You have to give Marvel credit for not playing it safe with their first theatrical animated feature. For starters, they revisit the “Ultimate Marvel” continuity universe that they essentially put on indefinite hiatus in 2015. It also prominently features Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham (he’s a pig, get it?), whom Time magazine dubbed one of the “Ten Oddest Marvel Characters,” not without justification. Yet, all the unlikely elements combine into a rather inspired whole: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (trailer here), which opens this Friday nationwide.
Miles Morales is a bright prep school scholarship kid from Brooklyn, who is pushed hard by his police officer father. Most of the time, he feels like his black sheep Uncle Aaron understands him better, especially when it comes to his passion for graffiti art. Then one day, he is bitten by a radioactive spider. You know how that works. In fact, screenwriter Phil Lord frequently revisits that familiar origin story throughout Spider-Verse, for sly comedic effect.
Young Morales has trouble mastering his new powers, but he soon comes mask-to-mask with a potential tutor. That would be Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. Thanks to a rift in the multiverse caused by the recklessness of Wilson Fisk (a.k.a. The Kingpin), several more alternate Spider-Beings cross over. Most of Morales’ lessons will come from Peter B. Parker, who is a lot like the Parker we know, but slightly schlubbier. He is not perfect, but the black-and-white, tough-talking Spider-Man Noir is not exactly the mentoring type and it would be embarrassing to get schooled by Spider-Ham.
It is usually a bad sign when comic book companies resort to reboots and alternate continuities, but Marvel has repurposed the Ultimate experiment quite shrewdly. Waste not, want not. Visually, Spider-Verse is a trip and a half, incorporating elements of the entire history of comic books, including manga—as represented by Peni Parker—all of which is rendered in a unique style of CGI animation, with traditional hand-drawn elements layered on-top.
Spider-Verse looks terrific, but what really distinguishes the film is the quality of the writing. Morales and his family are all fully developed characters, who have very real issues to deal with. Morales also has a smartly developed relationship with an alternate Gwen Stacy, a.k.a. Spider-Woman, a.k.a. Spider-Gwen (not to be confused with the deceased and resurrected Jessica Drew Spider-Woman). Frankly, there are some shockingly poignant moments in Spider-Verse, especially for viewers who are or ever have been Marvel fans.
Marvel really tempted the fates by enlisting Nic Cage, who nearly played Superman in Tim Burton’s never-realized Superman Lives, to give voice to Spider-Man Noir, but once again their gamble paid off with some fantastic hardboiled voice-over work. The rest of the voice cast is quite strong as well, particularly Hailee Steinfeld as Spider-Woman and Brian Tyree Henry as Morales’ father, Jefferson Davis (is that irony intentional?).