Twelve months ago, people saw the first teaser for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the big news out of that seemed to be that a black Latino kid was the new guy underneath the superhero mask. However, it turns out that the bigger news is the way this animated film pulls in a whole gang of spider-people and mines the conventions of comic-book storytelling for laughs. They’ve been making Spider-Man movies for 15 years now, and I’ve finally found my favorite one.
Shameik Moore from Dope provides the voice of Miles Morales, a Brooklyn teenager in a parallel universe with large companies called Koca-Soda and RedEx. One day while he’s tagging a wall down in the subway, he’s bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires superpowers. Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) is already Spider-Man, but Miles watches him die trying to stop Kingpin (voiced by Liev Schreiber) from opening a gate into other parallel universes. That gate brings in other spider-people, including Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld and Nicolas Cage), but it’s an older Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) whom Miles seeks advice from about being a superhero, despite older Peter being broke, divorced, and thicker around the middle, as everyone notes.
The identifiable guiding spirit behind this is co-writer Phil Lord, unhitched here from his usual filmmaking partner Christopher Miller, but you can still detect the same subversive spirit here that they brought to The Lego Movie. It’s there in the running gag in which each new web-slinging character recounts their own origin story (“Let’s go over this one last time: I was bitten by a radioactive spider …”) and when Peter is so well-versed in superhero storytelling conventions that he can predict the villains’ dialogue. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman imitate the look of comic-book panels — complete with thought bubbles appearing over the characters’ heads — and concoct a visual joke when seven different characters adjust their position on the ceiling of Miles’ room at boarding school so that Miles’ oblivious roommate won’t notice their presence. Happy surprises abound in the voice cast, with Kathryn Hahn as Doctor Octopus, Lily Tomlin as a particularly steely Aunt May, and the late Stan Lee as a familiar-looking comic book store clerk.
All the hijinks are given emotional ballast by Miles’ relationships with his strict cop dad (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry) and his cool uncle (voiced by Mahershala Ali) with a shady past who has grown estranged from his brother. Sony Pictures Animation has had a pitiful track record: the Hotel Transylvania movies, Peter Rabbit, The Emoji Movie. This is easily the studio’s best outing, turning the well-worn comic-book superhero story into a psychedelically funny adventure.
Voices by Shameik Moore and Jake Johnson. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Rated PG.