As last year’s joint Sony/Marvel outing “Spider-Man: Homecoming” exuberantly reaffirmed, Peter Parker, that nerdy teenager turned skyscraper-hugging crime fighter, remains one of the most renewable action-movie heroes around.
Here to test that theory in an entirely different format is “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” an animated action-comedy that shares no corporate or creative DNA with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It dreams up an entirely new storyline set in a parallel-universe New York and introduces an exhausting cross-dimensional cluster of Spidey-heroes.
To my chagrin, it’s terrific — sweet, serious and irreverent.
The reliable comic brain trust of producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“21 Jump Street,” “The Lego Movie”), along with a trio of directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), have tackled this project with formula-busting, pretension-puncturing gusto. Amiable nonsense that comes pouring out of this movie — my favorite might be a talking pig who goes by Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (he’s Marvel canon, apparently) — is tethered to a boldly imagined origin story with a potent emotional core.
At the center of that origin story is Miles Morales, a smart Brooklyn teenager and instantly winning creation voiced by Shameik Moore (“Dope”). The New York that Miles inhabits springs to life in images that feel both vividly real and gloriously, proudly cartoonish, combining the vibrant, hyperreal texture of CG animation and the sharp, angular quality of classic comic-book panels.
Notably, the city also has its own friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker, an enemy of crooks everywhere but also an irritant to strictly by-the-book cops like Miles’ dad, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry).
For a while the movie zips absorbingly alongside Miles as he struggles to fit in at a prep school, nurtures his skills as a graffiti artist and hangs out with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Jefferson’s estranged brother. Every aspect of Miles’ personality is drawn in pleasurably absorbing detail, and he would make terrific company even if a tiny radioactive eight-legger didn’t eventually show up.
After he develops cool arachnoid powers and starts learning the ropes from Peter Parker/Spider-Man, it takes Miles a realistically long time to master them. But master them he must.
Miles is soon enlisted in the fight against the big, bad Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). For pleasingly preposterous reasons, the Kingpin has devised a powerful technology capable of ripping a gash in the space-time continuum, a phenomenon that occasions some wildly trippy colors and glitch-tastic visual effects.
Before long the movie is crawling with various Spider-heroes who have been mysteriously transported from their universes and into this one. This gives excellent actors like Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney and Nicolas Cage a chance to shine, and provides “Into the Spider-Verse” with a clever meta-joke about the endless recyclability of the Spider-Man franchise.
While there is plenty to mock here, what distinguishes “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is that it takes its mission seriously, even when it’s being transparently silly. There’s nothing cheap or snarky about the way the movie festoons its action sequences with “POW!” and “BLAMMO!” word bubbles It’s a sign of a movie not just embracing its hand-drawn comic-book roots, but also striving to be the fullest, truest version of itself.
Miles is a young man of Puerto Rican and African-American heritage who pointedly doesn’t look like many of the webslingers who preceded him. That creative decision might have felt like a merely tokenistic gesture, if he weren’t such a richly and coherently imagined character.
And hopefully not the last. Sony has already announced plans for a sequel to “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” as well as an all-female spin-off, which bespeaks mighty confidence in the new web-slinging worlds they are about to unleash.
“SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE”