The world is full of superheroes. And while many of them, in turn, mean something to someone, Spider-Man has always been special—Spider-Man is truly ours. As the comics world expands, there are more Spider-heroes to prove just why that continues to be true. But because of the continued assumption that only the earliest of origin stories will be valid to fans, there haven’t been many opportunities to celebrate the full breadth of the Spider-Verse in front of a big movie-going audience.
Now, that has changed. And the result is easily the best Spider-Man film ever made.
[Minor spoilers for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]
The film’s choice to center on the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man offers an iteration of the character who feels more current and true to the landscape of modern day America than even MCU Peter Parker is capable of achieving. Miles’s popularity, despite the character being less than a decade old, is a testament to how relatable fans have found him, and Shameik Moore (who had wanted to play this role since Morales’s introduction all those year back) performs the part with equal parts vulnerability and cheekiness. He’s a smart kid who’s feeling separated from his community after being accepted into a private school on scholarships, and his struggle to fit in among kids from a different tax bracket becomes the least of his worries once he gets his spider bite.
On the other side of this web is Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), older but not quite wiser, who might have eagerly taken it upon himself to train a brand new Spider-Man if he weren’t currently in a slump of depression, eating his feelings and taking sadness naps. Johnson has a real balancing act to work out, making certain that Peter doesn’t let his bitterness outweigh the familiarity of the Peter we know and love, and he pulls it off beautifully. The mentor-mentee relationship that the duo forms is the core of the film, and while Peter has the seniority, the film doesn’t make the mistake of treating the first Spidey as all-knowing. After all, hyper-confidence, stability, and grandstanding isn’t really what Spider-Man has ever been about. There’s a fun give and take between Peter and Miles that you don’t normally get between teachers and students, and it elevates the film from a torch-passing “lesson” movie to a story about what it means to choose this mantle.
While fans have been curious about how the latest Marvel films will handle the passing of Stan Lee, the man’s cameo in this film is perhaps the finest ode possible, both in the movie itself, and noted with a quote at the end. Everyone knows that Spidey was one of Lee’s favorite creations, and the loving portrayal given here really strikes a chord, both in the world of the film and on a meta level. It manages to have the best of both worlds, and will likely make even the most cynical of viewers teary-eyed.
The script, thanks to Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, has a sharp witticism and big heart that Lee himself must have been proud of, and the love of each iteration of Spider-Man (even down to John Mulaney’s jarring, ridiculous, yet somehow wholly endearing turn as Spider-Ham) shines through every frame. While the story is packed with in-jokes and references and plot and so many characters, the film never overloads to the point of getting confusing. It keeps its pace while giving room for character work and allowing each figure a moment to shine, even the non-spidey ones. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) is a delight, as is Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Nicholas Cage’s turn as Spider-Man Noir is simultaneously just enough Cage and just enough noir to make the character an easy highlight. Also, while I love Marissa Tomei as Aunt May, Lily Tomlin pretty much instantly displaces any other version of the character that I’ve seen or heard.
This is a cartoon, of course, and while Marvel and Sony have been reticent in putting real money behind projects that aren’t live-action, they’re likely to reconsider it now. The animation, based partly on the stunning work done by Miles Morales’s co-creator and illustrator Sara Pichelli, sets a new standard—not just for comic book animated projects, but for animation in general. The style manages to pop out and have the look of a two-dimensional page at the same. It is dazzling and dynamic, and a mess of surprising colors and incredibly thoughtful backgrounds. Sony had to keep expanding their animator team until they had over 140 working on the project, and it shows… and was worth every frame. It’s going to be hard to watch other animated movies, knowing that they could look as gorgeous as this.
There’s so much to say about the fine attention to detail paid by this film, all the little easter eggs and every heartfelt moment that plays on the collective love the world has for Spider-Man. (There’s the comic book framing device in particular, showcased in the trailer, which is maybe one of my favorite things in any superhero film ever.) But there’s no need to spoil people on plot details and emotional moments, and in any case, the real question is why? Why create this sprawling mini-epic that centers on what makes Spider-Man one of the biggest superheroes of all time?
We know the answer, though. We know why we love Spider-Man, and why we keep wanting stories that center on that love. The character’s appeal is perhaps the least mysterious of any superhero on record. It’s because Spidey, in every incarnation, belongs to us. Because Spider-Man’s motto—With great power comes great responsibility—applies to each of us, whether we realize it or not. Everyone has their own unique power. Everyone has a responsibility to use that power for the benefit of others. And Spider-Man is not a hero who pretends that using that power is simple or easy or free of confusion. Spider-Man just tells us we have to use it.
Perhaps no Spider-Man story has ever made this quite so clear as this one does. And it does every eager corner of our hearts some good.