Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse towers over every superhero film since The Dark Knight, outpacing the Marvel Cinematic Universe by never fearing to experiment.
Into the Spider-Verse is practically a necessity at this point, after three other distinct Spider-Man film franchises have been thrust upon us this century. As much as it tells the story of Miles Morales (originating in Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man comics) and his familiar tale of adapting to newfound powers in the wake of a multiverse-shattering cataclysm, the story is just as much a commentary on how and why we revisit the same stories over and over with slight variations. This is a film that pushes artistic boundaries while reveling in the familiar, a flawless reminder that a great work is not in the originality of its material but the fresh new ways that story is told.
More than being a great superhero film, this is a phenomenal comic book film; which is to say, this is a film that goes to great lengths to simulate the way in which a comic book looks and reads. Purely on a visual level, this movie captures the style of a comic, from elements as subtle as framing to the blatantly obvious use of action words popping on screen. Into the Spider-Verse unabashedly evokes its source material.
The most key element in translating this language from comics to cinema is the film’s rapid editing style. Each shot feels structured like a panel, establishing a singular point before cutting to another angle, another concept. Due to this structure, Into the Spider-Verse never loses a sense of rhythm during its two hour running time. There is a poignant brevity to its presentation.
At the heart of this all is a rather simple plot. We follow Miles Morales, a kid who lives in a city that already has its own Spider-Man. Miles is distinctly not Peter Parker, of both African American and Puerto Rican descent, with two loving and living parents and an uncle that encourages his more mischievous side. Following the comic run he originates from, Miles must soon pick up the mantle of Spider-Man after the sudden death of his world’s Peter Parker.
Miles soon finds himself among five other Spider-Man equivalents from alternate realities, from a slightly different Peter Parker to a Gwen Stacy who took on the mantle of Spider-Woman in a world where Peter Parker turned to villainy. The film focuses on both their distinctions and the familiarity of their plot beats. Though they are their own characters, the ultimate lore of Spider-Man shines through. Bitten by radioactive spiders, becoming heroes, and ultimately losing someone very dear near the onset of their journey (an effectively blunt use of foreshadowing considering Miles has yet to experience this loss). Though they have only just met, there’s a distinct sense of unity among these Spider-people. There is comfort in the familiar.
But what ultimately pushes this film into the upper tier of superhero films is not its narrative elements, but the rather extreme stylistic shifts it performs throughout. This playfulness is at its most obvious with the three other Spider-people, all of which draw attention to the absurd degree the Spider-Man myth has been spread. From the anime-inspired Peni Parker and her mecha-spider friend, to the funny animal Peter Porker and the self-describing Spider-Man Noir, Into the Spider-Verse pays homage to earlier works that pushed the basic Spider-Man structure to its extremes.
Their presence lends the perfect excuse for the film to sacrifice typical visual cohesion, allowing the film to sprawl out in whichever direction it feels best suits any individual moment. The final act is a descent into absolute psychedelia, a pure visual feast. It is a rare gift to have a film that goes this far out of its way to embrace style over realism. Into the Spider-Verse joins the ranks of films like Hausu and Scott Pilgrim as examples of just how unrelentingly stylish a film can be without losing track of its purpose or audience.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a testament to the concept of style as substance. There’s nothing shallow in its appeal to visual pleasure; it is rooted in several distinct eras and movements, evoking concepts with the right use of color here, a distinct sense of framing there. Like any good adaptation, this is a work that simultaneously admires its origins while striving to communicate its purpose in a distinctly different medium. It’s not just an adaptation but a translation. This is assuredly the Spider-Man we collectively know and love, but in a way we’ve never seen before.