“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an animated film — not part of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe — and not quite like anything you’ve seen before.
It’s amazing, astonishing and spectacular on its own, whatever you think about previous Spider-Man movies, comics, TV shows or cartoons; it won the 2018 San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for best animated feature.
Since 2007, when Sam Raimi followed his superb two first films with the overstuffed “Spider-Man 3,” Sony Pictures has been struggling to keep Spider-Man relevant and bankable. A 2012-14 reboot, “The Amazing Spider-Man” Parts 1-2, smelled like a cash grab, and this year’s slapdash spinoff “Venom” performed well despite harsh reviews.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” finally achieves the studio’s goal. It’s a kid-friendly animated movie with a “be yourself/believe in yourself” message, yet it also feels strikingly fresh, like a spinning wheel of color and flash.
Our hero is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who, wonderfully, is Puerto-Rican and African-American. He’s a brilliant kid whose parents send him to a ritzy school to afford him more opportunity.
He’s also a graffiti artist spending time with his outlaw uncle (Mahershala Ali). While painting together in a secret spot, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider.
Blindsided by his new powers, and, hilariously, unable to control the stickiness in his hands, he briefly meets the traditional Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine) just in time to see him defeated by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).
He knows he needs to do something, but is not exactly sure what. He buys a cheap Spider-Man costume, but then, weirdly, meets another Spider-Man, “Peter B. Parker” (Jake Johnson). This one is older, thicker around the middle, possibly from another dimension.
Before long, other, other-dimensional Spider-men and women are on the scene, including Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), Penni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and even an other-dimensional Spider-powered Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld).
The characters are presented in all kinds of styles: computer-animation; noirish, black-and-white comics like “The Spirit”; Jack Kirby’s comic artwork; anime; and flat, two-dimensional TV cartoons.
The action is fluid, fantastic, breakneck, yet crisp, bright and exciting. The colors sometimes look slightly misaligned, with reds and greens spilling out from behind the images — as if it were a 3D movie with no glasses — but this effect is on purpose, to pay homage to the charmingly imperfect comic books of old.
Similarly, “Kirby dots” are part of the design; backgrounds consist of uniform spots that move and spiral with the image, rather than blocks of solid color, also to simulate the feel of reading a comic.
Other sequences cut loose and offer a modern display of what animation and imagination can achieve, such as the incredible showdown inside a huge 360-degree sphere, whose panels keep breaking off as varied dimensions slide in and out of existence. It’s mind-blowing.
The movie is also very funny, with irreverent, self-referential humor — similar to the snarky “Teen Titans Go! To the Movies” — but with a broader reach, and more heartfelt, passionate, respectful tone.
It was co-written by Phil Lord, who, with his cohort Christopher Miller (co-producer here), made the “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” movies and brilliant “The Lego Movie” and “The Lego Batman Movie,” which most closely resembles “Spider-Verse,” but doesn’t quite reach the same dizzy heights.
This year, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Black Panther” have taken superhero movies to the next level, with multi-dimensional, relevant characters that make a strong argument for the artistic legitimacy of comics and cartoons.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Starring: Voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali
Written by: Phil Lord, Rodney Rothman
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes