Reviewed in the United States on December 16, 2018
For as much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed and defined the way superhero films are made in the last decade, it can be easy to forget that there WAS a time (back in the early 2000s) where superhero films were made by separate studios, and the concept of a shared universe was unheard of. One of the first movies to kick off the new renaissance of superhero films was Sam Rami's Spider-Man---a trilogy that I grew up with and still holds a special place in my heart. I say all of this because this new animated outing seems to have come full circle, and almost 20 years later, we finally have another self-contained Spider-Man movie that isn't connected to the MCU. Not only that, but it has the ambition to bring together a literal multi-verse of various Spider-Man incarnations, and does so seamlessly in a film that honors all the best qualities of the web-slinger that came before.
Miles Morales, an artistic, half African American/half Puerto-Rican teenager living in Brooklyn, is a huge fan of Spider-Man. Between trying to live up to the expectations of his parents, and struggling to fit in at his new boarding school, his life is turned even more upside down when he's bitten by a genetically modified spider, and gains spider-like powers. Soon after, he stumbles across a secret laboratory and their science experiments being run by the Kingpin of crime, Wilson Fisk. Their plan? To use a particle accelerator to access alternate realities. Spider-Man arrives to deactivate the machine, but in the ensuing battle, the accelerator malfunctions, and Spider-Man is tragically killed. Inspired by the hero's sacrifice, Miles begins to try and become a costumed crime fighter himself.....and soon runs into a very much alive Spider-Man. But not the one that died. Turns out, when the accelerator malfunctioned, it opened up doorways to other realities, and now multiple versions of Spider-Man are running around in Miles' universe. Now, with the help of a whole team of spider-powered-people, Miles will have to stop the Kingpin, put everyone back in their proper dimensions, and shut down the accelerator before the very fabric of reality is destroyed....and in the process, he'll learn what it truly means to not just be a superhero, but to be Spider-Man.
From the summary above, this may sound like a lot to take in, but amazingly, every character and plot point is juggled fairly well. Each spider-person is given enough screen time and handled in such a way that you're easily able to understand their personalities and backstories in just a few short expositions. This is perfect for an audience who may be unfamiliar with these alternate takes on the wall crawler. (I myself knew most of them, or had at least heard of them, but am now interested to check out their respective books.) And each one of them is drawn in a slightly different style that reflects the universe they came from. The animation is nothing short of incredible, with eye-popping colors, and a style that blurs the lines between traditional, stop-motion, and CGI----a type of art mixture I've never seen utilized before that perfectly evokes the feeling of reading a comic book (right down to panels, thought balloons, and sound effects appearing on screen).
Each of the spider-heroes are their own unique person, though each one contains a reflection of Peter Parker's heroic personality. Spider-Ham, Spider-Man Noir, and Peni Parker (from an animal, 1930's black and white, and anime universe respectively) get some of the funniest lines, though get the least amount of screen time in comparison to Spider-Gwen (from a universe where Peter's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, got powers instead). Though Gwen sort of becomes a bit of a love interest for Miles, the romance aspect is heavily downplayed in favor of just telling a good origin story for Miles. The plot moves at a fairly fast clip, but this is mostly due to the viewer being dropped into Miles world---a world that's already lived in with its own backstory and adventures that've already happened. If you're a heavy comic reader, then you'll understand all the references. But if you're not, enough context clues are given that even newbies to the "ultimate" comics universe won't be lost. Although, the Kingpin is probably my only nitpick of the film. I'm so used to seeing him as a Daredevil adversary, it's easy to forget he actually started as Spidey's nemesis. And unless my comic knowledge isn't up to snuff, I don't think he typically deals in such scientific experiments (especially not dimension hopping). He's primarily a street crime boss, and to see him screwing around with alternate realities is a bit jarring to me (though his reasoning for doing so IS within his character). And the Peter of Miles' dimension is arguably the most well adjusted, well liked, and competent version of Spider-Man ever seen (with hilarious nods and references to the Sam Rami films).
Ultimately, the main story belongs to Miles and the alternate Peter Parker; both of whom are forced to go on a journey of self improvement, and help each other in doing so. This Peter is the total opposite of the Spidey that Miles knows. In his world, his life has taken a downward spiral, from losing his job, to his Aunt May, to his marriage with Mary Jane, leading to him having virtually given up being Spider-Man. But when he sees how scared and alone and inexperienced that Miles is at using his newfound powers, Peter reluctantly has to become Miles' teacher. And in doing so, he slowly gains the confidence he needs to reclaim his life and move forward. And through his experiences with the other spider-heroes, Miles learns how to come out of his shell, believe in himself, and decide what kind of person he wants to be.
Part origin story, part sci-fi epic, part homage with easter eggs galore, this is a fun and inspiring adventure that serves as the ultimate love letter to anything and everything Spider-Man related. It's one of the most stylistic and unique films I've ever experienced, and anyone who loves Spidey, superheroes, and comic books owes it to themselves to see this.