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With: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kimiko Glenn, Chris Pine, Kathryn Hahn, Zoë Kravitz, Lake Bell, Jorma Taccone
Written by: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
MPAA Rating: PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Running Time: 117
Date: 12/14/2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Web-Head Over Heels

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

What exactly is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? It's an animated film, it's not part of Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it's probably not quite like anything you've seen before.

Indeed, regardless of whatever you thought of any prior Spider-Man movies, comics, TV shows, or cartoons, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is amazing, astonishing, and spectacular all on its own.

The movie recently won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Animated Feature, and it opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

Since 2007, when Sam Raimi followed up his superb two first films with an overstuffed Spider-Man 3, Sony Pictures has been struggling to keep Spider-Man relevant — and bankable.

A 2012-2014 series reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man Parts 1-2, smelled like a cash grab to fans and critics alike. And this year's slapdash spinoff Venom performed well despite harsh reviews.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse finally achieves their goal. At its center, it's a kid-friendly animated movie with a traditional "be yourself/believe in yourself" message, but everything around that, like a spinning wheel of color and flash, feels strikingly fresh.

Our hero is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who, wonderfully, is half Puerto-Rican and half African-American. He's a brilliant kid whose parents send him to a ritzy school to afford him more opportunity.

But he's also a graffiti artist, drawn to spending time with his outlaw uncle (voiced by Mahershala Ali). While painting together in a secret spot, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider.

Blindsided by his new powers, and, hilariously, unable to control the stickiness in his hands, he briefly meets the traditional Peter Parker/Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) just in time to see him defeated by the Kingpin (voiced by Liev Schreiber).

He knows he needs to do something, but doesn't know exactly what. He buys a cheap Spider-Man costume, but then, weirdly, meets another Spider-Man, "Peter B. Parker" (voiced by Jake Johnson). This one is older, thicker around the middle, and possibly from another dimension.

Before long, other, other-dimensional Spider-men and women are on the scene, including Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage), Penni Parker (voiced by Kimiko Glenn), and even an other-dimensional Spider-powered Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld).

These characters are presented in a collection of all kinds of styles: computer-animation; noirish, black-and-white comics like The Spirit; Jack Kirby's comic artwork; anime; and flat, two-dimensional TV cartoons.

The action is fluid, fantastic, breakneck, but crisp and bright and exciting. The colors sometimes look slightly misaligned, with reds and greens spilling out from behind the images — as if it were a 3D movie with no glasses — but this effect is on purpose, to pay homage to the charmingly imperfect comic books of old.

Similarly, "Kirby dots" are part of the design; backgrounds consist of uniform spots that move and spiral with the image, rather than blocks of solid color, also to simulate the feel of reading a classic comic.

Other sequences cut loose and offer a modern display of just what animation and imagination can achieve, such as the incredible showdown inside a huge 360-degree sphere, whose panels keep breaking off as various dimensions slide in and out of existence. It's difficult to describe, but mind-blowing to witness.

The movie is also very funny, with some irreverent, self-referential humor — similar to this year's snarky Teen Titans Go! To the Movies — but with a broader reach, and a more heartfelt, passionate, respectful tone.

It was co-written by Phil Lord, who, with his usual cohort Christopher Miller (who co-produced here), gave us the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies and the brilliant The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie. That last one gets closer to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse than anything else, but still doesn't quite reach its dizzy heights.

In 2018, along with Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse elevates these kinds of movies to the next level, making a strong argument for costumed heroes as dimensional and relevant, and for comics and cartoons as actual art.

The 2019 Blu-ray release from Columbia/Sony is a real thing of beauty. It's even easier to see all the little textural touches on a HD TV; this is a film that will be worth several viewings. (Viewers can also watch in "Alternative Universe Mode.") It comes with a bonus DVD and digital copy, a filmmakers' commentary track, and several behind-the-scenes featurettes, including one on the movie's easter eggs, and a tribute to Stan Lee (and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko). It also includes a short Spider-Ham cartoon, done in the style of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, with a special nod to Duck Amuck, and two music videos. When the cardboard slipcover comes off, it "reveals" Miles and Gwen under their costumes. Highly recommended.

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