With one bound we were free again. Arriving late in the year with less hoopla than its live-action predecessors, this animated Spider-Man extravaganza (though “animated” hardly covers the techniques on display) is easily the best Marvel film of 2018. The candy-charged flash manages to accommodate soul and sincerity. The film’s embrace of diversity stretches beyond the social to the sub-atomic and the quantum mechanical (no, really). The structural innovation helps confirm – despite welcome advances in representation – how conservative Black Panther really was: made to a formula, crammed into a wider soap opera. Into the Spider-Verse deserves to conquer planets.
For some years, mainstream comics publishers have devised "alternative continuities" to allow fresh variations on their established characters. Co-produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – the pair notoriously ejected from Solo: A Star Wars Story – Spider-Verse adapts one of the most influential while commenting on the phenomenon as a whole.
Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is a smart kid growing up in an ordinary corner of Brooklyn as the son of an African-American cop and a Puerto Rican nurse. In the opening scenes, he is coping indifferently with his dispatch to a boarding school in Manhattan for gifted children. He’s a nervous kid, but mostly well behaved. His parents, nonetheless, worry that his dissolute Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), a graffiti artist with commitment issues, may lead him dangerously astray. Before that happens… Well, if you hadn’t already mouthed the words “radioactive spider” then this film really will prove an unexpected revelation.
The Spider-Man we already know (pretty much) exists in this universe, but, early on, he is tidied away to allow Miles some space. Then a dozen rivals step in to overcrowd that gap with more demi-Spider-Men than the toilets at an average Comic-Con. It's not worth disentangling the megaton MacGuffins, but suffice to say the Kingpin has done something to widen cracks between alternative universes. Soon, a mildly overweight, older Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) turns up to offer the newest addition cautionary advice. We meet the Japanese-American Peni Parker. Nic Cage gets to voice the monochrome, hatted, self-explanatory Spider-Noir. Hailee Steinfeld crackles as the version of Gwen Stacy who doubles as Spider-Gwen.
Here's a funny thing. For all the intertextual games and self-diminishing gags – remember that Lord and Miller created The Lego Movie – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels closer to the comic's early 1970s high period than any previous adaptations do. The flash-bang credit sequence ends with the Comics Code logo that then decorated all Marvel editions and leads onwards into a world characterised by bold primary colours and dotted backgrounds. Some of the picture looks hand-drawn. Other sections are as clean as any contemporary digital epics. Upping the post-modern ante, the team create occasional shudders that suggest a 3-D image viewed without the appropriate glasses.
Playing one visual flourish against another, the directors settle on an impressively coherent visual lexicon that allows the story to flow with great fluidity. Despite all the messing around with Spider-This and Spider-That, Miles's everyday humanity remains at the core of the entertainment. There's a warm Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) to compare favourably with all the others. And there's a proper engagement with New York City that even the Sam Raimi films couldn't manage: the dust of the subway, the unnatural sheen of upper Manhattan, the convincing bustle of a diverse hub.
One might reasonably worry where all this will lead. Into the Spider-Verse should be celebrated for making the origin story fresh again, but such origins invariably point towards decades of sequels. The current film works so hard it risks exhausting all its creative seams. We should enjoy what we have now. Superhero films almost never blend this much charm with this much invention. Opens December 14th