Since the turn of the century, Spider-Man has enjoyed a very strong place at the box office. Swinging onto the screen with the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man in 2002, the webslinger managed to generate the first ever box office weekend north of $100 million. Two more films from the same team would follow with mixed results, though still very healthy and at the top of the class when it came to super hero franchises. But something happened in the following decade that would shake up Spider-Man’s presence on the big screen. After years of trying to find a permanent home for all their super hero properties, Marvel finally set up shop with their own studio after they were bought by the Walt Disney Company. Now with deep pockets big enough to fund their plan for a shared universe, Marvel finally was able to tell stories the way they wanted to. Only, there was still the problem of all the continuing contracts that remained at all the other studios in town. Paramount and Universal, which held the rights to characters like Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America handed over their characters to Disney without issue, but the same cooperation would not be demonstrated from the other hold outs; Fox (who had the Fantastic Four and the X-Men) and Sony (who has Spider-Man). With the upcoming merger of Disney and Fox next year, Marvel will finally have a huge chunk of their character roster back under their control, leaving Sony and Spider-Man the last remaining holdouts. Now, to Sony’s credit, they did work out a deal with Disney that essentially boils down to a joint custody with the character. Sony takes a minority share of profit when Spidey appears as an ensemble player in massive crossover, and a majority share whenever he has a standalone feature, with Disney taking the reverse on each. That’s how we get Spiderman in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Iron Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). And for the most part, it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.
However, there are some odd happenings on the Sony side where they are trying every way they can to work around the loopholes of the agreement. As part of the deal, Marvel Studios has taken the measures of making all the future creative choices regarding the character; from the casting, to the types of stories that the character will be living through on the big screen. This has of course been very beneficial for Spider-Man, as his storyline is now linked with the full Marvel universe, and the universally beloved casting of Tom Holland in the role has made many believe that this is best version of the character we’ve seen yet. But, the team at Sony is showing more and more that they would like to be the ones in charge of this franchise and they are looking for ways to build a Spider-Man-esque franchise without using the character himself. One way they have attempted to do that is by taking one of Spider-Man’s most famous foes and build a franchise around him instead. That’s what happened this year with the creation of the movie Venom (2018), a standalone feature centered on the famous alien symbiote villain from the comics. The movie benefited from the casting of Tom Hardy in the title role, but the film received a very polarizing reception from both fans and critics. Still, it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, but the disconnect from the rest of the Marvel Universe was palpable for most people. Venom was more of a Sony movie than a Marvel movie, and a lot of fans were not happy to see this beloved character so cast aside, because of Sony’s refusal to play by Marvel’s rules. That’s why you see the opening logo say “In Association with Marvel” meaning it was made with their blessing, but not their approval. And it’s any wonder if Venom may ever cross paths with Spider-Man at all because of this, which would be a shame. Safe to say, it’s a move that probably won’t endear Sony with comic book fans in the long run, but there is another feature coming out that may allow Sony to play in the world of Spider-Man on their own terms, and still make it worthy of the brand. Simply, since Disney and Marvel are taking the charge with a live action Spider-Man, why not let Sony take charge with an animated one.
Thus, we have Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, a new animated film from Sony Animated Pictures. Sony Animation has had mixed results over the years, ranging from good (Hotel Transylvania, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), to mediocre (Peter Rabbit, Open Season), to downright awful (The Emoji Movie, Smurfs). Spiderverse probably marks their most ambitious film to date and with good reason; they are playing with a comic book icon now. You might think that the movie is your standard mild mannered Peter Parker saves the day story-line, but you are wrong. This one focuses on Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a bright young student living in Brooklyn. Miles lives under constant pressure living up to the high standards of his police officer Dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and finds solace in the counsel of his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who indulges his more artistic tastes. After stumbling through an underground sanctuary that belongs to his uncle, Miles finds a large Hadron collider that opens up a portal to other dimensions. The collider is being operated by the crime boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who is thwarted when Spider-Man (Chris Pine) shuts the machine down. Unfortunately it leaves Spider-Man fatally wounded, and he trusts Miles with the duty of keeping the key to Kingpin’s collider out of the villain’s hands. Miles, who has also inherited the powers of Spider-Man, tries what he can to take up the mantle of the former hero. But, he surprising has a run in with another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from one of the other dimensions; one where Spider-Man has fallen on hard times and has grown into a bit of a slob. The older Spider-Man takes Miles under his wing and teaches him the basics. Soon they are met by other inter-dimensional Spider-beings including Gwen Stacey aka Spider Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and cartoon pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Together, they put their strengths to the test to stop the Kingpin’s plan and return everyone home safely, but that all hinges on whether Miles can find the hero within himself.
