In theory, it was a fine idea. In order for Sony Pictures to differentiate an animated Spider-Man franchise from the live-action series it shares custody with along with Marvel Studios, Sony would do two things:
1.) It’d make the animation unique, stylistic and borderline groundbreaking.
(Check! Mission accomplished and more on that later._
2.) It’d delve into more recent Spider-Man mythology and center the film on Miles Morales rather than Peter Parker, and introduce the sort-of-Spider-Man inhabitants of the Spider-Verse - even more recent additions to the comic book mythology.
(They got about 1/3 of that second equation right.)
Weighed down by an ironically slightly-overweight Peter Parker and never really committing to the multiverse premise, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a stunningly gorgeous, undeniable fun, utterly competent, worthwhile experiment that I spent two hours wanting to like more than I ultimately did.
'Ultimately' ... get it?
Steeped in hip-hop sensibilities that aren’t often the focus of animated features, Miles Morales makes the perfect alternative companion to Tom Holland’s MCU-residing Peter Parker.
The film is at its simple best when inhabiting Miles (terrifically voiced by Shameik Moore) as he navigates his awkward teenage world. He’s a new student at an advanced NYC high school where he doesn’t feel like he fits in and has to balance his affections and respect for his straight-as-an-arrow policeman father Jefferson Davis-Morales (Brian Tyree Henry) and his estranged wayward uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali).
That was the movie I wanted to see more of - Miles finding his path towards heroism while being pushed and pulled in different directions by the heroes already in his life. But perhaps intending to hedge their commercial bets, it turns another way. As opposed to exploring the opposing dynamics of Miles’ two compelling father-figures along with his own burgeoning self-identity, Spider-Verse goes and adds a fourth influence - an aging, cynical and somewhat down-on-his-luck Peter Parker.
The premise sounds more charming than it is. Voiced by Jake Johnson, who doesn’t sound like the young or older Peter Parker in anyone’s head, the original wall-crawler’s at-first-reluctant tutelage of Miles plays like a perfunctory paint-by-numbers plot point. Peter resists being a mentor, Miles persists, Peter relents. The film’s focus feels like it becomes more about the misadventures of broken, sitcom Spider-Man than the origin of a compelling new hero.
The arrival of other Spider-Verse heroes, including Hailee Steinfeld's Spider-Woman, Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir, and John Mulaney's Spider-Ham, makes for some decent comedy and interesting visuals, but never gains traction. Even Gwen, who gets the most screen time out of the group, never feels like a main character. Screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman (who also co-directed) more ask us just to accept the standard animated family feature premise that the strangers bond as a surrogate family more than they actually bond as a surrogate family.
All the extra Spider-characters aren’t developed enough on their own terms much less as a team. Their somewhat extraneous inclusion winds up suggesting Sony wasn’t sure Miles and his story were compelling enough on their own, and that seems like a miscalculation.
Luckily for Miles, the world he inhabits is illustrated with breathtaking creativity, and despite its story flaws Into the Spider-Verse would be worth the price of admission even if the sound was turned off.
The visuals are a glorious, continuously surprisingly and kinetic mash-up of street and music culture, comic book references and photo-realism on the right side of the uncanny valley. The film never stops playing with its reality to render the superhero action and to narrate Miles' adventure in utterly original fashion.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like a meal that looks delicious and was actually once great along the way but the chef wouldn’t stop adding ingredients to before serving.
Sony reportedly already has plans for a sequel and a spin-off. Here’s hoping the spin-off will allow the sequel to stay at home and let Miles be the solo star he can be.