Sharing his name with six live-action films in 16 years, Spider-Man is no stranger to the big screen. Since 2002, he's saved New York from disaster again and again, kissed his sweetheart while hanging upside down, and turned evil and danced down the sidewalk. The friendly neighbourhood web-slinger has ripped off his mask to reveal the faces of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, gotten cosy with Kirsten Dunst, Emma Stone and Zendaya, and eventually joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yet, the best Spider-Man movie doesn't involve most of the above. It's not just about Spider-Man, but spider-men. It also features a spider-woman, spider-robot and spider-pig, as well as Nicolas Cage as a 30s-era spider-vigilante. In other words, it's the animated delight that is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Returning Spidey to his cartoon roots — his first screen appearance came via the animated 60s TV series with that catchy theme tune — this addition to the fold isn't your regular take on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's iconic character. Rather, it recognises that a wealth of different spider-figures have swung through the comic book realm, because Spider-Man really could be anyone. Radioactive arachnids don't discriminate. They just sink their fangs into whoever's in their path. In Into the Spider-Verse, it's Brooklyn high-schooler Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) who's on the receiving end of a tiny but monumental bite. When he's not feeling like he's disappointing his cop dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and wishing he could spend more time with his outcast uncle (Mahershala Ali), Miles is also a rather big fan of the established Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Chris Pine).
Two people donning the famous red and blue costume? With nefarious crime kingpin Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) tearing a hole through multiple universes using a supercollider, two are just the beginning. The uncertain Miles is soon buddying up with Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who's more than a little over being Spider-Man — consider him an on-screen avatar for spider-fatigued audiences. Like filtering all things Spidey through an episode of Rick and Morty, they're joined by other web-slingers, including Peter Porker (John Mulaney), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Cage), and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her mechanical offsider SP//dr. The fate of several worlds is at stake, and the futures of several spider-people (and spider-animals) too.
Arriving at a time when superhero movies (let alone Spider-Man flicks) are no longer a special event, Into the Spider-Verse offers what so few caped crusaders can muster these days: an endless array of surprises. It also serves up jokes about whether Spidey could or should wear a cape, although it's the film's ability to astonish that sticks firmer than Spider-Man's web. Who knew that a character who's been seen on screen over and over again for decades — and one who sports a 56-year history on the page as well — could seem so vibrant, thrilling and fresh? That's not a knock on the various live-action iterations, which have each boasted their own appeal, even if some fare better than others. But in embracing the entire big, bustling and diverse spider-world, Into the Spider-Verse genuinely feels new.
In recent years, only Black Panther has bounced through cinemas with the same kind of vibe, feeding viewers' eagerness to finally watch something different. Into the Spider-Verse ramps that idea up a few notches, not only showcasing the first Afro-Lantino Spider-Man alongside a number of other interpretations, but playing with superhero and storytelling conventions. While good-versus-evil plots and coming-of-age themes are engrained in Spidey lore, neither notion bows to formula in the hands of filmmakers Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians) and Rodney Rothman. Instead, this adventure spins tales upon tales at a mile-a-minute pace — with a healthy dash of irreverence and amusement, ample nods to past comics and flicks, plus a warm-hearted willingness to make fun of the whole spider-shebang. That Rothman co-wrote the script with The Lego Movie's Phil Lord, and that Lord produced the picture with his usual directing partner Christopher Miller, partly explains Into the Spider-Verse's immense charms.
Led by the soulful Moore as Morales, and peppered with hilarious work by Cage and Mulaney, the excellent voice cast also plays a part in making this the new high point for Spider-Man films. That said, Into the Spider-Verse could've dispensed with dialogue altogether and it'd still mesmerise. We mean that literally, because the standard and style of animation on display, and the action scenes and sight gags that go with it, resembles nothing else that's been beamed into cinemas before. Fast, bright, imaginative and often even abstract, it blends a hand-drawn feel with the most inventive visuals that computer-generated imagery can deliver. In this vivid, kaleidoscopic world, Spider-Ham's Looney Tunes aesthetic, Peni Parker and SP//dr's anime look, and Spider-Man Noir's dark approach all fit in perfectly. So too does a new plucky school kid who embodies the most important spider-fact of all: that everyone can do whatever a spider can.