Over the weekend, animated superhero movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse became the number one movie in North America—the thirteenth number one weekend for a Marvel character this year and the biggest December animated opening ever—with $35.3 million, once again proving that audiences are not tired of superheroes, especially when those heroes find ways to differentiate from the pack. Thanks to ambitious animation and the presence of Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino teen Spidey from a popular run of comics, Spider-Verse feels wholly fresh, even though it is the seventh Spider-movie in sixteen years. The animation is wild, blending styles and new technologies—developed just for this film—to create a unique palette that recalls the multi-generational art that defines long-running heroes like Spider-Man. The varying styles work not only to make this an eye-popping spectacle, but also to distinguish a cavalcade of Spider-people that crop up throughout the film, as Spider-Verse is a comics-silly multi-dimensional tale of mayhem.
Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore) is the heart of the story. A bright kid recently admitted to a fancy prep school, he is still adjusting to his new surrounds—there is an EXCELLENT sequence representing the code-switching necessary for Miles’ new school— and struggling with his place in the world. Unlike Peter Parker, Miles has living parents (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez), and he is popular and well-liked at school. But he doesn’t know where he fits in and also trying to manage the weight of his parents’ expectations. Exacerbating the problem, he gets bitten by a genetically altered spider and soon develops spider-powers. He is quickly thrust into superherodom when THE Peter Parker (Chris Pine), a well-known local superhero of some years, is killed in a fight.
So here’s where things get all kinds of comic book wild. The main bad guy, Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk (Liev Schreiber) has built a dimension-blasting death machine that is, more or less, leaking bits and pieces of other dimensions into Miles’ dimension. This brings Miles into contact with a slew of Spider-people, starting with Peter B. Parker (a grumpy and perfect Jake Johnson), an alternate-dimension sad-sack Spider-Man recently split from Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz). This Peter enters into a reluctant mentorship with Miles, and their rapport is wonderful, but hardly the only fun spider-relationship to be had. Other dimension Spider-folk include be-spiderfied Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), black-and-white pulp Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime-inspired Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a cartoon spoof version of the character.
If this sounds wacky, IT IS. All these different Spider-people running around could be confusing, but the animation is so free-wheeling, and the voice cast so perfect, and the dialogue so bouncy that it all comes together in a delightful, visually spectacular whole. And Spider-Verse wrangles with the classic Spider-Man “with great power, comes great responsibility” theme in a way that makes it feel fresh, even just a year after Spider-Man: Homecoming did a similar trick in live-action. It’s no surprise that Spider-Verse comes from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have brought similar pathos and brilliant referential humor to The LEGO Movie and its spin-off, The LEGO Batman Movie.
But for all the self-awareness Spider-Verse has for the tropes and narrative ground it’s treading, it never falls into Deadpool-style mockery or sarcasm. Spider-Verse has a ton of heart, led by Miles and his desire just to do right by the people who put their faith in him, and to make his parents proud. There are astounding action sequences that could only be achieved in animation—honestly, this is probably the best medium for superheroes—great jokes and big laughs, and the kind of inspiring heroism that makes us believe any of us could be a hero, if need be. That’s the real magic of Spider-Man, the unshakeable belief that anyone can be a hero, and Into the Spider-Verse demonstrates the any-person nature of heroes with cleverness and heart.