“You don’t feel as real if you don’t see yourself reflected in the media.” — the late African-American comics and cartoon creator Dwayne McDuffie
Back in February, I put that quote at the beginning of my review of “Black Panther.” (And yes, as someone pointed out on Twitter, 2018 has been so long and exhausting that it is easy to forget that “Black Panther” came out THIS YEAR.)
I put it there because I thought “Black Panther” would be the superhero movie that best embodied contemporary concerns about representation in the genre that dominates blockbusters these days.
I was wrong.
Indeed, from its dazzlingly trippy animation to its full embrace of comic book visuals, from its taking-as-a-given that superheroes should look like all of us (including talking pigs) and its unapologetic hip-hop vibe, “Spider-Verse” isn’t just one of the year’s best family movies — it is the canniest, hippest and simply the best comic book movie made to date.
Produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman and written by Lord and Rothman (“22 Jump Street”), “Spider-Verse” is a $90 million rejoinder to the notion (which has taken root in some of the Internet’s more unsavory corners) that superhero fiction, once near-lily-white, shouldn’t include characters that look like all of America.
It’s a two-hour punch to the face of white supremacy and yet never feels preachy, even as it mines a self-awareness of superhero tropes for some stellar jokes.
Miles Morales (a character who has been floating around various Marvel Comics since 2011, voiced here by Shameik Moore) is the son of an African-American police officer (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Latino nurse (Luna Lauren Velez).
Miles attends a private school at his parents' insistence even though he thinks it is elitist, he loves tagging buildings with stickers and he really looks up to his somewhat shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali).
Miles is also a fan of Spider-Man, a seemingly omnicompetent superhero about whom Miles’ father is not wild.
One evening, sympathetic to his nephew’s need to express himself, Aaron takes Miles to an underground wall ripe for tagging, where Miles promptly gets bitten by a very weird looking spider.
In short order, it becomes clear that a) Miles has spider-powers slightly different than those of the other wall-crawler, b) he doesn't know how to use them and c) the hulking Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) has opened a portal to other dimensions, revealing a multiverse of Spider-Beings.
These include a noirish pulp hero Spider-Man (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker and her Spider-robot from the future (Kimiko Glenn), Gwen Stacy aka Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) and Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham (John Mulaney, sounding like he’s doing a Nathan Lane impression).
The portal also imports an over-the-hill Spider-Man (“New Girl” star Jake Johnson), loosely based on the Tobey Maguire version. This Spider-Man embodies middle-aged mediocrity — he wears sweatpants, his marriage is over and he seems to have given up on life.
But he is willing to train Miles, even as a monstrous Green Goblin, the Kingpin and a few deep-cut Spider villains have made it clear the spiders need to work together if the baddies are to be defeated, even as superhero tropes are explored, exploited or exploded from moment to gorgeously kinetic moment.
While the computer animation looked a little janky in ads and trailers, “Spider-Verse” dazzles on the big screen. Rendered in a ground-breaking mix of pop art blasts, semi-realism, digital distortion, slow motion, captions and word balloons, “Spider-Verse” recalls the work of comics artists Sara Pichelli (who worked on the Miles Morales comics) and especially Kyle Baker.
Both film and comics are mediums that control time — “Spider-Verse” exploits their similarities and differences brilliantly and the hip-hop score, both vintage and contemporary, thrills from the first beat.
As another wise, African-American comic book writer named Christopher Priest once said, Spider-Man is the Hero That Could be You. He is the guy with human-sized problems (girls, money, family) who fights injustice because it is the right thing to do. Spider-Man is an everyman and this wildly enjoyable, incredibly smartly rendered movie takes this to a logical and oddly moving extreme. “Anyone can wear the mask,” it says. “YOU can wear the mask.”
As McDuffie noted above, inclusion without tokenism is an incredibly powerful thing. It makes “Spider-Verse,” like its titular character, amazing, spectacular and sensational.