Arguably, the best superhero movies of 2018 have been animated – and that’s not even including Incredibles 2. DC’s Teen Titans Go! to the Movies and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are even more steeped in comics minutiae than the most easter-egg-studded live action superhero film, but instead of that pixel overload which renders vast swathes of a good film like Black Panther indistinguishable from a bad film like Aquaman we get strong story-telling and a visual invention that suggests comic book art escaping from the page and cutting loose in three dimensions (though not necessarily in 3D).
As teased in the post-credits sting of Venom, this takes place in an alternative universe to any other iteration of Marvel’s franchises – longtime readers will be familiar with ‘What If …?’ but also the Ultimate Spider-Man – where a blond, twenty-five-year-old Peter Parker (Chris Pine) dies in battle with monumental gang boss the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) just after fifteen-year-old black/hispanic smart kid Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has been bitten by one of those radioactive spiders and developed his own version of the familiar super-powers … augmented by a few new tricks like protective invisibility. Since Kingpin is using a vast supercollider invented by a female Dr Octopus (Kathryn Hahn) to reach into alternate realities so he can retrieve versions of the wife and child who died after fleeing him when they found out what a monster he was, this plane of reality is suffering as many glitches as young Miles – who is eventually joined by a deadbeat Parker (Jake Johnson) from another reality, teen girl Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), a cyberpunk anime girl-and-mecha team headed by Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), the black and white private eye Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) and talking animal Peter Porker aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).
This gives most shrift to Morales, whose tenure as an alternate and sometimes singular Spider-Man in the comics is well-established but gets to do a fresh take on the oft-told legendary origin story with a slightly different family dynamic – an overachiever with mixed feelings about leaving his neighbourhood for a residential school for smart folks, Miles has an embarrassing but believably affectionate straight arrow cop Dad (Brian Tyree Henry) but confides in his more daring uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) … who, in a development that was teased in a deleted scene from Spider-Man Homecoming, is also a super-crook called the Prowler who is on Kingpin’s team along with Tombstone, Doc Ock, the Scorpion and enough minor bads to make this a legit Sinister Six movie … and we all know what happens to Spider-Uncles in origin stories. All this would probably be enough for a film, but tossing all the alternates into the mix overloads it with sheer joy. I’m sure a Miles Morales sequel has been greenlit already, but I came out of the film wanting to see whole Spider-Gwen, Spider-Noir, SP//dr and even Spider-Ham movies, because we only get vivid slices of their multiversal adventures, with a last-minute teaser for Miguel O’Hara (Spider-Man 2099) and the 1960s limited animation Spidey (the one with the theme song).
The plot has a lot of heft, even as it defaults to a mcguffin (‘a goober’) being stuck into a flash-drive port to save the day … because writer Phil Lord, pulling a lot of material together, has given everyone (even Spider-Ham) some emotional weight, with a villain plan that’s more relatable than the usual take-over-the-world nonsense as Kingpin deals with a hero-type problem (the loss of loved ones) in a villain-type manner (essentially abducting replacements). Given that this a hyperactive cartoon packed with more gags than the panels of a Mort Drucker MAD Magazine movie parody, this still repeatedly connects emotionally … as divorced slob Parker is drawn to a younger, widowed version of his wife MJ (Zoe Kravitz) but holds back for fear of wrecking the multiverse … and Miles goes the power-responsibility route in an interesting way, learning to accept the slightly overbearing love of his proud cop father and reframe his hero worship of rebel graffiti artist uncle when he sees how far Aaron has fallen. The design is dazzling, and the world is realised in such detail that the film will reward multiple rewatches. Yes, there’s a Stan Lee cameo – I’d guess we have plenty more of those in the can – and Aunt May is played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Lily Tomlin. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman.