Miles Morales is the kind of kid you could swear you already know, or are, or were. He’s creative and bright, but feels perpetually out of place. Bound for greatness beyond his circumstances, in a way the people around him can see, but unsure of himself or whose footsteps to follow. He’s earnest, anxious, winsome, sweet. Great taste in hip-hop, zero game. And that slouch of his shoulders, the make-myself-invisible hunch, as he’s carted away from his gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood to a rich kids’ school he finds overwhelming and would rather flunk out of immediately, please? That’s achingly familiar, too—though perhaps not to the audience superhero movies usually center.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not about Peter Parker. It’s about the kind of kid who rarely gets to wear the mask in superhero movies, despite how often the genre stakes its ideals on the claim that anyone can be a hero. These movies often aim to inspire, but they have been slow to explore the breadth and potential of Marvel progenitor Stan Lee’s pithiest definition of the figures they elevate, the ones that now dominate popular culture: “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.” Until Black Panther, movies adapting Lee’s co-creations seemed to impose another criteria: That that selfless do-gooder is also probably white.
It’s a surprise, then, that of all the studios in the superhero game, it’s Sony (starring Miles Morales, a Marvel Comics character) challenging the genre’s and its own studio’s years of adherence to that colorless mold. Spider-Verse looks like no film you’ve ever seen. Every frame pulses wildly with bursts of visual innovation, creating the impression of a living, riotous comic book. It uses the medium to trippy, often spectacular effect, putting us inside Miles’ head as he navigates heartbreak, his new powers, and learning to trust himself enough to save others in present-day New York City. It is absolutely what animated movies will be copying for the next 15 years, blending CG, hand-drawn animation, and newer techniques Sony’s dead-set on actually patenting. It’s the film’s compassionate portrait of Miles and his world, though, that perhaps feels most groundbreaking. There has simply never been a hero for kids like him on a stage like this.
Miles’ story—originated by comic-book writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli in 2011, when few comic-book heroes of color headlined their own series—is told here with grace, and shaded with enough specificity to make him feel like a person, rather than a remix of three generations of big-screen Peter Parkers. He’s Spider-Man, to be sure, and the touchstones of that mythos are all here—good kid learns moral responsibility through personal tragedy, shoulders burdens no one so young should have to, fails again and again yet finds the strength to get up after every fall, etc. But a half-Puerto Rican Black teenager from working-class Brooklyn faces obstacles to self-knowledge and a hero’s mantle different from Parker’s. Spider-Verse, to its credit, gives him the room to figure it out in his own time, his own way.
That’s no small feat considering how many other Spider-People crash this movie, each from an alternate-dimension New York City. There are two Peter Parkers, one the quippy, young hero of Miles’ New York (voiced by Chris Pine, whose teeth you can practically hear sparkle through the mic), and the other a past-his-prime sadsack weighed down by the realities of adult life (Jake Johnson). There’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham aka Peter Porker (John Mulaney; I am not making this up), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn, voicing an anime character aided by a giant robot), and Spider-Man Noir, a black-and-white-rendered gumshoe out of 1933 whom Nicolas Cage voices with a somber intensity hilariously at odds with the manic shenanigans around him.
Spiders Ham, Peni, and Noir provide surreal comic relief and not much more. Gwen is a compelling presence (and it’s a delight to see her dimension rendered in the same angsty electric hues as her comic-book title), but we learn little about her, really, beyond her founding trauma. And that’s fine. This is Miles’ story, and the film’s packed to capacity as it is. There’s just enough room for the mentorship he forges with the older, paunchier Peter (“janky old broke hobo Spider-Man,” as Miles puts it—he even sounds like a real kid, voiced to charming perfection by Dope’s Shameik Moore) for it to become the heart of the film.
For those not familiar: In the comics, Miles becomes Spider-Man after being bit by a radioactive spider and witnessing Peter Parker’s death at the hands of the Green Goblin. The film’s version of events plays out similarly, except that after Parker dies, the Kingpin tears open a rift in space-time that dumps another Peter, said janky one, into Miles’ orbit. Beaten down from a divorce with Mary Jane, financial woes, and midlife-crisis regrets, this Peter is no natural mentor. (He and MJ split, we learn, because she wanted kids but he was afraid of, ahem, the responsibility.) Still, he learns as much from Miles as the teenager does from him in their mission to restore order to the universe. His haplessness helps Miles realize that even role models don’t always know what they’re doing—the revelation we often need to begin trusting our own flawed judgment. That may be why, when Miles finally takes that first leap of faith and thwips alone into the dark, it feels so freeing.
Miles’ world is rendered vividly enough for moments like that to feel uniquely his, rather than like echoes of Parker’s story. The Spanglish that fills his home feels mercifully natural—no “mijas” that sound like “yee-haw,” just the stuff that kids in Spanish-speaking households grow up hearing half in one language, half the other. His clothes, his taste in music, the posters on his wall, the art he spray-paints—all of it feels defined, coherent enough for a single, specific personality. An ordinary, special kid.
“Anyone can wear the mask,” Peter tells us early in the film. “You can wear the mask.” It barely registers, we’ve heard lines like it so often. But by the end of Miles’ journey, that kid’s driven the point home more effectively than any onscreen hero to date—certainly more than Peter could in 2018, lovable though he is. Stan Lee’s definition of a hero flashes onscreen just before the credits roll. By then, it’s barely necessary. We already believe it—and a little more in ourselves, too.