In the Marvel Empire’s implacable drive to turn every screen in every theatre in the world into one long Saturday-morning-style TV lineup of superhero movies, new tricks are constantly being devised to increase product. In addition to the company’s own so-called universe of interlocking franchises, the comic book-based operation has happily fostered series based on characters controlled by other studios, including Spider-Man: they’ve encouraged Sony’s string of features starring the web-slinger, and even taken his latest incarnation into their “Avengers” pantheon.
They’ve also gone along with Sony’s plan to turn Spidey’s villains into a string of spin-off movies, beginning with the unaccountably successful “Venom,” which will inevitably become a franchise of its own and signal the production of movies featuring other bad-guys. And now they’ve joined with Columbia in returning to Spider-Man’s roots on the printed page with an animated feature based on some of the comic’s more recent narrative permutations, particularly the emergence of the younger, mixed-race Spider-Boy Miles Morales and other Spideys from different realities. With its array of new characters, “Into the Spider-Verse” not only invites sequels but spin-offs galore.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about it, though, is that it’s actually pretty good, especially in the visual department. That pretty much insures it won’t be a one-shot, but a geyser, more fuel for the realization of Marvel’s ultimate goal of cinematic domination—though to be sure, Disney’s other behemoths (the “Star Wars” universe, its own live-action and animated juggernauts) will be there to fill in any gaps.
What especially sets “Spider-Verse” apart is the animation style, which takes its cue from the look of vintage comic books, with their limited color range and explosions of action in almost strobe-light movement. The effect can be irritating at times, but overall quite satisfying, with individual scenes often looking like panels taken from an actual strip, with the usual exaggerations of perspective and motion. It’s certainly distinctive, and even without 3D adds a new dimension to Spidey’s world.
Or “worlds,” if one wants to be accurate, because the plot rests on the existence of alternate realities where different spider-beings reside. One such is that where the young protagonist, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), is being sent to a prestigious boarding school by his stern but loving father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), an NYPD cop who considers Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine) a showboating vigilante, and his loving mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez).
Miles, who resents being sent to his new school, has a special rapport with his father’s looser brother Aaron (Mahershala Ali), and it’s on an expedition into the subway tunnel system with him that the boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and begins to experience his new powers. Venturing back to the tunnel, he comes upon the “real” Spider-Man doing battle with the Green Goblin; Spidey is trying to prevent the ultimate villain, Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from starting up what looks like some sort of super-collider that can act as a portal between alternate realities—apparently Kingpin wants to use the device to connect again with his late wife and son—and rescues Miles in the process, offering to teach him the tricks of their joint trade. But before they can cement a partnership, Spider-Man is killed by Kingpin—not, however, before he hands over to Miles a flash drive that can shut down the villain’s mad mechanism, which begins humming.
From here the script juxtaposes two major threads. The first concerns Miles’s struggle to overcome his fears and learn to control his new powers, which include the ability to go invisible. The second involves the appearance of a bunch of new spider-folks from different dimensions. One is another version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), dissolute and overweight after suffering a tragic loss, who effectively becomes the boy’s new mentor. Then there’s Spider-Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a new girl at the school. Added to them are the black-and-white Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime-style heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her Spider-Robot, and oddest of all, the cartoon Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Nor should one forget the dead Parker’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), who turns out to be sort of a den mother for new Spideys from various places.
All of them join forces to derail Kingpin’s scheme by taking on not only the hulking guy himself but his confederates, Olivia or “Doc” Octopus (Kathryn Hahn), Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone), Tombstone (Marvin Jones III), Scorpion (Joaquin Cosio) and, most importantly, the sinister masked enforcer Prowler, whose real identity proves one of those shocking Darth Vader-like surprises now common in genre movies.
There are enough extended fights and chases in “Spider-Verse” to keep any Spidey devotee happy, and relative outsiders to the Spider-Man domain as well. While the plethora of characters and esoteric plot elements might be fully appreciated only by extreme fan-boys and bewilder more causal viewers—those acquainted with just the live-action movies, or a few issues of the comic in its early, glory days—the dazzling visuals and jaunty verbal attitude should make the movie one that anybody can enjoy, at least in some measure.
As to sequels, one can expect as many of those as there are dimensions in the spider-verse. Whether that leaves you gleefully expectant or utterly depressed will be a matter of taste.