Thanks to catching a brief advance screening at my local Burbank, California theater, I was able to see this movie a week early. And I’m very glad I did. Quite in contrast to the compromised Venom from a few months ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is a movie made on Sony’s terms that feels more in the spirit of the character of Spider-Man. Essentially, this is a movie that list being “In Association with Marvel” that Marvel will gladly give their approval to. Animation really is the best way to present a separate story-line from the connected Marvel universe, and Into the Spiderverse delivers above and beyond what you would expect. Not only do I think that this is one of the best Spider-Man films ever made (standing toe to toe with the likes of Spiderman 2 and Homecoming), but I would dare say it’s the best animated film that I have seen this year overall. Yes, even heavy hitters like Pixar’s Incredibles 2 and Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet didn’t work as consistently well as this movie. What makes Into the Spiderverse work so well is because it takes chances and carves out it’s own identity, even as a standalone animated feature. I for one have never seen animation as stylized as seen here, taking a very comic book aesthetic to the extreme. Even the very simple action of movement is differently realized in the movie, coming across as a hybrid between stop motion and actual real life, only animated through a computer. It takes some getting used to but, by the end, you feel very enriched. I just found the whole approach more interesting than all the other animated efforts this year, though I still very much liked Incredibles and Ralph too. And the best thing is that it doesn’t try to distance itself from it’s comic book roots like so many of Sony’s other mismanaged super hero films. It embraces it’s origins and even has a little fun with it as well.
One of the best elements of the movie is it’s sense of humor. Much like movies such as Deadpool (2016) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017), this is a film that likes to break down the cliches of the genre while at the same time having fun with them. This is especially personified in the older Spider-Man played by Jake Johnson. His Peter B. Parker is the obvious cynical one and much of the film’s best jokes revolve around his ability to perform as Spider-Man, but with a slacker’s attitude. I especially like the detail that he wears sweatpants through most of the movie. There are some fun nods to past Spider-Man movies too, but turned on their heads as part of the film’s irreverent take on the mythos of the character. I also really enjoyed the different Spider-Man types that we meet as well. Nicolas Cage is especially hilarious as the moody to the point of absurdity Spider-Man Noir, and his vocal delivery had me cracking up most of the time. Much of the humor feels very much in the same vein as a Lego Movie, and it’s not surprising given that one of the writers, Phil Lord, was also the creator of that film as well. But, even with all the irreverence, the movie also delivers a lot of heartfelt emotion that doesn’t feel out of place. And most of that is centered around the development of Miles Morales as a character. Miles, a beloved version of the famed webslinger from the comic books, makes it to the big screen finally with a beautifully told coming of age story about becoming the hero he was always meant to be. The road there is paved with a lot of humor, but when it needs to hit those emotional moments, it does not disappoint. I especially liked how they dealt with the relationships he has with his Dad and his Uncle, and the unexpected turns that those points take. There’s even a touching bond that he builds with the other Spider-beings that helps to enrich the story as a whole. Even as the movie hits some wacky curves, it’s Miles story that gives the movie it’s beating heart.
