DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. There have been six live-action Spiderman movies over the past 18 years - most recently, last year's "Spider-Man: Homecoming" starring Tom Holland. Now, there's a new animated movie in theaters called "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse." It's about a Brooklyn teenager named Miles Morales, who dons the iconic red mask worn in earlier adventures by Peter Parker. Film critic Justin Chang says, you should make time to see this one.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I can sense your fatigue at the prospect of yet another Spider-Man film in theaters. Surely, the last thing our reboot-obsessed, superhero-glutted movie culture needed was another big-screen adventure starring Peter Parker, the New York nerd turned crime-fighting web slinger. I went into the theater a skeptic myself. But after seeing "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse," I'm thrilled to be proven wrong.
For one thing, this exuberant, ambitious and visually stunning animated feature is entirely separate from any of the earlier Spider-Man movies or the ongoing Marvel cinematic universe. For another, this isn't really Peter Parker's story. The focus is on a new character named Miles Morales, a Brooklyn teenager voiced by Shameik Moore. Miles is a smart, wisecracking kid - a lover of art and music and a bit of a misfit. His mom, a nurse voiced by Luna Lauren Velez, showers him with affection. His father, a police officer voiced by Brian Tyree Henry, takes more of a tough-love stance. He wants the best for his son and has recently enrolled him at an elite prep school.
You get so wrapped up in Miles and his family drama that it's not until he's suddenly bitten by a radioactive spider that you remember what kind of movie you're watching. Before long, Miles has developed amazing physical attributes he can't fully control. When he isn't doing manic Fred Astaire routines on the sides of buildings, his sticky hands and web-shooting wrists cause all sorts of embarrassment in public, especially when he runs into his school crush Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld. The dizzyingly complicated plot involves a dastardly corporation called Alchemex, led by a crime boss named Kingpin, who for nefarious personal reasons is trying to breach the space-time continuum and cause multiple parallel universes to collide.
Thanks to a weird system glitch and some highly creative quantum physics, Miles' world is suddenly flooded with Spider-heroes from other dimensions, including a Japanese anime girl and her spider robot and a "Looney Tunes"-style pig named Spider-Ham. And, of course, there's Peter Parker - or rather a slovenly midlife crisis version of Peter Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson. With great power comes great responsibility, the saying goes. And in order to bring down Kingpin, Miles will have to master his newfound abilities - with Peter's help. At one point, the two break into the Alchemex lab in search of answers. As Peter tries to hack into the computer, Miles gets his hands stuck to the ceiling.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE")
JAKE JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) What are you doing, bud?
SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Miles Morales) I can't move.
JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) OK, relax your fingers. We don't have time. Just let go. Be in the moment.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) I am in the moment. It's a terrible moment.
JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) They're right there. They're going to see you. Miles, you got to unstick. What do you do to relax?
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) Relax - (unintelligible singing).
JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) Oh, for crying out loud.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales, unintelligible singing).
JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) Teenagers are just the worst. Miles, where did you go?
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) I'm right here.
JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) Where? I can't see you.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) I'm right in front of you. Can Spider-Man turn invisible?
JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) Not in my universe.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) You just poked me in my eye.
JOHNSON: (As Peter Parker) This is incredible - some kind of fight-or-flight thing.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) What's that?
CHANG: "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman. And it's irreverent, formula-busting approach points to the influence of the producers - Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, those merry comic anarchists behind "21 Jump Street" and "The Lego Movie." They've taken one of the scourges of popular moviegoing - the fact that Hollywood has basically become an enormous superhero industrial complex - and turned it into a delirious meta joke.
If you thought you'd seen enough characters in red masks and blue suits to last a lifetime, well, you ain't seen nothing yet. But even when it's being transparently silly, "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" takes its world, its characters and its emotions seriously. When thought bubbles appear over Miles's head or when words like pow and blammo (ph) pop up during the action sequences, you can feel the movie's obvious affection for its material.
The visual style is gloriously elastic and unapologetically cartoonish - blending the sharp, angular lines of classic comic book panels with the subtler textures of computer animation. In centering on a young man of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" clearly aims to diversify the ranks of movie superheroes. But that choice would matter little if Miles weren't such an appealing and richly drawn character in his own right. Anyone can wear the mask, a character notes at one point - giving voice to this movie's buoyant, egalitarian spirit. The triumph of the movie is that Miles Morales is most compelling when the mask comes off.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at The LA Times.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP")
BIANCULLI: On Monday's FRESH AIR, we begin a holiday week series of favorite interviews of the year. For Christmas Eve, we feature our second most downloaded podcast of the year. It's about composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. We talk with Todd Purdum, who's written a book about them. And we hear some great music - hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SURREY WITH THE FRINGE ON TOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.