When producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller came onstage to talk Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse at NYCC for a 90-minute panel, they were very coy about what fans were going to get. Nearly two hours of questions and answers? A lively conversation about the intricacies of animating Spider-Man? Or maybe, just maybe a little sampling of footage? As it turns out, it was a very big sample. Slowly unveiling that they would be showing 35 minutes of Into the Spider-Verse footage, which essentially comprised the movie’s first act, Lord and Miller pleaded with folks to avoid sharing too many spoilers after the fact… a plea we’ll try to mostly honor.
Because we’re here to more than honor Into the Spider-Verse; we’re here to sing its praises as the kind of adrenaline shot into the creative bloodstream the superhero genre desperately needs. It is not fair to fully review the first half-hour of the movie, not least of all because it is only a fraction of the finished product (and many of the shots we viewed were, indeed, unfinished). And yet, it still sparked with an energy and mischief alien to most movies based on Marvel stories, and certainly any featuring Spider-Man since 2004’s Spider-Man 2. A decided departure from the cornucopia of formula we’ve seen envelope the genre, be it the old school generic “superhero movie” that claimed this weekend’s Venom or the more sophisticated but every bit prepackaged MCU variety, Into the Spider-Verse is not quite like any superhero flick you’ve seen—which is all the more impressive considering it’s the ninth movie to feature the Peter Parker.
Indeed, the picture begins with an overview of the legend surrounding Peter Parker’s Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, complete with narration by the hard-luck webslinger. The montage includes homages to some of the most beloved moments of the Sam Raimi trilogy hinted at in trailers (and a few less cherished ones like a Spidey dancing outside a department store). In its way, this is not unlike what Lord and Miller did on The Lego Batman Movie, which they produced last year. Yet this isn’t Peter Parker’s story. It is Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore), and with the introduction of our true protagonist the movie unveils its heart and inspiration.
The animation showcased in the trailers, with its cross between a faux-stop-motion and urban stylings, give Miles’ world an unusual texture for either superhero or major American animated films. But the layers to this vision only appear once the picture slows down long enough to savor Miles’ world and its full affectation. Visually, Miles’ New York resembles the brown and earthy colors of a faded gold that are much more likely to be found in 2018 Brooklyn than the squeaky clean lighting of typical live-action superhero movies. With a focus on the street art and more mundane shadings of New York’s hippest (and often least-scrubbed) borough, Spider-Verse enjoys a visceral authenticity even as it constantly breaks the fourth wall with onscreen comic book panels commenting on the action, not unlike how Edgar Wright visualized the graphic novel aesthetic in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. When Miles first attempts to jump off a building as a budding web-head and then plummets, the “AAAAA” he cries vertically follows him to the pavement below (don’t worry, he’s durable). Upon realizing everyone at school thinks he’s a freak because he cannot unstick his hands from a girl’s hair, different colored panels appear with every pair of judging eyes, following him until the screen is entirely covered in pop art.
It is a bold approach that pays off in dividends at the world it builds. Nevertheless, the reason it works is Moore’s Miles feels effortlessly natural. A biracial son of happy marriage—an unfortunate rarity in popular mainstream media—Miles’ father is played with a frank warmth by Brian Tyree Henry, who seems in no danger of Uncle Ben’d. Henry’s Jefferson is a cop who is weary of the Spider-Man vigilante who’s been swinging through the canyons of New York for 12 years at this point (Miles only learns near the end of the first act that the original Spidey is Peter Parker). Jeff is also offering Miles one of several paths through life, pushing like a good father for Miles to follow him on the straight and narrow.
Yet there is also Mahershala Ali’s Uncle Aaron, who went a different path. Not depicted as just a good natured wit like the MCU alternative of the character, Ali’s Aaron Davis is wildly separate role model for Miles, one who plays Notorious B.I.G. for him and helps him spray graffiti tag in the tunnels beneath Brooklyn. He also inadvertently introduces Miles to a fateful spider whose major scene is too good for me to spoil here.
The result of that night though is Miles clearly has spider-powers, and his subsequent learning curve takes full advantage of the animated medium. As the best “epiphany” moment in one of these type of yarns since Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s take on it in 2002, Miles learns the full extent of his powers around a dorm room in deliriously hilarity, playing both to Lord and Miller’s natural comic instincts as well as animation’s closer kinship to comic book panels than live-action. And consequently, Miles is sent on the journey to meet Peter Parker, although not the one you might expect.
The Peter Parker in Miles’ universe has his stuff together and is still in his late 20s, but the one who winds up being Miles’ mentor is a much more bemusing creation with the vocally perfect casting of Jake Johnson. Riffing on how he verged turning sad sackness into an art form during New Girl, Johnson’s Peter Parker comes from a different universe where, in Johnson’s words after the footage, “this is a Peter Parker at 40 who is a little chubbier and a little depressed. He’s not a Peter Parker we’ve seen before.” And that is why he’s a delight.
Around the time of 2007, the year of Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, in fact, Marvel as a company made the conscious decision to freeze in carbonite Peter Parker as a personality, reverting him to a happy-go-lucky high schooler with a chipper and self-reflective tone similar to Mickey Mouse. While I personally love how Tom Holland has found the zippy joy of that, there was a time where in the comics Peter Parker was married and considering (depending on the era) children and dealing with adult issues that carried over from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original vision of the character, which tracked him from high school to college in real-time. Now Spider-Verse takes that farther than any mainstream Marvel comic book I can recall.
Personally, it is a great and unusual joy to see Peter Parker at 40. In Spider-Verse, Johnson comes from another (and older universe) where Mary Jane has left her husband because she wants children and Peter cannot see the point… not when he could be dead tomorrow. Such a reality is driven home when the Peter Parker of Miles Morales’ universe meets a grisly fate that will likely shake young moviegoers. Even so, it is refreshing to see a Peter Parker who is allowed to grow up (unlike the MCU and modern Marvel Comics’ variety), as well as one who has a complicated relationship with Mary Jane, as opposed to a window dressing back story.
Similarly, the first act of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ends with a middle-aged Peter taking on Miles Morales as a trainee in the universe of Spider-Manning. Given that in the trailers that we know eventually Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham and even Spider-Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) take part in Miles’ life, it is evident this is not your big brother’s reboot (Sony doesn’t wait long enough for your father’s). The result is also a fluid film that looks to combine visual and tonal influences unique to this genre, along with a character who hasn’t been remade a nearly half-dozen times.
It is still early, and Into the Spider-Verse can go many ways, but if we had to bet… it’s probably going to be the best movie featuring Spider-Man since Spider-Man 2 14 years ago. At least. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens on Dec. 14. Read everything you care to know about Spiders and Verses here.
Read and download the Den of Geek NYCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine right here!