I really hope that Stan Lee, the genius behind Marvel Comics, got to see the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” before he died on November 12. If he did, I’d be sure he died happy, knowing that the iconic character he famously co-created was being realized in his purest, sharpest form.
Or, rather, forms, because this isn’t just one “Spider-Man” story. It’s many stories, woven together like a spider’s web so that when one is plucked, the others vibrate in sympathy.
Firstly, it’s the story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a teen in The Bronx with a loving mom, Rio (voiced by Luna Lauren Velez), and a devoted dad, Jefferson Davis (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), a New York City cop who delights in driving a mortified Miles to school in his squad car. When not in school, Miles hangs out with his uncle, Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali), who’s estranged from his cop brother.
It’s when he’s with Aaron, creating graffiti artwork in underground New York, that Miles is bitten by a genetically engineered spider. Then things start happening, and Miles realizes he has super-strength and his hands and feet can stick to any surface, allowing him to crawl up walls.
Yes, it’s Spider-Man’s origin story, but Brooklyn already has a Spider-Man, in the form of super-heroic Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine). That changes, though, because Miles witnesses a crime boss, known as The Kingpin (voiced by Liev Schreiber), murder Spider-Man. Miles also sees The Kingpin is developing a giant device that creates a portal between parallel universes.
It’s through this portal that another Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson) arrives. This one, though, isn’t as heroic as ours. He tells the sad story of how he lost his mojo for crime-fighting, as well as his wife, Mary Jane (voiced in both universes by Zoë Kravitz). But Miles needs a mentor, so he enlists the only Peter Parker he’s got.
Miles soon learns there is another: His new classmate Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailie Steinfeld), a k a Spider-Gwen. But, as the comic-savvy script by Phil Lord (“The Lego Movie”) and Rodney Rothman (who co-directed with Bill Persichetti and Peter Ramsey) explores, there are a lot of spider-beings out there.
The movie serves up endless invention, like the deadly encounter with an unexpected supervillain (voiced by Kathryn Hahn) or the interaction between the varied spider-characters (voiced by Nicolas Cage, Kimiko Glenn and John Mulaney) that personify such visual styles as film noir, Japanese anime and Saturday morning cartoons.
Most importantly, the animation comes closer than any Marvel movie has to emulating the hyper-stylized look of an actual comic book. Ang Lee’s 2003 “Hulk” tried this, with transitions done like story panels, but that pales next to the explosion of super-saturated color and line art deployed here.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” also revels in that staple of the comic-book art, the origin story. It becomes a running joke that every time the movie drops a new character, it also shows an accompanying comic book with that character’s origins. It’s a smart and timely reminder that every superhero’s story has to start somewhere, and Miles Morales’ fascinating story begins here.
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Opens Friday, December 14, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language. Running time: 119 minutes.