I first started grinning at “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” about 30 seconds in, when the image of the dorky “Comics Code Authority” stamp that used to adorn the front of comic books years ago appeared on the screen.
For the following 100 minutes, I’m not sure that grin ever went away.
2018 started with a terrific superhero movie that took the genre very seriously (“Black Panther’), and ends with another terrific superhero movie, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Witty and wild, it makes “Ant-Man and the Wasp” look like “The Punisher” by comparison.
This is the fourth version of “Spider-Man” we’ve had in the last 15 years, and rather than ignoring previous iterations, “Spider-Verse” leans into the comic possibilities of multiple Spider-Men spinning their webs through New York City. In “Spider-Verse”, Spider-Man is Peter Parker (Chris Pine), a web-slinging celebrity with his own comic books, even his own Christmas album.
But this isn’t Peter’s story. It’s the story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a 15-year-old teenager going to an elite scientific prep school. Miles discovers that, deep within the bowels of the city, the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has been trying to open a dimensional portal between the different universes. His reasons for doing so are rather tragic, one of the many nice character details of the screenplay by Ronald Rothman and Phil Lord (“The LEGO Movie”).
Eventually and inevitably, Miles gets bitten by a radioactive spider of his own, and gets pulled into the fight with the help of Spider-Man. But not HIS Spider-Man, but a Spider-Man from an alternative universe who slipped through the portal. He’s a middle-aged potbellied loser played by Jake Johnson, full of pizza and regret. As this Spider-Man shows Miles the ropes (or the webs, to be precise), Miles has to rekindle the superhero spirit in him.
The real fun hits like a jolt of adrenaline as other versions of Spider-Man start pouring into Miles’ universe. Besides Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), each represents a different style of animation; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) is a black-and-white brooder from a Frank Miller graphic novel, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) is an anime heroine from the future with her own pet robot, and most hilariously, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) is a costumed pig on loan from a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Seeing this unlikely Spider-crew join forces is a ton of fun, especially for fans of any of the previous iterations of Spider-Man to see how the movie tweaks the franchise. Any fans of the 1960s cartoon should stay seated for the post-credits scene.
Directed by Rothman, Peter Ramsey and Robert Persichetti, Jr., the animation is dizzying and colorful, with several visual nods to comic books, like cross-hatched shadings and little wiggly lines emanating from characters’ heads to illustrate that their “Spider-Sense” is tingling. It all builds to a surreal, psychedelic climax which explodes off the screen, and has me determined to go back and see it again in 3D.
As for any hardcore comic book fans worried about the movie violating the “canon,” the truth is that comic books have always had multiple comic books with different versions of the same hero — a female Thor, a Muslim Ms. Marvel. They’re like cover songs that play off the original melody, finding new possibilities in old archetypes.
That affection for alternate versions has an even deeper meaning in “Into the Spider-Verse,” where the not-so-subtle message of the film is one of inclusion. Having a teenager of African-American and Latino descent don the mask was not without controversy when Miles Morales was first introduced in the comics in 2011, with some fans decrying the move as “political correctness.”
The key line in “Into the Spider-Verse” is that “Anyone can wear the mask.” Superheroes should be for everyone and should represent everyone, not just square-jawed white guys. Especially when diversity means we can have this much fun.