Spider-Man:  Into the Spider-Verse

 

            The fun thing about animation is that you can really be creative with what's seen on the screen.  The disadvantage is that the characters, being animated, are once-removed from the reality of identifying with them.  So the movie has to excel at eliciting empathy from the viewers, and this one does.  It's fun, it's playful, it's humorous, and, despite larger-than-life superpowers, manages to be charmingly self-deprecatory, as well.

            Miles Morales (the voice of Shameik Moore) seems to be an ordinary kid, especially when he's hanging out in his own neighborhood in Brooklyn.  He's comfortable there, he greets people on the street easily, and he's made friends with a lot of teenagers his age.  But his Dad, who's a cop, and his Mom, who's a nurse, want better things for him.  Because of his high test scores, they send him to a better school across town, but Miles doesn't like that school.  He thinks the kids are snobby.  And the teachers assume that the students will do a lot of homework.  It isn't much fun for him.  So, in his immaturity, he decides he'll be passive-aggressive and start slacking on his tests, so he can flunk out.  But one of the teachers, at least, realizes what he's doing and gives him a separate assignment about his expectations for himself. 

            Miles decides to talk it over with his favorite role model, Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali).  Together, they find a deserted part of the subway where Miles can express himself with some street art (think artistry with cans of spray paint).  But somewhere down there, Miles gets bit by a radioactive spider, and you guessed it, suddenly he's acquiring these spider-like powers, except he has no idea what's happening to him, and also no idea what to do about it.

            Meanwhile, the “real” Spider Man, Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is having a tough time with a particularly evil bad guy, who's somehow figured out how to tap into other dimensions.  That threatens to put everybody in a black hole, and before we know it, people with Spider-powers from parallel universes begin to appear.  (Hey, it's the comics, we can make up anything we want.)  There's a female spidey, Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), a Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who's a little older and somewhat depressed and even (gasp!) a little paunchy around the middle.  There's the futuristic Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and a noir Spidey (Nicolas Cage), and well, you get the idea.  Our novice Miles needs all the help he can get, even though Peter B. Parker seems to be a remarkably unwilling teacher, given that it would help him return to his own universe if Miles succeeds in stopping the bad guy.

            Well, it's all in fun.  We even get Lily Tomlin into the act as the voice of Aunt May.  The special effects are so dazzling as to be distracting, at times, but it's also winsomely playful.  Yes, there's some strained moral about everybody having untapped capacity within them, but thankfully the light-heartedness overcomes any heavy-handed aphorisms disguised as pop psychology.  Part of what makes Spider-Man endearing is his immaturity, and lack of polish, and occasional lapse of self-confidence, and we're rewarded with all those in this winsome tale that effectively straddles saving the world with awkward self-discovery.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association