You might be forgiven for feeling superhero overload this holiday season. Had enough of, say, of Spider-Man for a while? Well, this may sound nuts, but consider watching not just one web-slinger but five of them in the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Instead of overload, you’ll be begging for more.
The film gleefully scrambles the notion there can be only one friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and offers the exciting idea that he can be anyone. He can be a girl, he can be a middle-aged dude with a paunch and he can even be a cartoon pig.
It’s hard to underestimate what this means. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse “ does what comics and graphic novels have long experimented with, but this time makes the leap to the big screen. It literally opens up a universe of possibilities. “Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask,” we are told.
The result is a film that’s fantastically fresh, both visually and narratively, trippy and post-modern at the same time and packed with intriguing storytelling tools, humor, empathy and action, while also true to its roots — still telling the story of a young man learning to accept the responsibility of fighting for what’s right.
Our main hero here is one plucked from a spin-off from the main Spider-Man comic book universe: Miles Morales, a half-African-American, half-Puerto Rican teen from Brooklyn who has a Chance the Rapper poster on his wall. He looks and acts nothing like previous Peter Parker types — Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland — and that’s great. Hey, if Cate Blanchett can play Bob Dylan in a movie, why not offer us a new look on Spidey?
Produced by Phillip Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo behind the acclaimed “The Lego Movie,” this Spider-Man saga pops with outstanding animation, constantly changing its styles. At times, it can be hyper-real, then surreal. It includes anime, slo-mo, color distortion, Pop art, hand-drawn elements, CG animation and even tweaks its own origins by adding dialogue in little panels.
The animators place their story in a wonderfully gritty New York, complete with screeching, graffiti-streaked subway cars and charmless pedestrians, (one of whom turns out to be voiced by Post Malone, who contributes to the soundtrack.) One quibble: Their ability to have things in the foreground appear in sharp relief while objects in the background bleed away makes it seem as if you’re watching a 3D film without those weird glasses.
Our hero Miles (Shameik Moore) is trying to navigate life between his cop dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and his cooler uncle (Mahershala Ali). After being bitten by a radioactive spider, he witnesses the death of Spider-Man (smaller viewers, beware). But Miles soon learns there are many other Spider-People, freed from their realities by the hulking Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has built a nuclear collider that allows access to alternative universes.
“New Girl” star Jake Johnson voices a flabbier and depressed Peter Parker who wears sweat pants and is going through a divorce to Mary Jane. There’s a fedora-wearing, black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) who has been teleported from battling Nazis. There’s also a cool-girl Spider-Gwen played by Hailee Steinfeld, and Kimiko Glenn voices an anime schoolgirl from the future. And there’s Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) who is rooted in Saturday morning kiddie cartoons, including the use of a dropping anvil.
This odd family unites to take down Kingpin and return to their universes, winking forever at themselves and the viewer, not a little like the “Deadpool.” Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman — Rothman and Phil Lord wrote the story — also ground the tale with a great soundtrack that includes Elliphant, Run-DMC, The Notorious B.I.G., James Brown and Nicki Minaj.
Marvel icon Stan Lee makes his expected animated appearance, but this time there’s sadness attached. He mourns Spider-Man’s passing. “I’m going to miss him,” he tells Miles. Lee died Nov. 12 and we’re going to miss him, too. But this film somehow sums up a lot of what he tried to do over his career: Pack fun, action and sweetness into a story and then watch it soar.