‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Spins a Deliriously Creative Web of Animated Fun

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is no mere comic book movie, it joyously leaps and thrills like an actual comic book. While the box office has been ruled by major live action productions, where actors do battle with a lot of CGI, here is another example of how animation can imagine anything with an exhilarating freedom. This movie throws multiple styles on the screen with a plot that features the usual like multiple dimensions, evil doers trying to destroy the world and parents who just don’t get it. But “Into the Spider-Verse” jumps into these classic themes with an immersive energy where the screen always feels alive.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a Brooklyn kid going to private school but feeling the urge to ditch class here and there. His father, a cop named Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), tries to remind Miles about the important things in life, even as he rails against that pesky vigilante Spider-Man. Miles prefers the company of his uncle, the free-spirited but kind Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who encourages Miles’s talents as an artist. While doing some graffiti art in the bowels of the city, Miles is bitten by a strange spider. He wakes up to find himself transformed with abilities similar to…Spider-Man. As tends to happen, the powers kick in at school at the wrong time, like when he tries to talk to cute new student Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). Miles is soon thrust into more serious problems when he comes across the actual Spider-Man trying to stop a super collider tearing open the space time continuum (of course). The resulting cataclysm alters reality when a Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from another reality is hurtled into Miles’s. Miles now begs Parker to teach him the ways of Spider-Man, but the older hero is reluctant at first. Soon other alternate spideys pop out of the continuum tear, including Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). They will have to work together to stop the vicious crime lord Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) from unleashing more chaos.

“Into the Spider-Verse” celebrates the “Spider-Man” world while having fun in altering it. Instead of re-hashing what we’ve seen in quite a few web-slinger movies, it uses animation to go wild in creating trippy visuals and invent new characters. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman give shots the look and design of comic panels, with even the appearance of printed pages hinted at in the texture of the animation. So much happens in nearly every frame that your eyes have to adjust to the immensity of it all, especially in exciting sequences as when Miles watches the super collider spin out of control, spreading some kind of time-bending wave throughout all of New York City. In this movie we really do feel the height of jumping off a tall building. After the time-bending incident, Miles finds himself leaping through the city, carrying an unconscious Peter Parker in a sequence that sings with the goofy fun of animated action. One of the great action sequences comes during a moment when a truly threatening Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn) chases after Miles and Peter Parker through a building, her tentacles like menacing steel vipers. The final, epic battle is an explosion of sound and color that demonstrates how it is through animation that these comic book worlds truly come to life.

Kathryn Hahn as Dock Ock? Indeed, “Into the Spider-Verse” is a cheerful celebration of diversity. Too creative to tell an old “Spider-Man” tale, it wants to craft a new world with Miles as its black Latino lead and fun gender role switches like Doc Ock and Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman. Peni Parker is designed in an anime style and has a slick, round robot as her companion. Minorities are not put in the background, but become part of the city’s glorious canvas. Even key spider-world characters like Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) are kept as background personalities, the real focus is on Miles. “Into the Spider-Verse” also has a wonderful sense of humor at its own genre, featuring a pot-bellied Peter Parker who battles depression and marital woes with fast food. The other characters thrown in are hilarious and quirky inventions. Spider-Ham is like Porky the Pig turned superhero, designed in the style of an old Warner Brothers’ cartoon. Spider-Man Noir, brilliantly voiced by comic book fanatic Nicolas Cage, talks with the 1940s lingo of a hard-boiled detective (he also very much enjoys punching Nazis).

Like the best animation adults will bask in the craft and self-humor, but younger audience members will simply be absorbed and exhilarated. Marvel fans will also have their hearts tucked by the required Stan Lee cameo, done with such endearing class. Like “Incredibles 2,” there are also some good lessons in this movie about empathy and the restlessness of being a teen, when adults try to steer us the right way but we have to learn through hard lessons. If that sounds like quite a narrative from a “Spider-Man” movie that’s because it is, if last year’s “Spider-Man Homecoming” was a decent popcorn ride, “Into the Spider-Verse” is a much more enriching experience. This is a web worth getting caught up with.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” opens Dec. 14 in theaters nationwide.