Previously reviewed at the Film Experience

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a joyful, celebratory movie. I cannot name another superhero movie in the 40 years since Superman invented the modern version of the genre that has so perfectly captured the free-floating, whiz-bang, everything-is-possible delight of comic books. This is the movie version of a child tying a towel around their neck and running around the yard with their arms outstretched - a movie that includes, near its end (so, wee tiny spoilers, but nothing that I think will actually ruin anybody's appreciation of the film), the main character stating, in voice-over, "You can wear the mask. Anyone can wear the mask." And this means a lot of things, the most salient of them being that the character speaking, superpowered teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is the first Afro-Latino protagonist of a comic book movie, having already been the first Afro-Latino protagonist of a comic book, and the "you" is obviously directed at little children of all genders, races, ethnicities, etc. and so forth, who have not been shown too many examples of people with their same identity markers as leads in popcorn movies. What is lovely about this is how much the movie earns this moment. I am inclined to be pissy about the calculated inclusivity messaging of children's movies, because, it so often comes from such a profoundly insincere and cynical place, driven more by a transparent desire to be seen doing good than a real desire to do good.* And hell, maybe that's at play here, too. Sony is not a charity - it's not even very nice by the standards of multinational corporations. But that moment socked me but good. Anyone can wear the mask, the film says, and by God I think the film means it, and just like that we're back running around in the backyard with a towel and a feeling of pure, weightless bliss.

A whole lot of bliss going on in this movie. Bliss and pleasure. Having had a good few days to think about it, I'm pretty comfortable calling Into the Spider-Verse the best comic book movie ever made, or at least the most comic-bookish, which is as good as the same thing. And so much of that is how openly it wants to be all kinds of fun for all kinds of people - children, comic book nerds, popcorn movie fans, comedy fans, people writing their dissertations on the technology behind virtual camera movement in CG animated films - and how much it succeeds in attaining the joyful freedom of comics-the-medium at its most gleeful and imaginative and pulpy, unconstrained by the desire to seem grown-up, untroubled by the need to prove itself as Real Lit'rature.

It gets to this in no small part by having just about the god-damnedest aesthetic of any fully-rendered, computer-animated feature film on the books. The very simple and direct way of putting is that it wants to look like a comic book, and it takes this extremely literally. The alternate-universe Brooklyn where the film takes place is depicted as a land of two styles: extremely realistic environments on the one hand, characters who are textured with the halftone dots of four-color comic books on the other (in a wonderful grace note, the parallax of out-of-focus elements is represents by those elements having cyan, magenta, or yellow "auras" - exactly what our world would look like if every tangible object really was printed in CMYK four-color). When Miles thinks, his inner monologue takes the form of text blocks appearing in the world behind him, leading to some delectable visual gags, in which he leaves various panicky thoughts littered around behind him like he's tracking mud or snow. When the plot involves the collapse of several parallel universes onto each other, the characters who enter Miles's world from another dimension are rendered in a different style - one character looks like a perfectly flat cartoon, one has anime-style cell-shading, one has smoother texturing and stronger saturation but otherwise looks fully-rendered. Most of the main characters are animated at a jerky 12 frames per second, evoking television animation of the kind where Spider-Man has spent most of

The less simple and direct way of putting this points out that, while Into the Spider-Verse is thus a celebration of comic book art styles in the form of a big-budget computer-animated feature, it's not actually using style the way a comic book does. It it is an analogue, not a clone. Hell, even the gag about Miles's thought balloons isn't actually a comic gag - it only works because Into the Spider-Verse is a moving picture and so it is able to have fun with precisely the ways that cartoons aren't comic books, even when they dabble in the same visual systems. And in all of this, the film is not merely a fun series of absurd, fourth wall-breaking gags about comics - though it is that, very successfully. It is among other things the most I laughed at any movie in 2018. Anyway, the film is also a very real attempt to do something new with animation, to find new ways of signifying, of depicting, of creating emotions through visuals. Given the extreme aesthetic conservatism of studio animation, I can't even put into words how special and rare this makes the movie; it's the most radical, envelope-pushing use of the medium in the 2010s, and it's not at all a close race.