The movie also benefits from a fantastic voice cast. Shameik Moore delivers a surprisingly emotional turn as Miles, and helps to make him endearingly and also goofily charming at the same time. He has to take the full burden of managing the wild changes in tone throughout the movie and he does so quite effectively. Bringing perfectly tuned assistance is Jake Johnson as the middle aged Spider-Man. His voice is perfect for this version of the character because he can go from quirky to sincere in a heartbeat. Some of my favorite moments in the movie are from the little asides that he adds to the conversations in the movie; often pointing out the absurdity of their situations. And a lot of his persona comes through in his performance, to the point where I could have easily seen Jake playing this same role in live action as well with the same exact result. The same goes for Hailee Steinfeld who also brings the fan favorite Spider Gwen to the big screen for the first time. Her role also brings a nice balance to the cast, as she is often the most proactive of the film’s heroes. The previously mentioned Nicolas Cage is probably the funniest out of the bunch, just because his deadpan delivery is so perfect for the lines that he reads. Also John Mulaney and Kamiko Glenn are wonderfully quirky in their own roles. On the opposite side, Liev Schreiber delivers a wonderfully menacing turn as Kingpin, standing larger than life (literally) among the other Spider-Man baddies in the movie. I was happy to see him play a version different than other versions of the character, like Michael Clark Duncan in 2003’s Daredevil and Vincent D’Onofrio in the Daredevil TV series, favoring a more cinematic heavy, crime boss version instead. And his version is perfectly suited for this kind of version of Spider-Man, which is more cartoonish as a whole.
Speaking of cartoons, it’s an interesting move on Sony’s part to take the world of Spider-Man and put it in animation, given that the whole rest of Marvel is now owned by a company born out of an animation background. Disney, curiously, has been very selective about where they cross their animated field with the Marvel properties that are now in their stable. So far, apart from a couple cameos in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the only Marvel characters brought to life through animation have been the ones from Big Hero 6 (2014). Sony has filled that hole quite effectively by taking the more noteworthy character of Spider-Man and bringing him into the animated medium. But, they do so without running contrary with what Marvel is doing with Spider-Man in the Cinematic Universe. This is very much it’s own thing, and that’s reflected in it’s visual aesthetic. No one would confuse this with a Disney animated feature. The texture of the visuals is really unique, and makes this film feel unlike any other movie you have ever seen. There’s a hand-drawn quality to the characters and background that makes the movie feel very much like a comic book come to life, but at the same time, you can still tell it’s animated with the 3D capabilities that computer animation allows. Character animation is also top notch, whether it’s in capturing the awkwardness of Miles Morales, the slouching, out of shape posture of Peter Parker, or the gracefulness of Spider Gwen. I especially like how Peni Parker is animated in an anime style, making her really stand out among the others, and really taking advantage of the simulated hand drawn aesthetic. Kingpin is also remarkably realized, portrayed as a bulky monster with the widest, squarest shoulders that you’ve ever seen. Truthfully, you could never get this kind of look from Disney Animation; their in-house aesthetic is too entrenched over there. Because Sony had less of a legacy to live up to, so they chose this opportunity to really experiment and be bold, and it worked beautifully. If Sony keeps those Spider-Man rights in the years ahead, it might work best to have the animated medium be their best option, because it’s where they are best able to do the things that Disney can’t with the character.
While I feel that overall the Spider-Man character has been better realized through the guidance of Marvel Studios under the roof of Disney, it’s here in animation that Sony has shown it’s best avenue for continuing to work with the character. It helps that Miles Morales is the center point of this Spider-Man story-line, allowing it to not conflict in any way with the Peter Parker story line in the MCU. Although, it’s not like Miles will never make his way into that universe as well. Both Into the Spiderverse and Homecoming share a common character with Miles’ uncle Aaron Davis, played by Mahershala Ali in the animated film and Donald Glover in live action. The seeds have been planted, but for those impatient to see Miles Morales in his full “Spider” glory, then this movie will easily satisfy their appetite. This is a great animated film from top to bottom with a lot of humor, a fair bit of heart-pounding action, and a surprising amount of heart at it’s center. The biggest triumph of all is the character of Miles Morales, and this movie will instantly endear him to long time fans and newcomers alike. I especially love that this is a movie that knows what it wants to be, and holds to it’s own unique identity. I have certainly never seen an animated movie that looks like this one before, and it easily is a game-changer for the Sony Animation Studio; one that they have desperately needed for some time. There could have been a lot of opportunities for this movie to have gone wrong, and come to theaters as a cash grab, but it thankfully doesn’t. It’s a worthy addition to the cinematic presence of Spider-Man, and one that can stand apart, thankfully, from all the rest. Also, being the first Spider-Man film released since the passing of Spidey’s legendary creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, this movie respectfully honors the legacy of their work (including the expected Stan Lee cameo) with a story and aesthetic that feels very much rooted in the comic book form. Here’s to a healthy animated future for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.