straight out of a Miyazaki film, and Spider-Ham's cartoon nature allows for some fantastic and weird gags. And while less overtly funny than some of her mates, Spider-Woman (or Spider-Gwen as she is known among comic fans) is the queen of cool and is going to become an instant favorite for the uninitiated.

More than just dynamic personalities, the various Spider heroes also bring their own specific animation styles into the world of Miles Morales, which is a perfect segue to discuss how outrageously incredible Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse actually looks. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, along with the filmmakers at Sony Pictures Animation, have developed a film that looks truly unlike anything audiences have ever seen before, and it's nothing short of revolutionary. The style is created with the blending of both 2D and 3D animation, the result having a rotoscope-esque look, and it's a stunning comic book brought to life -- both literally and figuratively (to again highlight writer/producer Phil Lord and Chris Miller's meta sensibilities).

The aforementioned action sequences are as stunning and crisp as they are exciting, but even more impressive is just the absolute sheer beauty that is captured with characters swinging around the generated New York City. Without going too far into it, nothing will prepare you for the hair-raising cinematic experience that is what will surely hence forth be known as the Leap Of Faith sequence.

It's been a busy year for Spider-Man and Spider-Man-related characters in Hollywood, with audiences having already seen the deeply juxtaposed highs and lows of Avengers: Infinity War and Venom grace the big screen in 2018. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is the last among them to arrive in theaters, however, it is also the best among them. What has been made here is a tremendous achievement built on the genius vision and foundation created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in 1962, and is a stunning tribute to everything the character represents. It's a phenomenal piece of art that you just want to live in, and the follow-up teased in the final moments can't get here soon enough.

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