Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has just gone from being lauded as one of the best films of 2018 (genre and otherwise) to being the Golden Globe Winner for Best Animated Film and a front-runner for the Oscar. With the film's awards season star still on the rise, let's talk a little about how it got there.
Yes, the animation is glorious, inventive, and packed with details that reward repeat viewings. Yes, the voice cast is exceedingly charming and hilarious. Yes, the action is stellar, the soundtrack electrifying, and the easter eggs amusing. There's so much that I love about this film (including watching the expressions on the face of the almost-three-year-old I was able to take with me to my screening), but what really made Into the Spider-Verse an awards contender and game changer, what really put it over the top, is the film's flawless understanding of what it means to be Spider-Man.
There have been other films that get Spider-Man, of course. Sam Raimi's initial film offerings are fanatically devoted to the original mythos (minus those organic web-shooters), and the version in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Tom Holland also captures a lot of why the character means so much to so many people (something I've written about at length), but no single film has ever laid it out so clearly before. Into the Spider-Verse carries with it a relatively simple thesis — that anyone can wear the Spider-Man mask — and then proves it not just through multiple web-slinging incarnations, but through the singular journey of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore).
Peter Parker's initial lesson upon gaining his Spider-powers comes when his uncle dies and he must learn to take on the great responsibility that comes with his great power. Miles has his own motivating tragedy — the death of his universe's Peter Parker — but it doesn't necessarily carry with it the same lessons. Miles only knows what he was directed to do by another hero, not how or even exactly why he's supposed to be the one to do it, and he spends much of the film reeling as he tries to find his place among other, more experienced heroes. When his own living mentor, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), finally lays out what it takes to be Spider-Man, the answer is maddeningly short: "It's a leap of faith."
When Miles finally takes that leap, after nearly two hours of wrestling with his destiny, learning his uncle (Mahershala Ali) was a supervillain, and essentially being exiled from the rest of the Spider-gang, it's in an ecstatic moment of self-invention. He uses his street art roots to craft his own version of the costume, takes the leap, and finally figures out how to be Spider-Man in his way.
Other Spider-Man films might have spent this moment earlier, but Into the Spider-Verse understands that inventing Spider-Man within Miles' own mind is as important as establishing him for the audience as a heroic identity worth rooting for. That "leap of faith" philosophy, along with the "anyone can wear the mask" thesis at the heart of the film, is a perfect encapsulation of why we love Spider-Man, and why audiences fell in love with Miles Morales.
There's a reason why certain Spidey fans get so excited when they find out a film will focus on teenage Peter Parker (or, now, teenage Miles Morales), and why it was so wonderful to see Tom Holland lifting rubble off himself while chanting "come on Spider-Man" at the end of Homecoming, and it's because Spider-Man is about much more than hiding Peter or Miles' real identity through a clever costume. Spider-Man is not just a disguise, but a persona.
In real life, Peter Parker (as played by Tom Holland and Jake Johnson, and as drawn in hundreds of comics in which he's a teenager) is kind of a loser. He's nerdy, he's awkward, he's constantly facing a barrage of personal problems that make him feel like he's cursed, and he always finds himself searching for the right thing to say. Miles is also awkward, a bit clumsy, and always trying to find the right words, as evidenced by his inability to fit in at his new school and his rather clumsy attempts to sing along with his music. When both boys transform into Spider-Man, though, they're none of those things. They're cool, quick to quip, and equally quick to thwip. They're heroes, not just because they have superpowers, but because they see the mask as something transformative that helps them become more than what they might otherwise be in real life.
That's a pretty evident theme in high school-based Spider-Man stories — the good ones, anyway — but Into the Spider-Verse's genius is magnified because it doubles down on this by having Miles compete not just with teenagers around him, but with other Spider-Men. He already has trouble fitting in at school, and then he finds out that he's part of an elite group of superheroes who all have spider-based powers, and he still feels out of place until the very end of the film.
And what does it take to pull him out of that? Faith. Not superpowers or gadgets or a mentor finally snapping him out of it, but his own belief in himself. That's the final, magic ingredient to truly wearing the mask, and when Miles gets that he's able to craft his own vision of what Spider-Man is supposed to be in his universe.
That's what we really love about Spider-Man. The costume is cool and the powers are fun and the jokes are always enjoyable, but what really makes the character's legacy persist — what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko really stumbled upon all those decades ago — is a hero who invents a better version of himself and then makes it real. Miles creates the hero as he sees him, and then becomes him. That's something we can all aspire to, whether we sling webs or not, and that's something Into the Spider-Verse gets very, very right.
If you don't feel that yet, go watch the movie again. It's like Stan said: "It always fits ... eventually."