Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is, by every imaginable metric, a truly great movie. It is easily the best of the thirty-seven Spider-Man movies (although 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was as close as Hollywood had ever come to getting the character properly right) that have been made in the last twenty years. But it is better than that; it is among the best superhero movies ever made, every bit the equal of biggest box-offices successes like Black Panther, The Dark Knight, and the various Avengers movies.
At least a significant portion of its success is being an animated movie. This movie almost certainly would not have worked as a live-action film. But untethered from the weight of CGI and the need to make it look real – whatever that means – Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse thrives by embracing everything that its animation allows it, including expansive fights, wild scenery, and outrageous characters (Liev Schrieber’s Kingpin looms as much as John Mulaney’s Spider-Ham is weird).
The plot revolves around Kingpin’s desire to reunite with the wife and son that he scared away to their accidental deaths. He believes that, with the help of Doctor Octopus’s supercollider, that he can open up enough alternate dimensions to find one where his family survived the car accident that killed them in his. Spider-Man attempts to stop him, but ends up getting killed; before he dies, young Miles Morales finds Spider-Man, and Spider-Man realizes he isn’t alone in New York City. Miles has been bitten too and is slowly coming to understand that he is powered, although differently than Spider-Man himself. But with Spider-Man gone, Miles is left to adopt the mantle as the city’s new savior. He is joined by other versions of the character, each pulled through the wormholes created by Kingpin’s and Octopus’s supercollider. The wormholes are unstable though and threaten the city; Miles is left to learn from the other versions of the character while figuring out a way to stop Kingpin and Octopus. That learning includes enduring his own version of the character’s origin story and a series of lessons about both his incredible abilities and his very real limitations.
If all of that sounds like comic book fluff, so be it, especially because, had the movie been left in the wrong hands, it almost certainly would be the sort of inscrutable storytelling that cannot substantively connect with audiences. But in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, the storytelling matters because the characters themselves are made to matter. Morales is a fifteen-year-old kid who is trying to understand who he is. Morales’s father wants the best for his son, even though pursuing it is pushing him away. Kingpin is a heartbroken man whose brutality cannot fix his situation. And the other versions of Spider-Man are similarly troubled; they can save the city and they can save the city and they can save the city, but they cannot translate those heroics into the sort of happiness they are longing for. This is particularly true of Jake Johnson’s alternate universe Spider-Man, a hero genuinely heartbroken by his own failed attempts to make a life with his version of Mary Jane Parker.
It has frequently been the case that superhero movies have lacked the sort of characterization that made their troubles worth caring about. It happens – X-Men‘s Magneto sought to prevent a being the victim of a second Holocaust; Jessica Jones was tormented by the man who made her a murderer; The Dark Knight‘s Joker wanted to watch the world burn – but it is a rare achievement. Superhero movies more often offer us collections of characters that we are told to care about without being given a reason to. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse avoids this calamity while managing to make at least three of its characters genuinely worth caring about; the end result is a movie that resonates in a way that most of its ilk do not.
And that is why, by every measure, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse a towering achievement within the genre.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is the kind of movie that my children can happily enjoy without reflecting on the movie’s underlying cultural statement, but rest assured that it is in there. The movie features seven versions of Spider-Man: Miles Morales’s, Peter Parker’s, Alternate Universe Peter Parker’s, Peter Parker’s Spider-Man Noir, Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman, Peni Parker’s SP//dr, and Peter Porker’s Spider-Ham.* Only two of them are traditional in the sense that they mirror the versions we have traditionally seen on the big screen. The rest of them are diverse and different and interesting, most notably Miles Morales. There is no escaping the fact that he is every bit the teenager that Peter Parker has always been, but he is also his own (young) man: different haircut, different language, different cultural touchstones, different abilities. Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman appears to be the strongest of the bunch, making far greater progress in a fight with Doctor Octopus than do any of her male counterparts. And speaking of Doc Ock, Otto Octavious is now Olivia Octavious, still every bit the mad scientist with super-strong biomechanical arms, but now a woman instead of a man.
Here are two quick things about this phenomenon:
The first is that most people seem to genuinely enjoy this movie.
The second is that it is not entirely difficult to imagine some corners of the internet going absolutely ballistic about all of this. If people lose their minds about the possibility of Idris Elba playing James Bond, it is entirely guaranteed that some absolute dorkuses are currently grinding their teeth into sugar at…a Hispanic Spider-Man…a Woman Doc Ock…Sad Peter Parker With A Gut?!?!? This outrage is performative, absurdist bullshit, and should be ignored as the childish whining of selfish, entitled brats. If they genuinely believe that modern interpretations of classic characters are characters that are not worth enjoying, let them sit at home and cry into their collectible figurines.
The rest of us can very happily enjoy ourselves.
*There is an eighth and a ninth version that appear in an amusing post-credits sequence, but they are unrelated to the broader story.