STARS: 4.5/5

After countless TV series and the three most recent iterations of the character across six live-action movies, it was hard to imagine we could see anything new from Spider-Man. As arguably Marvel’s most iconic character, Spider-Man is so mired in tradition that even “Spider-Man: Homecoming” struggled to break out of a well-established mold, as great a movie as it was.

And hey — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? I thought “Homecoming” was as good as Spider-Man movies could get, with Tom Holland’s authentic portrayal of Peter Parker and a great balance of the action, comedy and coming-of-age genres.

What set “Homecoming” apart from Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s films was that it focused more on Peter Parker than Spider-Man, making it resonate more with civilians like us. But this isn’t the place to start the “which Spider-Man was best?” debate… or is it?

This might be cheating because of the nature of the movie, but Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the most inventive and innovative Spider-Man feature film since Spidey first came to the big screen.

As an animated movie, “Into the Spider-Verse” has more opportunities, both visually and creatively, than the live-action films. The artistic value of the animation lends so much to the overall experience of the film, from comic-inspired doodles and speech bubbles to characters in completely different animation styles.

While Spider-Man has long existed in many different forms in the Marvel Comics, we had yet to see many of those forms in film or TV until now. Our main protagonist in “Into the Spider-Verse” is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager living in Brooklyn who becomes Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider in the New York Underground.

Miles and five other Spider… uh, People? Creatures? — anyway, the ensemble works so well together, and it never feels like they’re clamoring for the audience’s attention. It’s a diverse cast in terms of both demographics and personality. Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) deliver one-liners so perfectly you almost miss them.

Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) balances the younger, more energetic characters like Miles, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) with his overall chagrin and fatigued demeanor, and by the end, I connected more with his character than I thought I would.

What makes this film stand out in a saturated superhero movie market is the unapologetic, non-pretentious fun. Children are naturally more drawn to animated movies, but superhero movies as of late have had such serious, borderline dark themes and tones (and PG-13 ratings) that make them hard for children and pre-teens to enjoy.

“Into the Spider-Verse” has more mature themes but doesn’t forget itself. While the movie touches on topics like divorce, body image (kind of), loss, sacrifice and the grayness of morality, Miles is also dealing with everyday teenage problems like fitting in at a new school and living up to his parents’ expectations. On the other side of that coin, there’s slapstick humor, thrilling action scenes and pure comedy that both adults and children can enjoy.

An electric soundtrack carries the movie’s most intense action sequences and most tender moments. Miles’ daydreamy humming and mumbling of “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee is sweet, funny and makes him feel like a real teenager. All the songs are instant hits and had me dancing in my seat, both in the theater and in the car on the way home. And now, as I write this review.

My only complaints are relatively minor pacing issues and that the Kingpin backstory was just a bit glossed over. After a somewhat slow start, the movie immediately jumped into the main conflict, but then it took a while to introduce the other Spider characters. In all fairness, the movie had a lot to accomplish, and it’s hard to make parallel universes and quantum physics easily consumable. 

Everyone should watch this movie. It’s rare to find a superhero movie these days with such mass appeal. As much as I love those movies, “Into the Spider-Verse” was a welcome breath of fresh air. Knowing this movie exists separately from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a much-needed respite from the anxiety I know I’m going to have when I watch “Captain Marvel” in March or “Avengers: Endgame” in April.

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