From left, Peni, voiced by Kimiko Glen, Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, Spider-Ham, voiced by John Mulaney, Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, Peter Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson, and Spider-Man Noir, voiced by Nicolas Cage, in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” TNS

This article contains a few necessary spoilers for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” You’ve been duly cautioned.

The current movie-going audience is split between those exclaiming, “Enough with the superhero movies already” and those who continue to make every single superhero movie one of the highest-grossing films of all time. As an inveterate movie and comics geek, I’m straddling the fence. (For one thing, as a DC Comics aficionado, it’s deeply depressing to see Marvel so completely trounce DC’s dour, limp and wrong-headed cinematic offerings time and again.)

But before we all jump on the superhero-bashing bandwagon, let’s appreciate how the ongoing Marvel takeover of all entertainment is a heck of a good time. Blockbuster merchandising popcorn fare they may be, but the best superhero movies are just using the latest technology (and dump trucks full of cash) to raise the bar on what makes movie-going fun in the first place. What was big-screen Robin Hood if not a superhero? What was Indiana Jones? The current superhero lineup (like superhero comics themselves) taps into our cultural desire for heightened and simplified good-versus-evil morality plays. Only, you know, in tights and laser-armor.

And sure, current superhero films are hardly “indie.” (Although, if you can find them, check out interesting, low-budget takes on the genre like 2000’s “The Specials” or the dark, bananas vigilante tale “Super,” from a pre-“Guardians of the Galaxy” James Gunn.) But the one that comes closest – and is my pick for best modern superhero film – is the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which happens to be playing (for free) as part of Bayside Bowl’s Bayside Rooftop Film Series at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14.

Part of the universe-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe (sort of), the film is your typical Spider-Man movie. You know the drill: kid gets bitten by radioactive spider, gets superpowers, learns “with great power comes great responsibility,” and so on. With nearly 60 years of comics adventures, plus an endlessly rebooted film franchise under his spandex, Spider-Man’s origin story is known to all. And as we all know, that unassuming kid from New York City is Brooklyn-born, Afro-Latino teenager Miles Morales. At least he is in this devilishly clever, visually dazzling and stirringly human retelling of the birth of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man – even if this one’s from another neighborhood.

I won’t spoil too much about the ‘verse-spanning plot, except to say that young Miles makes his leap from comic pages to the big screen with thrilling and often hilarious aplomb, even if his efforts to take over as his world’s Spidey are fraught with even more than the usual obstacles and stumbles. The regular kid (voiced by the thoroughly engaging Shameik Moore) of a black cop father (“Atlanta’s” Bryan Tyree Henry) and a Latina nurse (“Dexter’s” Lauren Velez), Miles gets his fateful bite while doing graffiti art with his cool uncle (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali). There’s also a nefarious plot by the villainous Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) involving alternate universes – which should set Spider-fans’ senses a-tingling.

Miles was the creation of comics writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, and his introduction as the new Spider-Man in 2011 (taking over from the original Spidey, Peter Parker) kicked off the utterly predictable firestorm of (white) fanboy outrage. (See the upcoming Little Mermaid, the all-woman Ghostbusters, and other rebooted characters greeted with screeches of “You’re destroying my default-white childhood.”) And fighting the need to tell such people to just clam up with that nonsense, I’ll say that “Into the Spider-Verse” not only incorporates real-world angst about the character’s history, but tells a Spider-Man story that strikes deep into the very heart of why comics are such an enduring storytelling form in the first place, and why Spider-Man remains one of its most popular characters. You see, this Miles’ universe already has a Spider-Man (voiced by the star of another controversially rebooted franchise), leaving the inexperienced Miles all-too-aware of his “imposter” status, even before Kingpin’s experiment starts opening windows into worlds with their own versions of Spidey. (Cue voice appearances by some truly fantastic and fun actors I’m not telling you about.)

Told in a dizzyingly fun mix of expressionistic animation styles and naturalistic human drama, Miles’ journey becomes writers Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s examination of not just Spider-Man’s long, convoluted and doppelganger-littered history (including John Mulaney voicing one of the most improbable and hilarious Spider-um-Men in the canon). It also addresses the culture of fandom and the nature of our cultural obsession with superheroes in a way that’s thoroughly true to Spider-Man’s origin(s), while expressing an inclusive and satisfying message about the real meaning of being a hero.

There’s an antithetical bullying side to modern comics fandom, where fans feel entitled to own their chosen hero – and demean, harass, and belittle anyone who dares change him. Especially if that “him” becomes a her or gay or, like Miles, of a different skin color. A hero isn’t a bully, and the imagination that breathes life into larger-than-life heroes can’t be limited by outdated ideas and petty, arbitrary rules. “Into the Spider-Verse” reclaims heroism – and Spider-Man – from those who would lay sole claim to what it means to be heroic on their narrow terms. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s touching and smart, and it’s the one superhero movie that might just hold off your superhero fatigue, for a free summer screening at Bayside Bowl, at least.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is playing as part of Bayside Bowl’s Bayside Rooftop Film Series on Wednesday, Aug. 14 at 7 p.m. The screening’s free but space is limited, so swing on in early, true believers.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: