The first thing you’ll notice about the new “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is how much of everything they jammed in. The soundtrack is extra as hell, full of trap tracks by the likes of Lil Wayne and Blackway & Black Caviar. The Spideys are rampant: You’re going to get a solid half-dozen; a hard count might qualify as a spoiler. Visually, the movie is somewhere between Renaissance fresco and kaleidoscopic acid trip. It’s not a Marvel movie per se — merely “in association with” Marvel, because Sony shares the rights to Spidey — and it operates independently of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which, of course, now lives in Disney’s portfolio. None of that really matters except to say this is why “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” rests so far outside of anything you’ve seen in the history of superhero flicks or animated movies.
After the first official trailer dropped last summer, Bob Persichetti, one of the three (!) directors on the movie (along with Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), told the Verge: “We looked at how comic books are made, going all the way back to silk-screening and printing-press ideas. … [Y]ou can do it on a super-small scale, but how do you make a whole movie look like that?”
The answer apparently is, in part, algorithms. Pretty vague, sure — it’s a bit like Michelangelo saying he merely removed all the marble that wasn’t part of his final vision. An army of coders and visual effects artists working furiously on new graphics engines has replaced “divine inspiration” as the most assured way to bang out a visual masterpiece. The collision of styles, including street art and anime and pulpy comics and psychedelic fractals, puts this in a rare category of cinematic leaps forward alongside the likes of “Mary Poppins” and “The Matrix.” It makes Pixar films seem staid billion-dollar baby stuff. The whole thing arrives as a lived hallucination; it’s the cinematic version of the “mind-blown” emoji.
The maximalist display dovetails with a maximalist plot. It’s Spider-Man’s New York; he’s a star and has been for years. In Brooklyn, a gangly teenager named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is making the transition to a fancy prep school away from his doting parents, a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Latina nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles is an earnest kid with an artist’s touch, leaving sticker tags around the neighborhood and knocking out a full-blown mural in an abandoned subway chamber with the help of his mischievous uncle (Mahershala Ali). There, he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, and by chance finds his way to a vast underground supercollider where Spider-Man is fighting off a plot by the bank-vault-door-shaped Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to mash up a bunch of different dimensions. In the course of said fight, Green Goblin dunks Spider-Man into the supercollider’s beam, and somehow peels a bunch of different Spideys from different dimensions (slash, different comics) into the present.
Chiefly, it brings in alternate-dimension Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a paunchy, older version of the famous superhero alter-ego — Spidey as a superhero who doesn’t stay fit or try all that hard, because he knows everything will shake out just fine in the end. He puts Miles under his uninterested wing, while also trying to get himself and the other Spideys back home, and to thwart the Kingpin, who does a bit of actual killing in this movie, to say nothing of perhaps destroying Brooklyn with his sci-fi shenanigans. Along the way, too, there are heaps of jokes. One-liners, wisecracks, throwaway visual gags, you name it. Scarcely a minute passes without something to laugh at, something to make your eyes bug.
Phil Lord shares a writing credit on the film; he and Christopher Miller have become perhaps the most formidable pair in animated films: Their “Lego Movie” was funny and visually groundbreaking in ways that simply do not come along more than once a year or so, if that. “Spider-Verse” succeeded in breathing new life into a property that had been constantly sequel-ized and rebooted until every subsequent run-through (with the exception of 2017’s “Homecoming”) started to feel like reheated leftovers. Now the algorithms have given us something else entirely, something that leads us into uncharted alternate dimensions.