TajLV’s review published on Letterboxd:
"This could literally not get any weirder." ~ Peter B. Parker
Co-directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman teamed up to create a new visual style for this animated Marvel adventure. It combines CGI animation with "line work and painting and dots and all sorts of comic book techniques." I'd hesititate to call it "hyper-real" in the way Robert Zemeckis attempted to use CGI until giving up after 2009's "Beowulf," but it tends in that direction, giving a dimension of depth to people and objects not typically seen in 2-D renderings... more like a video game.
The story opens with the one-and-only Peter Parker (Chris Pine) aka Spider-Man, giving us a quick recap of his origin and rise to fame. Although this film is set in an alternate universe to the live-action Spider-Man franchise, the visuals here include scenes from past Marvel films dating back to the Tobey Maquire era of webslinging. It's fast, hip and well presented.
Then we dive into the meat of the tale, following the day-to-day interactions of a Brooklyn youth named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). He lives with his patrol officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mother Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), who is a nurse. Miles was smart enough to qualify for admission to a STEM program at a boarding school, which brands him "elitist" among his former public school classmates and just another newbie among the students of Brooklyn Visions Academy.
Miles has a certain talent for street art, which his father discourages but his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) admires. At school, Miles takes an interest in a new student from South Africa, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who calls herself Gwanda. Uncle Aaron tries to give his nephew pointers on scoring with women, but it's all a bit more adult than Miles' age warrants.
One night hanging with Aaron in an underground tunnel tagging brick walls, Miles gets bit by a radioactive spider. The next day he begins exhibiting new qualities -- ultra sensitive hearing, loud thoughts in his head -- and his body gains in muscle to the point where his pants no longer fit. Next come spider-like abilities -- "sticky" fingers and feet, long jumping. He tries to call Aaron for advice, but he's out of town and not taking calls.
Returning to the underground tunnel where the spider bit him, Miles finds himself drawn into a battle already in progress between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone). And when Miles gets knocked off a ledge into and abyss-like hole, Spider-Man saves him and senses that Miles is developing Spider Powers. He offers to help show the kid the ropes, as soon as he shuts down a particle accelerator called "The Super-Collider" built by Wilson 'Kingpin' Fisk (Liev Schreiber).
Eventually, he loses to Kingpin and his henchmen, but not before entrusting the override key to Miles. And as news of Peter Parker's death spreads, Miles buys a Spider-Man costume at a shop run by a fellow named Stan (Stan Lee), intent on picking up where the hero left off. Unfortunately, Miles' first attempt at leaping between buildings ends in a crash landing and the shattering of the override key. Miles figures that's the end of it. He's failed, and he calls out in his depression for Peter, saying, "I can't do this without you."
Now, if we imagine the Super-Collider has already opened some portals to parallel universes, what comes next makes complete sense: Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) aka Spider-Man introduces himself and his back story, very familiar, but this isn't the Spidey we are used to. He's older, tired, divorced from Mary Jane Watson (Zoë Kravitz), and worn out. He describes getting sucked into a wormhole and ending up in an alternate New York, where Spider-Man is blonde and dead.
Miles teams up with this new Peter to learn the ropes, although Peter's only real interest is in getting back to his own dimension. He's happy to let Kingpin fire up the Collider again, if it gets him home. As the two Spider-Guys bond, there are some rather funny scenes, such as Peter taking away Miles' "disrespectful" cape," lines like "What's Comic-Con?" and music selections such as "St. Elmo's Fire" for an energy boost. There are Easter Eggs, too, by the basket load.
**** CAUTION - POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ****
Things get complicated when the two Websters head to Fisk's laboratory Alchemex in the Hudson Valley to steal the info needed to recreate the broken override key. They have a run-in with Olivia "Liv" Octavius aka Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn), steal her computer and almost get caught till they are saved by Gwen Stacy from yet another dimension where she is better known as Spider-Woman.
We soon learn that the terribly weak reason Fisk is so obsessed with causing a rift in the space-time continuum is to bring his family back. His wife and son died in an car accident while he was preoccupied with Spider-Man. He believes his loved ones still exist in another dimension, and he intends to be reunited.
Meanwhile, our intrepid trio make it to the home of this dimension's Aunt May (Lili Tomlin), who welcomes them and takes them to her Peter's secret lair. It contains lots of costumes, photos and a schematic linking Kingpin to other super-villains. And surprise... these are not the first Spider-Folks to take refuge with Peter's aunt.
Welcome to our universe a very strange array of Spider-Types, from B&W Peter Parker/Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) of the 1930s to anime-style Peni Parker/SP//dr (Kimiko Glenn) from the year 3145 and boarish Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) from who knows where? Think "Howard the Duck" (1986). Peni programs a new override key, and it should be on Miles to shut down the Collider as soon as the portals to their respective universes open up, thus saving the "multiverse." But they don't think he's up to the task.
Feeling rejected, Miles tries to find his Uncle Aaron, but in a shocking revelation he discovers his father's brother is actually a villain called Prowler, who works for Fisk as an enforcer. There's a chase through the New York streets that damn near kills him. And it's followed by a major melee with Kingpin's forces at Aunt May's house that almost kills everyone.
And it does, in fact kill Aaron/Prowler, who didn't know Miles was the "new" Spider-Man. So when Mile's father finds Aaron dead, he puts out an APB for the Webslinger, also totally unaware that his son has taken up the mantle of superhero. The band of Spider-People regroups at Mile's dormitory and Peter B. tells the newbie he's going to stay behind and shut down the Collider as soon as the others return to their home dimensions. And when Miles objects, Peter ties him to his desk chair using webbing too strong for the teen to break.
Of course, Miles eventually escapes, gets web shooters from Aunt May, spray paints himself a new suit, and then joins his new pals to defeat Kingpin & Company as the rev up the particle accelerator. Miles manages to get the override key from Peter B, and he uses it to close down the Collider as son as he sees that all his Spider-Kin get sucked into their respective corners of the multiverse.
Witness all this action is Mile's father the cop, who completely changes his mind about Spider-Man after seeing him in action. Reconciliations take place everywhere: Jefferson and son, Peter B. and Mary Jane, and even Gwen and Miles in a new hyper-long-distance friendship. The credits roll to a profusion of animated clips, and for those who know Marvel well, there is the mandatory short sequence post-credits.
This film won the trifecta of feature-length animation awards, taking the top prize at the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs. But please forgive me if I don't gush about this with everyone else. It's a very good piece of work and highly entertaining in a hip, trippy and artistic way. But masterpiece? Instant classic? Or just the latest "pet rock." History will tell. I'm betting that after all the hoopla dies down, future generations will wonder why this was selected over "Isle of Dogs" as the year's Best Animated Feature Film. I already do.