The problem with the relentless rebooting of the Spider-Man franchise in the 21st century has been the broader problem with Hollywood over the past thirty years: both work from the assumption that what audiences really want is the exact same thing - or a more expensive version of the same thing - over and over again. (In this case: the radioactive arachnid, the dead uncle, the first kiss, the great power, the attendant responsibility, and then bigger and less involving sequels.) The fix the new animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse arrives at is to open up - via a swing for string theory (sling theory?) - a wormhole through which we gain glimpses of multiple, different Spider-folk: a black Spider-Man, a washed-up Peter Parker, a Spider-Girl, an anime spin-off, a porcine Parker, plus bizarro-world versions of the villains that have sustained the franchise on the page and in the movies, as well as riffs on the series' most overworked lines and tropes. When Miles Morales, our African-American Spidey, starts the popular phrase that begins "With great power...", he's almost immediately interrupted by the pot-bellied, middle-aged Parker (New Girl's Jake Johnson, whose burnt-out timbre positions this as the year's great piece of voice casting): "Don't you dare finish that sentence. I'm sick of it." We're ported back into that dimension where American movies still possessed a degree of self-awareness.
Three novice directors - Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman - are credited, but the individuals to thank for this welcome turn would seem to be producers Phil Lord (who co-wrote) and Christopher Miller, continuing their mission to make pop culture properly fun again. Spider-Verse would presumably a consolation gig after the duo were replaced on May's Solo: A Star Wars Story for having too many original ideas; the new film may yet wind up receiving more plaudits (from fanboys in particular) than that vaguely compromised product. Lord/Miller movies typically flaunt a wacko artistry that distinguish them from everything else around: think the foodstuffs tumbling from the sky in the pair's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, or the endlessly reconfiguring bricks in The Lego Movie. Spider-Verse offers us many Spider-Men, in many styles: digimation and hand-drawn animation, angular anime forms and Western photorealism, in 2D landscapes that have the dynamism of 3D. Far from spitballing - one specifically lovely touch: the rhyme the film makes between webs and nebulae - the approach shows up just how deeply the live-action movies got stuck in their ruts. The introduction of Spider-Man Noir, a monochrome arachnid-avatar growled by Nicolas Cage, pulls us in Frank Miller's direction; that stubby, snout-nosed Peter Porker, better known as Spider-Ham, beams in from the world of Chuck Jones. (Purists shouldn't whine too loudly: the dominant influence remains Stan Lee, seen in a brief cameo and eulogised amid the closing credits.)
This toing-and-froing, mixing-and-matching undercuts the rigid self-seriousness that has dogged comic-book movies since Christopher Nolan got involved. When Miles Morales steps out onto a high roof to first test his powers, he looks down off the ledge, the city gapes before him, the score swells... and there's a cut to the jittery lad beating an understandable retreat downstairs. (A midfilm montage is cut to John Parr's "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)".) Perhaps Lord and Miller are just having their Spidey-cake and eating it. The film's commercial success is such that all these characters will now presumably swing forward into their own franchises; when Spidey Noir hears Miles' woes and growls "That's a strong origin story", it's a joke, but we're getting an origin story all the same. And the third act is less distinctive than what's gone before, assembling its various avengers to smash something up - in this instance, not a cityscape, rather the particle collider responsible for getting everybody into this mess. Yet Lord doesn't waste any more time than is necessary: he's always looking for ways to swing ahead or cut to a punchline, finding pleasing pay-offs for every last one of his Spider-People. Franchises, like people, tend to reduce their audience over time to that core faithful who still give a damn about their niche concerns, be that horcruxes or infinity stones. Spider-Verse, by contrast, expands its web, opening up many more possibilities, visual and narrative, than any of those reboots allowed for. There, as elsewhere, comic-book cinema came to seem like a monoculture, stifling the life out of the movies and us by going through the same motions time and again. Not so in the Spider-Verse, where every bustling frame really does look to contain multitudes.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is now playing in cinemas nationwide.