Like most superhero origin stories, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse suffers from some third-act problems. It doesn’t just have a lengthy final fight scene between new Spider-Man (voiced by Shameik Moore) and Kingpin (Liev Schreiber in maybe the film’s only pointless voice casting), it’s got some inherently reduced stakes being an animated movie with a PG rating (i.e., it’s doubtful Moore’s going to die), but also no particular animus between Moore and Schreiber. The film starts with Schreiber disposing of the original Spider-Man (Chris Pine) while Moore watches. Pine isn’t in it long enough to make an impact, but he also isn’t in it so much he’s clearly not making an impact like Schreiber. Pine’s Peter Parker Spider-Man, Moore’s Miles Morales Spider-Man.
But Moore’s just met Pine, and while they do have a quick banter about Pine training Moore, they don’t have a relationship. Not like Moore and pretty much every other character in the movie, including one who’s got a significant relationship with Schreiber and could have a major third act pay-off… but doesn’t because Schreiber’s unaware of it.
Unlike most superhero origin stories, Spider-Verse can pull out of the tailspin for a nice set of epilogues. It’s a montage setting up Moore as the new Spider-Man, which the movie’s been setting up since a few minutes in, so it saves the day.
Kingpin might just be a bad villain, outside Vincent D’Onofrio anyway. He’s also not the point of the story here. Sure, he’s trying to open a portal to other universes to get back his family, unintentionally ripping the fabric of the multiverse and letting various Spider-People in from alternate dimensions, only for Moore’s universe to reject their cells and slowly destroy them. So while Schreiber’s responsible for the stakes, he’s really got nothing to do with them.
Enough complaining, however, because Spider-Verse is otherwise a joyful, heartbreaking trip through the Spider-Man mythos. Yes, there’s Moore’s journey to taking up the mantle, but there’s also a bunch of other Spider-People who all inform the mythos one way or another. Principally, there’s Jake Johnson as a forty-something loser version of Spider-Man; he’s like the Pine variant gone wrong, which made me assume he did the voice for the first Peter Parker Spider-Man too. Pine’s seriously not in it enough for it to matter. Johnson reluctantly becomes Moore’s mentor and has the best character arc of the Spider-People.
Mainly because no one else has any stakes other than surviving the movie. Johnson’s learned to love the web again thanks to his adventures with Moore. Plus, Johnson’s from a universe where he’s lost people, and they’re still around in this one.
Then there’s Hailee Steinfeld’s Spider-Woman (or Spider-Gwen). She’s the “What If the Spider Bit Gwen Stacy and Not Peter Parker” issue. Steinfeld’s delightful, probably the second-best performance in the film—Moore’s far and away the best—she just doesn’t have any conflict. The film presents short origin stories for all the Spider-People, starting with Pine’s Spider-Man, and Steinfeld’s gives her some gravitas just nowhere to use it. She’s trapped in another universe, nothing else.
Ditto Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir, who’s a gag turned into an exemplary supporting cast member—he gets played for laughs the entire time—Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker (she’s from a manga future), and then John Mulaney’s Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham. He’s from a cartoon universe. Except it’s an animated movie where the very fabric of reality is tearing so it’s frequently cartoony even when Mulaney’s not around. Glenn’s sympathetic, Mulaney’s fine, Cage’s fun. But the best of the Spider-Friends outside the central trio (who don’t get to be the central trio for long enough) is Lily Tomlin’s Aunt May. She’s the tech brains behind Spider-Man, and it’s a wonderful turn.
So all those Spider-People need to get home and stop Schreiber from destroying this universe while Moore’s also dealing with family issues. Dad Brian Tyree Henry is pressuring Moore to go to an elite private school, where Moore’s class and race set him apart from the rest of the students. He just wishes he could stay in Brooklyn and hang out with his uncle, played by Mahershala Ali. Mom Luna Lauren Velez is in the movie so little you’d think Christopher Nolan wrote it.
Henry makes it known right off he doesn’t like web-slinging vigilantes, making him the wrong person for Moore to consult about his new spider-powers. Worse, Ali’s got a complicated relationship with Spider-Man, too, cutting Moore off from his family.
The movie tries to play up the family angle at the end, but it doesn’t work. It’s another third act stumble to recover from, and it does.
Great direction and animation—it almost always emphasizes the emotionality of the situations the characters find themselves in, finding the sadness at the core of the Spider-Man character and relating it not just between inter-dimensional Spider-People, but also to the core of regular people. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, deliberate exploration of the character through variants of that character. Like, very cool work from writers Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. They discover something exceptional in Spider-Verse.
The direction and animation are also crucial. Particularly for the pacing. Spider-Verse gets to speed up and slow down using devices not just from film and animation but also incorporating comic book techniques. The comic book style stuff works out great, which is another reason the busy, neat, action-packed, and dramatic finale still comes up short. It doesn’t fulfill the creative ambitions in the rest of the picture.
Excellent music from Daniel Pemberton and then the soundtrack selections as well. And not just because they use the St. Elmo’s Fire song for some reason; it’s kind of awesome when they do.
Spider-Verse is so one of a kind and wonderful, I’ve forgotten to mention Kathryn Hahn until this point. She’s the scientist who’s trying to unlock the multiverse and turns out to be more tied to the Spider-People than it first appears. She goes from being Schreiber’a seemingly unwitting flunky to being the best villain in the movie. It’s not a particularly high bar, of course, but there’s an excellent surprise runner-up to her before it’s all the way down the hill to Schreiber.
Tombstone shows up for a bit, which is cool, but he’s background more than an actual villain.
Spider-Verse is a fantastic motion picture. Moore, Stenfield, and—to a lesser extent—Johnson create some very special characters. Well, along with the animation team, who do phenomenal work on the performances. The voice acting’s great, but the animators make sure the visuals are equal in caliber. Maybe another reason Schreiber’s Kingpin is so wanting, they don’t give him anywhere near the expressiveness of the rest of the characters.
It’s great. Especially since they’re able to save the end… though the end credits tag is utterly skippable. It’s technically and culturally amusing but too slight after the main action.