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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse makes Spider-Man feel original again

Miles Morales is the hero in a sumptuous animated adventure that hits the superhero jackpot.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Since 2002, Sony has released six different Spider-Man movies. During that span, there have been three different Peter Parkers (played by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland), three different Aunt Mays who have gotten progressively younger (Rosemary Harris, Sally Field, and Marisa Tomei) two different Mary Janes (Kirsten Dunst and Zendaya), and three different Green Goblins (Willem DaFoe, James Franco, and Dane DeHaan).

Most of those movies bleed together and reduce the same conflicts into clichés. So even in the wake of the splendid 2017 charmer Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s hard not to feel like another Spider-Man movie on the horizon is more of a taunt than a treat. It’s difficult to shake the fear that a new one might sink into what is now a well-established web of indistinct existence, becoming yet another Spider-Man movie that was made only because studio executives know that people will reliably buy tickets to go see a Spider-Man movie, no matter how terrible it is.

The best Spider-Man movies convincingly tap into the spirit of the character, his divine earnestness. He’s not unbeatable. He doesn’t have a magic hammer. He doesn’t have a magic suit. He’s just a kid who wants to do the right thing, who will risk anything to save all of us.

And no Spider-Man movie should ever leave its audience asking: What made this one different?

Rest assured, true believers: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won’t let you down.

The new animated movie is a sleek and soaring, a wonderful paean to the spirit of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s legendary webslinger, embodying the relentless hope and optimism of its hero in such a classic way. But it also unearths exhilarating new ground — by way of spectacular deviations from the norm that the Marvel Cinematic universe and live-action filmmaking don’t always allow for — that makes it feel like something tremendously innovative, while still traditionally Spidey.

Into the Spider-Verse centers on Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a character who has lived a full life in Marvel’s comic books but doesn’t exist in the live-action MCU.

Morales is a biracial kid — he’s half Puerto Rican and half black — living in a universe that’s parallel to the main Marvel universe. Peter Parker’s Spider-Man still exists in this parallel universe, performing daily acts of heroism just like you’d expect; in fact, the only thing that really sets it apart from the main universe is that Morales exists in it.

By fate, Morales obtains his own powers that are similar to Spider-Man’s, but they create for Morales an entirely unique set of trials, triumphs, and tribulations. The tried-and-true themes of power and responsibility are present, but they manifest differently for Morales because he’s living in a world where Parker’s Spider-Man already Lives.

Parker is a sterling example of what it means to be a hero, and instead of Morales having the freedom to carve out his own kind of heroism, he feels the pressure to carry on Parker’s legacy.

Consequently, his story is less focused on wielding his power with responsibility, and more on his responsibility to embrace his power. Morales must learn to accept his own greatness and overcome his personal insecurities in a world that can cruelly remind any of us at any time that we aren’t that special.

It’s a tall order, and one that’s complicated by Morales’s young age. But Into the Spider-Verse impressively never loses sight of the fact that Morales is just a kid, just like Parker was when Lee and Ditko first created Spider-Man. Though Homecoming got at that idea, there has been a tendency in previous Spider-Man movies to age Parker up — as if being a kid and balancing, school, heroism, and family wasn’t as valid as being an adult superhero.

Into the Spider-Verse is quick to dispense with that notion. Screenwriters Phil Lord (who co-directed the film) and Rodney Rothman seem to inherently understand that the wide array of joys, fears, and uncertainties that all kids experience, and that all adults are familiar with. Into the Spider-Verse treats its characters’ emotions with care and validity, all the while trying to solve a puzzle that has long stumped people of all ages: Who am I supposed to be? And the scarier follow-up: What if I don’t deserve that identity?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a Spider-Man story that never forgets Spider-Man is human

There is no Spider-Man without the classic saying, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” (Some trivia: the original quote is actually, “with great power there must also come great responsibility.”) The credo was born out of Uncle Ben’s death, a death that Peter Parker could have prevented had he not had a lapse in judgment and a moment of selfishness.

But when we meet Miles Morales in Into the Spider-Verse, he doesn’t yet have the emotional maturity to understand the concept.

Morales, just as he was when writers Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli created him in 2011, is a geeky pre-pubescent tween. Like Parker, he’s an accomplished student, but he wants to hide that part of himself. He attends a posh school for the gifted and rich, but he wants to go back to being a normal kid, at the regular high school, with all of his friends.

When he gets bit by a spider and obtains new powers, he initially interprets them as sudden-onset puberty. But fate clearly has other plans for Morales, and when he witnesses the death of Peter Parker, it’s up to him to take on the mantle of Spider-Man.

