Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now. ‘Cause I’m Spider-Man, and I’m not the only one–not by a long shot.-Miles Morales
So closes the 91st Academy Awards Best Animated Feature Film winning picture. Because of that ending, I’m having a difficult time modulating my tone to properly assess Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse beyond its thematic content. But therein lies the problem. When assessing art, it is impossible to separate the technical execution from the theme because the purpose of the technical aspects is to execute the theme.
Here’s my attempt. This version of the Spider-Man origin movie focuses on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a version of the character that was created in 2011. After being bit by a radioactive spider, he witnesses the death of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Chris Pine) shortly after Parker promises to mentor him. This moment is his call to action. He must, as in all the versions of the story before him, overcome his self-doubt to accept that he is capable of being our friendly neighborhood hero.
The twist here is that Miles encounters the embodiments of all those other versions of the origin story. You see, Parker died trying to stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from destroying the multi-verse, an effort that was collapsing all the parallel universes in existence into one. Thanks to Parker, the full collapse was postponed, but there was some bleed between the universes. For instance, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) has found himself stuck in Miles’s New York City.
Suddenly, Miles has a slightly different version of his Spider-Man mentor and other slightly different Spider-Men (and women) as allies. The concept, as well as the trope of repeating their slightly different origin stories, leads to some creative humor and unique moments. Likewise, the animation style stands out from other modern animated movies. It often feels like playing a video game (most notably Telltale’s The Walking Dead series), complete with the sometimes-too-frenetic cuts that are disorienting yet somehow work.
The point here is that Miles himself is disoriented because, well, that’s what happens when you gain superpowers and then almost immediately have to save the multiverse. On this level, the movie succeeds at making you identify with and understand Miles because he is just like you (even though he is also just like all the other Spider-People). The problem is, on another level, the movie fails because he is just like you.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse reduces being a superhero to attaining superpowers. By using the multi-verse concept to show a wide array of Spider-People whose only emphasized similarity is a radioactive spider, the movie is saying Spider-Man is a set of powers, not what the person chooses to do with those powers. Instead of making a story about anyone being able to choose to do good by showing the different ways each hero overcame the temptation to not use or use his or her powers for evil, the movie shows a slightly different origin story over and over again.
At best, it’s juvenile pontification masquerading as intelligent reflection on superheroism. At worst, it’s pandering to the infantile emotionalism of an increasingly narcissistic culture. Either way, it’s a toe-dip into a narrative pool that has been dived into much deeper by many other storytellers. Save yourself the time and go watch Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Parallels,” an episode that did more in 45 minutes than this movie did in 117 minutes, instead.