The truth about superheroes — that ordinary people have the power to change the world — has never been more upfront than it is in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Sony’s latest iteration of the Marvel character’s world, Into the Spider-Verse follows an Afro-Latinx teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn kid who is bitten by a radioactive spider in the subway and turns into the Spider-Man. After meeting Peter Parker, he learns that he’s not the only Spider-Man around. Vibrant, action-packed, empathetic and layered, Into The Spider-Verse is the perfect film for both newcomers and veteran fans of the friendly neighborhood superhero.
Into The Spider-Verse opens with parallel introductions. Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) is the confident, albeit snarky, 26-year-old hero of New York City that everyone knows. Miles Morales? A middle schooler who loves hip-hop, sneakers and working on his graffiti skills. On top of regular kid struggles, Miles is in the middle of transferring to a boarding school across town. He’s also at odds with his father Jeff, a hard but loving cop played by Brian Tyree Henry. With the absence of his cool uncle (Mahershala Ali), Miles searches for a father figure with whom he can have an authentic connection with.
Miles and Parker’s destinies are quickly intertwined once Miles starts to search for the spider that gave him his superpowers. Instead, Miles finds Parker, a parallel world and many other variations of the web head: Divorced Spidey (Jake Johnson), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), Noir Spider-Man (Nicolas Cage) and fan fave Spider-Gwen/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld). In this cacophony of new people and conflicting interests, Miles constantly struggles to be capable; to be a hero that can save the day. It’s only with their help that Miles becomes the hero he was always meant to be — and then some.
His hero’s journey is sparked in a poignant scene in which Mary Jane Watson (in a sneaky cameo from Zoë Kravitz) speaks on Parker’s ability to show how anyone could be behind the mask, because essentially each and every New Yorker has the power to make change. The shot cuts out to show thousands of people in Spider-Man masks, including Miles, who of course takes the story personally. It’s a rousing moment of populist thought that, in spite of Spidey’s vigilantism, is inspiring and deeply universal. At first, this can feel like pedantic, overly explanative plot work, in a film aimed at children. But considering who Miles gets his costume from — which I won’t spoil — and the deeper themes of mentorship and familial ties at hand, this scene really is the tip of the iceberg for the film’s deep narrative craftiness.
In spite of so many characters and plot points, the heart of Into The Spider-Verse is a young Black man’s search for truth, meaning, father figures and himself. To see Miles Morales centered in this way with so many guides and friends is a gift, especially because his character feels so authentic. As viewers spend time with him, they will see that Miles is really just a regular kid. He’s goofy, vulnerable, struggling and intensely thirsty for connections beyond just kinship, yearning for respect, understanding and family ties. Into The Spider-Verse is at its most profound when it delves into these slices of Miles’ character, furthering the audience’s understanding and empathy for a Black kid who learns what being a hero really means — with and without the mask.
In another deeply moving scene, grief is what draws Miles and his father closer than ever. Between Brian Tyree Henry’s performance and some creative framing, the scene is a tearjerker that reveals the directors’ (all three of them — Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman) understanding of mourning, adolescence and the struggles of parentage. It’s a clear metaphor for the journey from childhood to adulthood, which finds Miles in control of his own destiny and positions him as the hero of his world. What follows is Miles’ own literal and figurative leap of faith that enables him to forge his own path — not to become his father, or his uncle, or any other version of Spider-Man that’s already been done. Much like the film itself, the Miles we come to love in the final act becomes something — and someone — new.
That’s what makes Into the Spider-verse the most perfect incarnation of Spider-Man thus far; it holds so fiercely onto the central truth of the Spider-Man ethos. Kids from any borough of New York have the potential to become something more, especially when they rise to the occasion of — not just being a hero — but truly knowing and trusting themselves; even a wet-behind-the-ears Afro-Latinx kid from Brooklyn. For Miles, this truth manifests deeply as self-awareness, self-affirmation and self-esteem, all bolstered by the love of his family, both chosen and blood-tied. It’s the kind of pure storytelling that’s often lost in a maelstrom of special effects, villains, hype and hoopla. But clearly, when it’s done right, it can be as enjoyable as it is truthful to reality and the comic book canon.
Malik Adán is a film and media critic. His words have landed at FilmThreat and REELYDOPE. A lover of food and most genre entries, his tastes are as broad as his afro. His work can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, malikadan.com or in the moment on Twitter @dapisdope.
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