The new Spider-Man movie opens with an apology about being yet another Spider-Man movie, which pretty much sets the tone: This is a flip, oh-so-postmodern take on a franchise that won’t stop rebooting itself. An animated Marvel saga, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tips its hat to the existing Spider-Man movie thread while introducing the idea that multiple universes hold different Spider-Men.
That convoluted concept must be fun for some people, because Into the Spider-Verse has been winning rave reviews (and a nod for Best Animated Film from the New York Film Critics). I’m not raving, but the film is certainly different. After the old Spider-Man’s tongue-in-cheek opening narration, we shift our focus to young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino New York kid who finds himself bitten by a radioactive spider and newly endowed with web-spinning powers. He’s extremely clumsy at deploying these powers, but when the multiverses fold in on each other, Miles is joined by a disappointed, paunchy Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) who begrudgingly acts as Miles’ mentor, as well as black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, ideal), a Japanese anime-style Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and a pig called Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), who looks like an escapee from an old Warner Bros. cartoon and apparently also goes by the name Peter Porker.
The movie’s got some decent jokes, and it’s great to see a Spider-Man from a multiethnic background (Brian Tyree Henry and Mahershala Ali do tasty work as Miles’ policeman father and cool-cat uncle, respectively). If somehow those jokes could have been squeezed into a 90-minute package instead of a 117-minute feature, maybe Spider-Verse would have more zip. After a very clever opening 20 minutes, including our introduction to Miles’ regular-kid world, the film alternates between frantic action sequences and talky bouts of exposition. Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman stage the big fights so that each superhero blowout gets increasingly psychedelic, to the point that Into the Spider-Verse could very well become the biggest pothead movie since Fantasia.
Even trippier is the decision to design the film as though it literally came out of an old comic book, complete with Ben-Day dots and seemingly misaligned color printing. (Eat your heart out, Roy Lichtenstein.) This is kind of cute for five minutes and then becomes headache-inducing; I can’t imagine what the 3D version is going to look like.
Among the film’s producers are Christopher Miller and co-screenwriter Phil Lord, who directed the delightful Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie. Those projects have a sure-handed touch that isn’t in place here, and it shows you how important a director is even in the very collaborative world of animation. But the most annoying thing about Into the Spider-Verse is how completely it panders to the Easter Egg-spotting fanboy audience, flattering the Marvel faithful with mangled iterations of Peter Parker’s credo about great power and great responsibility, or having Spider-Man Noir mutter, “This is a hardcore origin story,” har har. It also ridicules a much-derided scene from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, a movie I think is weirder and more interesting than almost anything Marvel has done onscreen since. Hey, at least it wasn’t an origin story. Given the infinite multiverses out there, the origin stories might never actually end, which is probably what Marvel had in mind all along.