Unlike the hugely profitable, hugely dull live-action Marvel smash “Avengers: Infinity War,” the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” gives ensemble superheroism a good name while giving audiences a really good time. It's zippier than “Incredibles 2” and nearly as witty as the first “LEGO Movie,” with whom it shares a very funny screenwriter, Phil Lord.
Maybe we just needed this dangerously familiar mythology to find the right animated incarnation to make it feel fresh. “Into the Spider-Verse” doesn't go for hard-edged photorealism in its computer animation style. Instead, it goes for bright, nimble illustration, not quite 2-D, not quite the clinical digital product we’re all too used to consuming. Watching it is like flipping through your favorite Spider-Man spin-off comics while you're on your third Mountain Dew.
Spider-Man, as many have noted, is among the most relatable of superheroes, with his baked-in teen angst, his concerns about how he looks in Spandex and his dreams, realized, of magical urban flight.
“Into the Spider-Verse” derives most of its story from the character of Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino Brooklyn teenager whose father is a vigilante-hating cop. Exploring the subway tunnels with his uncle Aaron, Miles is bitten by a genetically-altered problem spider. Soon he learns that he, like Peter Parker (killed off, temporarily, early in the picture), has been chosen to take on the Spidey mantle. He’s not alone. In “Into the Spider-Verse,” a delightfully varied rogue’s gallery of alternate-universe Spideys jostle for our attention, in the guise of different characters playing out different Spidey destinies in different time zones. A rip in the space-time continuum (never as well-made as you’d expect) throws everyone together, in New York, including Spider-Gwen; anime-style Peni Parker; a fedora-sporting, black-clad wiseacre, Spider-Noir; a Warner Bros.-looking cartoon pig, Spider-Ham; and the deadbeat edition of Peter Parker, whose marriage to Mary Jane has gone kaput and who is living an aimless, sweatpants-at-dinner existence.
Directed by Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr. and Rodney Rothman, working from a script by Rothman and Lord, the movie hangs its Spidey masks on a few simple virtues. One: Miles, as voiced by Shameik Moore, makes for a swell young protagonist. Two: To a large extent, “Into the Spider-Verse” is an extended training montage, with Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) prepping Miles for battle with various adversaries and a collider that must be destroyed in order for Earth to survive.
Despite that doomsday scenario, for once the cobwebs of leaden seriousness have been shaken off. This film is full of quips, generously distributed. (For reasons best left unexplained, one of the biggest laughs arrives in the middle of a chase sequence on the line: “He took a bagel!”) The action scenes, especially in the marvelous first half, excite and amuse without the usual pummeling overkill.
All the voice work shines, chiefly that of Hailee Steinfeld (Gwen), Mahershala Ali (Aaron) and Nicolas Cage's splendidly droll turn as Spider-Noir. The second half’s a bit of a letdown, with pro forma and protracted world-saving combat that goes on. But by the end, we're back where we need to be: captured, happily, by Miles' story, and the “Spider-Verse” notion of the mask being for everyone up to the task. The movie year in superheroes began with “Black Panther” and now ends, or nearly, with this latest “Spider-Man,” which is second only to Sam Rami’s “Spider-Man 2” for quality.
So I guess we didn't sit through “Infinity War” and the DC Comics’ “Justice League” for nothing.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
MPAA rating: PG (for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language)
Running time: 2:00
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