There's no reason Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse should work, really. It mucks about with concepts that only deep readers of the comic books will be familiar with. It introduces half a dozen new characters in an incredibly short amount of time. It is brought to life in an odd animation style that serves as an implicit rejection of the super-slick Pixar/Disney ideal that has come to dominate animated films in recent years.
And yet, it's great. Really and truly—surprisingly, even—great. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has more fun with the form and does more to tinker with the visual stylings of the genre than any film in recent memory. It is, almost certainly, the best comic book movie released this year, and the only one that should even be considered for a best picture nomination at the Oscars.
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The first thing you'll notice about Spider-Verse is the look of the movie. It has a tactile quality to it that non-stop-motion-animated features generally lack. The easiest way to describe it is that it looks kind of like a comic book from the 1970s or 1980s brought to life, with slightly overlapping colors and an almost dot-matrix printer quality to the images. This sensibility merges seamlessly with the high-octane action sequences, which are dense with movement and motion and feel alive. The effect is almost pastiche, a mixture of the best computers can do with the best hand-drawn animators can do.
Beyond the look and the feel of the film is the story itself, and writers Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman have put together something of a miracle: a Spider-Man movie that has not one but six origin stories, and manages to retell them all without being boring. Why six? Well, you see, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime (Liev Schreiber), has built a machine to open up an interdimensional rift below the streets of New York City. Into this rift has fallen a whole klatch of characters from the Spider-verse*: Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld); Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson); Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage); Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn); Spider-Ham (John Mulaney); and, of course, the protagonist of this film, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore).
Lord and Rothman play around with the concept, introducing each in a formulaic montage that assumes we have heard their origin story as often as we've heard Uncle Ben's "Great Power, Great Responsibility" speech. The only character we really see develop organically is Morales, a teen in Brooklyn who witnesses the death of his universe's Spider-Man shortly after being imbued with the power of the spider.
Spider-Verse tracks Miles's growth and the pitfalls of being a costumed superhero with a dad on the police force and an uncle beholden to the underworld. That Miles's story is never overwhelmed by the incredibly large amount of information being dumped on us about everyone else in the movie is a testament to Lord and Rothman's ability to juggle about a dozen different characters with skill and grace.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is laugh-out-loud funny, more comfortable messing around with the inherent silliness of a man-spider than a live-action adaptation could ever be. I mean, where else are we going to see a black and white Spider-Man voiced by Nic Cage wearing a fedora and complaining about being unable to tell the colors on a Rubik's Cube?
There's a bottomless pit of adjectives one could use to describe Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Exuberant, boisterous, energetic, etc. All would fit. But the best is probably the simplest: It's fun. Pure, unadulterated fun.
* I checked out of Spider-Man comics long before this concept came into vogue, so please take this explainer with a grain of salt. But, in short: In the Marvel books there is this notion that across the multiverse there is a spirit of the spider that will imbue a special person in each universe with the powers of a spider. This takes many different and weird forms. I think. Do not @ me if I've gotten this wrong, nerds. Point is: lotta Spider-People in this movie.