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Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. Sony Pictures Animation

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse brings the exuberance of comic books to life

Fresh-faced Spider-Man Miles Morales gets one heck of a debut

In 2018, you could barely sling a web without hitting some kind of major Spider-Man thing. This was the year that Venom became bigger than Deadpool. In September, Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4 reminded everyone why he’s one of the only superheroes who can boast a good video game adaptation. This past spring, Tom Holland’s tearful gasp of “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good” instantly entered the memetic lexicon thanks to Avengers: Infinity War.

With this glut of Spider-Content, it could be tempting to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — a movie that technically doesn’t even have a Regular Peter Parker in it — as an extraneous afterthought. But if you did that, you’d be missing out on one of the best action comedies of the year.

Spider-Verse launched itself into the public eye with the slickest of teaser trailers last December, and has not missed an opportunity since to showcase a vibrant art style based on the dynamic graphic elements of Spider-Man comics themselves — or characters based on some of the weirdest parts of the Spider-Man mythos.

And as a story, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse lives up to the hype, offering a classic coming-of-age narrative with a twist that only a comic book universe could provide.

Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. Sony Pictures Animation

Our lead isn’t Peter Parker, but Miles Morales — created in 2011 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli as the Spider-Man of an alternate universe — a Brooklyn teenager just starting class at a new high school for high-achieving students. After being bitten by a strange spider, Miles develops an array of strange abilities, just like the resident savior of his hometown, the superhero known as Spider-Man.

If you’re familiar with Miles’ origin story from the comics, it hopefully won’t be too spoilery to say that Spider-Verse follows it to a T — including that he was inspired to become Spider-Man after the death of his Peter Parker. It’s fertile ground for adaptation, and the movie lands every emotional punch of it. Just when Miles finds himself despairing that he’ll ever be up to Spider-Snuff, he discovers help from an unexpected arena: five different Spider-Persons from five alternate universes.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse brings the most comic booky of concepts — an infinitely expanding web of parallel earths — to a wide audience without faltering. Explaining six separate Spider-Man origin stories in one movie has no right to be as fun, fresh or seamless as Spider-Verse makes it, a feat accomplished through the use of a slick repeating visual motif, specific character writing and great acting.

You instantly love Shameik Moore (The Get Down) as Miles, who shares fantastic chemistry with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and you instantly love Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker — both versions who appear in the film. You will also find it easy to love and understand the rest of the Spider-Cast: Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), who is somehow the funniest of the three.

Peni (Kimiko Glen), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) all turn in shock. Photo: Sony Pictures Animation

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse makes humor and exhilaration the primary emotions associated with being a superhero. It never lets you forget that wittyness is among Peter Parker’s greatest powers, it never misses a chance to have a character walk casually along a wall for the sake of it and when Miles finally learns to swing a web you feel the joy of his accomplishment. Superheroing is stylish in Spider-Verse, an easy thing to forget in the world of even Marvel Studios’ quippy, character-forward cinematic universe.

Starting with Wolverine throwing shade on the very idea of yellow spandex in 2000, modern live-action superheroes have shied away from a celebration of how cool it is to look like a superhero for coolness’ sake. When they don’t, it’s usually because they’re a habitual showboater and/or a jerk in a red suit.

(The nearest exception to this rule is, of course, Pixar’s The Incredibles, another animated production, which explicitly ties superhero style to high fashion. But who wouldn’t, daaahlink?)

Spider-Verse oozes style, which is not hard to do when you’re working with Spider-Man, arguably the most graphically perfect superhero costume created outside of the dawn of the genre — and the instantly iconic costuming offshoots of his amazing friends.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) looks at Spider-Man costumes in glass display cases in Sony Pictures Animation’s SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. Sony Pictures Animation

But that design sense carries on to the rest of the movie. Writer-producer Phil Lord and producer Chris Miller are most famous for the visually dense — overstuffed, even — LEGO films. But while Spider-Verse is colorful, whip-fast and full of visual references to the four-color printing process and comic book sound effects, it never overwhelms.

I cannot wait for fans to be able to sift through its scenes frame by frame, because almost every shot belongs on that one Twitter account. Even the final fight, which takes place inside a spinning fractal dreamscape of parallel New Yorks, only slips into untethered CGI blur for a moment. Every other moment is a feast for the eyes.

The message at the end of Spider-Verse is one that’s central to Miles Morales’ meteoric rise from an alternate-universe Spider-Man to one of Marvel Comics’ biggest main-universe characters. In a genre fascinated by orphans, Miles is a character rooted in family.

When he experiences tragedy, those in his spider-family are there to share their own losses, and as he discovers the joy of being Spider-Man, they’re swinging right beside him. But Spider-Verse isn’t just about Miles learning to be Spider-Man — it’s about him realizing that he already has what it takes. He owes that to his regular old non-superhero family, and to who he was before he got super powers.

That’s almost a metaphor for how Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse fits into the web of 2018 Spider-Media. In a wide field of Spider-Mans to choose from, it is the strength of Miles Morales’ story that makes him a standout character. And Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has plenty of strengths to go around.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse hits theaters on Dec. 14.

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