Pure, audacious, revolutionary style is one of three things that makes Into the Spider-Verse a masterpiece. Another is its phenomenally sharp comic screenwriting, from Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman (the former one of the film's producers as well, the latter one of its directors). It's a genially savage riff on the lazy formula of superhero movies for one thing, introducing each of its alternate universe Spider-Persons with a goofy nod to the fact that Spider-Man's origin story, in particular, has been given all the cinematic attention that it ever could possibly need at this point, but let's do it six more times in 90 minutes, just to be sure. It is genuinely inventive and surprising in some ways, using misdirection where we think we get the formula to make even little tweaks seem surprising and delightful (the film's homage to A-list villain Doctor Octopus is an especially great reveal). It uses almost every mode of humor you can get away with in a family-friendly movie, including parody, absurdity, sarcasm, witty dialogue, and things I don't have a word for offhand (the film gets its biggest laugh, from me anyway, out of having a character say the name "Liv" in an exasperated tone of voice).

The third thing, and the best thing, is Miles himself. I said back at the top that Into the Spider-Verse is great at the exact same kind of calculated diversity push that usually feels pandering and corporatised in animation, and I thnk that's because it's not actually calculated, or at least not only calculated. Everything about the film starts from a sincere desire to figure out who this character is and how he inhabits the world, and the rest of it is all downstream from that. Miles is, himself, a boy without identity: born and raised in a poor part of Brooklyn, but spending his time in an elite boarding school that looks like the living embodiment of gentrification; he's the son of a cop (Brian Tyree Henry) who is besotted with respectability politics and the nephew of good old Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who encourages him to be a graffiti artist and an interesting outsider to mainstream sensibility. The film is all about Miles's attempt to find whatever feels right and true to himself in all of this tug-of-war, in whatever little ways he can; there's a running gag about how he leaves his shoes untied which implicitly is one microscopic thing he does to make a stand, to do a thing for himself and not for the bourgeois shoe-tying majoritarian culture.

That the film is so much about finding and celebrating one's own identity is exactly why it manages to sidestep the seemingly largest problem this material was going to face: how to introduce Miles Morales in the midst of the jargony, sci-fi gobbledygook of the Spider-Verse. The other Spider-Beings who come along to save the day - Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), the reverse-image of the standard Spider-Man; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a deliriously hammy dispensary of hard-boiled aphorisms; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glen), a cheery mecha-riding girl from the future; Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a weirdo parody from the ludicrous decadence of Bronze Age comics; and a worn-out, potbellied sack of a man, Peter Parker himself (Jake Johnson), the "actual" Spider-Man as a self-hating loser - aren't just a bunch of in-jokes. And they're not, as I feared, a distraction from Miles himself. They are, rather, models and guides, the sources of wisdom that show Miles how one might go about becoming his own version of Spider-Man - not as an amalgam of their various tics, but as a new expression of himself that's as much distant from the other characters as they are from each other.

And it's this - becoming a superhero as a celebration of the peculiarities and particularities of one's own specific identity, interests, strengths, and fears - that makes Into the Spider-Verse truly shine. The film's most thrilling moments are all about Miles figuring shit out and going out into the world with confidence; the quintessential superhero action, flying through the air, is both visually splendid here, but also the more exciting because it feels like Miles had to fight tooth and nail to be able to bring us to that moment of splendor. It's an incredible game the film plays, using all of the genre's most superficially pleasurable forms of spectacle as milestones in checking the evolution of a character. It is exactly this kind of thing that's the reason comic book movies should even be a thing.

To be fair and mention the problems, this all involves the usual world-ending macguffin with the typical superhero "floating in space, punching shit" climax. It helps that the climax is absurdly beautiful, with the doomsday machine erupting in sharp neon lines that feel more like graphic design than physics. It helps even more that the film has given such an exhilarating, concise character arc prior to this. This is a rich movie: layered and complicated enough to work as a sophisticated story, simple and elemental enough in its emotional appeals to capture something of the primitive delight of comics as a strictly for-kids affair. 16 years and four Spider-Mans ago, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man proved that you could capture the essence of that sort of thing in an utterly beguiling movie; it feels great that broadly the same character has finally proven that you can make an honest-to-God pop art cinematic masterpiece.

*The Walt Disney Company, in particular, is absolutely shameless about this.