While Into the Spider-Verse screenwriters Lord and Rothman might be better known for their comedic work (they previously collaborated on 22 Jump Street, and Lord directed The Lego Movie), the two have written a thoughtful, nuanced story that explores Morales’s uncertainty over whether he deserves the powers he has, as well as the guilt and grief he feels over Parker’s death.

It isn’t just the spider powers that Morales questions; the privilege of attending the great and gifted school is also an obvious weight on his mind.

As he’s frequently reminded by his loving policeman father (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), he’s very blessed. But in a world where so much happens by chance, Morales seems uncomfortable with the idea that he might be the only one who benefits from his privileges. He’s also wary of taking them for granted.

Making things more complicated is Morales’s Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who deeply cares for Morales but for some reason is not on speaking terms with Morales’s father. It’s implied that Uncle Aaron partakes in shady dealings. But Aaron can connect with Morales in a way that adults don’t. He appreciates and nurtures Morales’s creativity, something that Morales’s father has never done enough of. And though Aaron isn’t as book smart as Morales and didn’t attend the gifted school, he lives a comfortable, enviable life in the city and seemingly travels a lot. So it seems only natural that he becomes Morales’s role model.

But when Uncle Aaron inconveniently disappears, Morales’s story begins to center on the grueling emotional toll of finding one’s identity, and of understanding how power and responsibility are inextricably linked. Morales has no friends his age. He and his father don’t have a particularly close relationship. And with his new powers, he’s having to deal with life-changing circumstances on top of being a kid.

Morales’s vulnerability is a key reason why Into the Spider-Verse succeeds. What made Spider-Man so special when Lee and Ditko first created the character was that his story assured young readers that their fears, emotions, and joys were every bit as valuable and as valid as those grown-ups. Spider-Man was an acknowledgment that growing up is exhausting, and sometimes hurts more than scuffles with supervillains. That it’s incredibly painful when, no matter the reason, you can’t tell anyone who you really are.

Into the Spider-Verse builds on that legacy in a way that allows Morales to be frightened, to feel unsure of himself, perhaps even to act unhelpful and callous at times, while never losing sight of his bravery and humanity.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a clinic in what animated superhero movies can do

A major challenge that all live-action superhero properties face is that it’s expensive and sometimes impossible to translate lush 2D comic book illustrations into 3D live-action sequences. Superhero television shows typically don’t have the budget required to keep up with comic artists’ imaginations. But even the biggest blockbusters sometimes contain scenes that look like a bunch of fight scenes were thrown into a blender.

That’s where Into the Spider-Verse has an advantage.

Animation allows Rothman and his co-directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey to make their scenes even bigger, even better, even more eye-popping than the comic book pages that inspired them. They aren’t bound by the physical limits of stunt performers or the kinds of sets that human hands can build, nor are they dependent on CGI. If they can draw and animate it, they can do it.

And they have capitalized on that freedom to create fight scenes that are nothing short of spectacular.

But even more dazzling than the fight scenes are the risks that Into the Spider-Verse takes and the envelopes it pushes. The movie obviously doesn’t want to look like any superhero movie — animated or live action — that you’ve ever seen.

The movie pays homage to classic comic book style in the way that it plays with where your eye is trained to go. Some sequences zoom in to speed up time, or expand to show how small our hero is amid the grand scope of the universe.

There’s also some fun stuff that happens with verticality and space, as every frame seemingly contains a trapdoor that could, at any moment, plunge the action into the space below. And it all culminates in a gorgeous, dimension-shattering set piece that tumbles, swirls, and opens up several worlds within worlds, all with pockets of stunning animation that beg to be explored.

Because of a nefarious plan involving a super collider by the movie’s villain, Kingpin, Morales eventually learns that there are multiple parallel universes in existence. That’s why the Peter Parker who died in Morales’s world can still exist in another. (It’s an idea that’s already been executed in the comics, and it nicely leaves the door open for characters to cross between parallel universes, should Marvel and Sony ever decide to bring Morales into the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

But Into the Spider-Verse also uses the multiverse explanation to experiment with different styles of animation, and to crumple the boundaries of what a superhero movie looks like. Each universe has its own distinct aesthetic; one character from a future timeline is drawn in a jagged animé style, while another character from a past timeline becomes a peckish homage to noir-style comic books. (Nicolas Cage providing the voice also helps.) All these different styles are then contrasted with the sleekness of Morales’s world.

There are moments where it feels as if the movie was bitten by a radioactive comic book and is transforming right before our eyes. It’s a glorious sight to see.

With its risky visual storytelling and tender script, Into the Spider-Verse earns the greatest honor that one can bestow on a Spider-Man movie: It somehow makes you want to see more Spider-Man movies. Including at least a few more for Miles Morales alone.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse will be released in theaters on December 14.

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