Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is wonderfully inelegant, a delirious scrawl of a film that at times seems to tilt completely off its rocker, an ungovernable pop manifesto sometimes truly on the brink, as though the film could shudder apart at any moment. While so many superhero pictures seem to fear for their lives that their essential superfluity will be discovered, Into the Spider-Verse rushes headfirst into ludicrousness, swinging deliriously and incredulously into its own harebrained lunacy and divining relevancy out of blissful irrelevancy. And, somehow, concurrently besting any other superhero film this year for dramatic earnestness and emotional seriousness anyway.
Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman (and bearing the distinct Lord/Miller touch every step of the way), Into the Spider-Verse also wears the inevitability of its storytelling on its sleeves. Which is to say, even if it does succumb to certain clichés of the genre, it not only ruefully mocks these conventions (the lesser path traversed by, say, the Deadpool films) but examines the tragic futility and heroic possibility of truly breaking from them. In other words, as it semi-transgressively disrupts the rules which it acknowledges it must adhere to, it motions toward a shared critique of the blinkered cultural production of anemic superhero storytelling and the social-material-systemic inequalities which constrain a mixed-race Brooklyn teenager in an oppressive, in-egalitarian, often hostile world.
But we’ll get there. Before all that, Into the Spider-Verse begins, surprisingly sturdy command of classical storytelling in tow, as the tale of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teenager with enough problems navigating the sometimes competing demands, advice, and wisdom of his loving father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), also a cop, and his uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali), who leads, we are told, a less “respectable” sort of life. Concurrently, Miles is also enrolled in a sleekly modernist, seemingly tech-savvy likely-charter school, traversing the halls of liberal-capitalist social reform shadowed by the doubt that he doesn’t “fit in,” his heart drawing him to more artistic impulses, most overtly graffiti.
His sudden metamorphoses into superhero-dom flourishing out of the accidents of his anxiety and the ecstasy of his misadventures, Miles finds himself blessed (and, as it always is, cursed) when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider. Experiencing changes far beyond a teenager’s wildest fears, Miles’ crisis is exacerbated when his only hope of a new mentor is dashed: his dimension’s pre-existing Spider-Man is killed by Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Live Schreiber), currently hard at work with head scientist Olivia (Kathryn Hahn) on an interdimensional transporter. From there, things go slightly awry, and then ecstatically haywire. In fact, well before that. Indeed, well before the film even starts, the introductory logos disfigured into a glitchy, twitchy, violent assemblage. From there on, the film only metastasizes into madness; Into the Spider-Verse is a deliciously slippery misadventure, running amok and out-of-step with storytelling convention and inhabiting the ethos, if not the form, of unfastened surrealism.
Co-directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman with a euphorically scatterbrained irrationality belying a serious exegesis of the comic book form, Into the Spider-Verse mobilizes everything from counter-intuitive framing to malformed editing to thought bubbles latently following Miles like half-formed flickers of his mind rushing through potentialities to evoke the patterns, both zippy and neurotic, of comic book buoyancy. And not in an aimless or arbitrarily post-modern manner either. Although it certainly mocks comic book cinema ruthlessly, the film doesn’t turn the genre into a travesty so much as uncover the potentiality of sheer, unbridled verve. Indeed, the panicked, nearly-experimental confidence of the style itself is just about the most radical mainstream computer animated film in a decade, exploring New York with a stylistic promiscuity and subtle awareness of spatial planes that the average computer animated film simply views as an after-thought. Rather than a receptacle for a story, Spider-Man’s style is a way of navigating the world and the unknown contours of the relationship between art and reality. Early on, the style claws its way deep into Miles’ head-space and visualizes his rattled existential dysphoria, and as the film expands and ruptures, the polychromatic look and sound continues to explode with possibility.
It’s in the midst of this explosion that the film risks its narrative center by introducing, or rather, practically assaulting us with, six alternative interdimensional Spider-beings, a record-skipping jukebox of alternative heroes. There’s the schlubby, middle-aged Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), the young Miles-counterpart Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), the Cagney-inspired teeth-gritted Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), the anime-inflected Peni Parker/SP//dr (Kimiko Glenn), who fights with a robot piloted by a spider and infused with her dead father’s consciousness, and the Warner Bros-esque Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Each of these figures veers from the absurd to the tragic, some inclining more toward one end of that spectrum than others. But each, in a true feat, somehow manages the dueling task of emerging as a fully-formed character and, more importantly, a kind of sage-like guide, a state of mind to hint and suggest to Miles, complimenting him and contradicting him with an alternative perspective but never forcing him to cede central perspective to them.
All of this frenzy never unfurls into chaos though, creating instead a little film that could, one that swirls and glides with perspiration and sheer inspiration, on the coattails of a million stray particles of spunk and an even bigger heart, of scenes which pirouette and fly even as they trip and freak-out. And, admittedly, scenes which don’t entirely cover-up the film’s limitations, not to mention the sense that its spontaneous sideswipes and spirited frissons occasionally distract from, rather than disrupt, a more traditional core. For all its cavalier eccentricity, Into the Spider-Verse’s most clever gambits are sometimes too clever by half, and at the same time, not quite smart enough. Or, at least, the jokes are sometimes too self-consciously mannered so that they can conjure joy without sabotaging the Hollywood baseline need to clarify an eventual moral truth. Which is to say: rather than truly questioning itself with all these multiple spider-persons, the film is ultimately content to play around with its identity in a spirited fashion for a while until it finds what it deems is the “right” persona.
This eventual need for resolution speaks to a wider acquiescence to the confines of mainstream superhero storytelling on the film’s part, driving into clarity what questions apparently must be sidelined in order for the film to cohere as a populist object. For this reason, the tantalizing question of how Miles ought to negotiate his relationships with his father and uncle – and the attendant implications for modern black children in America – largely evaporates in service of a more conventionally universalizable conclusion, one which sacrifices cultural specificity for fear of alienating part of its audience. Call it the curse of the comic book movie, but it means that, for all the dimension-hopping panache, Into the Spider-Verse ultimately isn’t as polychromatic as it seems to be, nor as willing to fully consider the dimensions of social existence which contest the contours of American self-actualization narratives more substantially.
Still, the film certainly is supple, and the pure momentum of the thing counterbalances its flaws, as does its singular ability to swirl together sheer screwiness and unapologetic melodrama. The cocktail of headlong action and occasionally head-strung comedy eventually climaxes with such a frothy head of kinetic-cosmic instability, courtesy of the film’s infidelity to any one style or dimension, that the relative excisions along the way are easy to overlook.
Even if it doesn’t meaningfully register as a thoughtful interrogation of the tensions in black superhero-dom, or actually wrestle with the compatibility of superhero mythology (originally designed for a white mainstream audience) and blackness (as Black Panther attempted and sometimes succeeded), it makes an undeniable case for the value of introducing previously marginalized figures into the mainstream of American culture. And more stridently, that to do so in a way that is genuinely, if only modestly, radical demands a fervent, almost fanatical commitment to taking apart the superhero edifice. Not necessarily to see what makes it tick, but to recombobulate it into a more evocative whole, or just to get a kick out of letting the pieces fall where they may.