Three years on, nothing else can touch it.
No one was ready for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. We're not used to superhero movies being masterpieces. We're used to mediocrity.
Superhero movies thrive on mediocrity. I used to complain about superhero fatigue, now I embrace it. Go for your life, Marvel, make your three-star movies a couple of times a year. At least they're not Rise of Skywalker. No, they're just mediocre and that's… good?
Unfortunately for Marvel, every now and then a superhero movie hits cinemas to remind you what magic looks like. To recalibrate your idea of what "good" is. In 2018 that movie was Into the Spider-Verse.
And by god you should watch it.
But watch at your own risk. Seriously. I've spent the last five years mindlessly gorging myself on superhero movies that are as safe as they come. After Into The Spider-Verse, watching it on repeat for literally years now, it's difficult to go back.
Are you ready for a hyperbolic, completely uncritical look at why Into The Spider-Verse is the best superhero movie of the last decade and beyond?
Brilliant. Let's get started.
Probably best to begin with the aesthetics and visual design.
Producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller wanted Into The Spider-Verse to have a unique look from the beginning, which resulted in over 140 animators combining computer animation with a hand-drawn style designed to mimic comic book art.
When I heard about this, I was cynical. Movies that take visual risks or pioneer unique art styles tend to review well by default. "Here's your cookie for trying something different." This is the kind of thing that tends to make movie critics salivate like Pavlov's dogs.
But it's not enough, right? Plenty of animated movies (*cough* Kubo and the Two Strings) have pioneering art styles but are complete snooze fests. That's not the case here.
Into The Spider-Verse has an integrated aesthetic, but what really elevates the movie is how inventive it is, how vibrant it is, with visual storytelling.
I always think about the above scene, when Peter Parker and Miles Morales, the two main "Spider-Men," attempt to escape a villain's lab. They're spotted and every scientist in the building hops up, springs into action immediately. Except one. Who just keeps eating her lunch. She's seen this all before. This is a villain's lair. There's always some superhero trying to mess with their shit. This is just another day at the office. Literally. She just wants to finish her tea break.
It's a split-second, but betrays an insane commitment to detail. A commitment to be inventive, to subvert, to engage with weird ideas and be brave with them. It's a spirit that infects every single frame of this movie.
How about the visual design of Kingpin, who is almost comically oversized, but still emanates an incredibly intimidating aura.
How about the fact that Into The Spider-Verse seamlessly blends characters from different universes (noir, anime, traditional 1930s animation), providing each with its own unique visual flair, but somehow makes everything feel like it belongs in the same movie?
That's ignoring how this movie moves -- at a schizophrenic pace with action sequences that never let up, and never stop surprising you. Like when Miles Morales gets one hand stuck to an unconscious Peter Parker and another stuck to a moving subway train and chaos ensues. Or when an inexperienced Morales has to escape The Prowler by scrambling through abandoned tunnels using powers he's only just acquired. Every sequence leaps off the screen with an intense, dramatically overactive sense of imagination. It feels at once meticulously planned, but spontaneously performed.
It's impossible to take your eyes off the screen.
It's not necessarily the script that elevates Into The Spider-Verse. "Script" is just a catch-all term for the story, which takes a traditional hero's journey and twists it in all sorts of strange directions. It's shorthand for the way it takes the traditional Spider-Man myth (man gets bitten by spider, man watches uncle die, man becomes inspired to grow into his responsibilities) and subverts it while maintaining great respect for the timeless story device it has become.
It even comments on itself as an origin story, in a meta sense, without becoming overbearing or robbing its audience of living in the moment of Miles Morales' journey toward becoming Spider-Man.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse juggles all these internal responsibilities (to be cool, to be funny, to not take itself seriously, to have heart, to be sincere but smart, to be sentimental but not sickly sweet) and does so effortlessly. Or -- at the very least -- does an incredible job of masking the effort it takes to create a superhero movie that does everything perfectly.
In its own way, Into The Spider-Verse is a small miracle.
Actually it's a huge miracle.
It does all these things without rushing or overstaying its welcome. Most of its storytelling comes visually, without exposition. It does the stories of multiple characters justice. Miles Morales' journey, obviously, is exquisitely told, but so too is old man Peter Parker, a Spider-Man we've never seen before: middle-aged, bored, depressed, broken by a failed marriage. A man who'd rather take the bus than swing through New York City. Even Kingpin is a sympathetic villain, driven by a desire to rescue his own wife and children from death.
Every loose end is tied -- quickly, subtly, intelligently, without issue -- in a way that makes almost every other superhero movie feel clunky and old-fashioned.
For an animated movie about six spider-people from six different dimensions using supernatural powers to defeat a 900-pound man and robot cyborgs in suits, Into The Spider-Verse is remarkably grounded.
It's a story about family, about what it means to be a father, what it means to be a son. What it means to wrestle with the expectations of others and live up to your own potential. More than any other animated movie I've ever seen, it feels performed. It has the spontaneous energy and heart of a screwball comedy, the incredible scale of superhero action at its best.
You'd have to go all the way back to The Iron Giant or The Incredibles to find an animated movie that feels this real. A movie that delivers on almost every possible spectrum you could invent, but still feels original and new.
If you haven't watched Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, you're selling yourself short. Like me, you've probably spent the last few decades wallowing in the mediocrity of the superhero dirge. That's fine. That's good.
But maybe it's worth reminding yourself what it's like to enjoy something great.