Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Visually spectacular and emotionally expressive, the exceptional animated 'Spider-Verse' films keep making live-action comic-book flicks look cartoonish.
June 01, 2023
There's nothing small about Hollywood's superhero obsession, with its 30-movies-deep-and-counting cinematic universes, competing caped-crusader realms, ever-growing spread across screens big and small, and determination to enlist every actor ever (and some actors more than once). That decades have passed, many spandex-clad characters have cycled through a few faces now, and reuniting past and present versions of beloved crime-fighters is the current trend: none are minor matters, either. And yet, when 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse took pop culture's favourite web-slinger back to its animated roots, it made those flesh-and-blood flicks and shows, as well as the expensive special effects behind them, look positively trivial and cartoonish. Five years later, the first sequel to the deservedly Academy Award-winning masterpiece plasters around the same sensation like a Spidey shooting its silk. Give this latest take on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's iconic character 2024's Best Animated Feature Oscar immediately.
All the money in the world can't make people in tights standing against green screens as visually spectacular and emotionally expressive as the Spider-Verse films. If it could, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and now Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse wouldn't be so astonishing and exhilarating, look so stunning and feel so authentic. Spider-Man's eight stints in theatres with either Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland behind the mask — and all of the latter's pop-ups in other Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, too — have splattered around plenty of charm, but they'll now always swing far below their animated counterparts. Indeed, when Spider-Man: No Way Home tried to emulate the Spider-Verse by pointing its fingers into the multiverse, as Marvel's live-action world is now fixated upon, it paled in comparison. And, that isn't just because there was no Nicolas Cage-voiced 30s-era spider-vigilante Spider-Man Noir, or a spider-robot, spider-pig, spider-car or spider-saur; rather, it's because the Spider-Verse movies truly do whatever a Spider-Man movie can.
In Across the Spider-Verse, which will be followed by 2024's Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse plus a Spider-Women spinoff after that, being an imaginative and agile spider-flick initially entails hanging with Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld, one such talent with multiple superheroes on her resume thanks to Hawkeye). In most Spidey stories, Gwen Stacy is a love interest for Peter Parker, but the Spider-Verse Gwen from Earth 65 was bitten by a radioactive spider instead. Alas, with a great twist to the status quo comes not-so-great consequences for the aquamarine-haired teen drummer. Accordingly, when a battle with a Renaissance-era Vulture (Jorma Taccone, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story) gets the attention of Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Moon Knight and X-Men: Apocalypse alum Oscar Isaac) and his Spider-Society, she begs to join. Before the film goes jumping between universes upon universes, however, it begins with a dazzling demonstration of how intimately linked its graphics and characters are. Gwen's dimension takes its cues from watercolours and sketches, which wax and wane in their hues and movement depending on her inner state. It's a breathtaking sight and an immensely moving touch, and Across the Spider-Verse is just getting started.
For newcomers and folks with foggy memories alike, Gwen also narrates backstory details, filling in what's occurred since the first feature while playfully parodying that overused approach. When the movie slides into Miles Morales' (Shameik Moore, Wu-Tang: An American Saga) life, he takes her lead, but gives it his own spin. The first Black Latin American Spider-Man is now 15, and more confident in his spider-skills and -duties. In-between being Brooklyn's friendly neighbourhood Spidey and attending a private school that'll ideally help him chase his physics dreams, he's even guest-hosted Jeopardy!. But not telling his mum Rio (Luna Lauren Velez, Power Book II: Ghost) and police-officer dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway) about his extracurricular activities is weighing upon Miles, and he's still yearning for mentorship and friendship, especially knowing that Gwen, Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson, Minx) and an infinite number of other web-slingers are all out there catching thieves just like flies.
The Spider-Verse movies take each new Spidey as a challenge to make their style and world their own, but never put aesthetics over substance. When another iteration drops in, then another and another, there's nothing arbitrary, unthinking or simple about how directors Joaquim Dos Santos (The Legend of Korra), Kemp Powers (Soul) and Justin K Thompson (Into the Spider-Verse's production designer) and their team depict anything about them. That's true in Mumbattan, where the film finds Pavitr Prabhakar/Spider-Man India (Karan Soni, Miracle Workers). And when Hobie Brown/Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya, Nope) swaggers around, it's also accurate of the Sex Pistols-meets-Basquiat standout and his totalitarian-ruled universe. He isn't part arachnid, but the same applies with Across the Spider-Verse's big bad The Spot (Jason Schwartzman, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson), whose fight scenes are a mind-bending wonder.
Is coming-of-age angst still a part of these spider-tales? Yes. Do uncles and aunts still die, and other loved ones? Yes again. And are loss, heartbreak and great powers begetting great responsibilities still pivotal factors? That's another yes. And yet, returning writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (directors of The Lego Movie, too), plus Spider-Verse newcomer Dave Callaham (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Wonder Woman 1984), engage as eagerly and astutely with those spider-basics as the imagery springing from their script manages in every remarkable frame (all of which earn the cliche that they could and should grace walls). Across the Spider-Verse is gorgeous not only in those enchanting and entrancing visuals that couldn't better reveal who its characters are, why, and what they're thinking and feeling, but in how keenly it interrogates and engages with the comic-book medium and the page's limitless possibilities. Saying that the film resembles sticking every past Spider-Man outing in every format into a blender is a compliment; every spider-element is that well-merged.
Although Across the Spider-Verse embraces being everything it can with every pixel — explodes with that idea, in fact, and makes the utmost of the freewheeling artistic freedom that animation is capable of — that isn't its message for Miles or audiences. There's so much going on in this intricate picture's kaleidoscope of intricate pictures, including unpacking what it means to have endless choices, or want to. Where the first film made it plain that being a hero isn't just for the stereotypical usual suspects and never should've been, this one champions the fact that no destiny is the same for everyone. At the same time, it conveys that being true to yourself and being in the moment is more meaningful than constantly pondering what might happen. As given voice by its first-rate cast, all imbuing their characters with a lifetime of emotion, it's no surprise that Across the Spider-Verse is so potent and infectious, or that it leaves live-action caped crusaders resigned to its shadows.
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