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Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

By | June 5th, 2023
Posted in Movies, Reviews | % Comments

Across the Spider-Verse is, almost obviously, excellent. It’s a film that genuinely challenges itself visually, consistently working to surprise every demographic placed in front of it. This is the kind of story that is vital to the generative lifeblood of animation, even when it concedes to tropes or stacks its plate too high. You can argue faults in the final product but this is a story that never takes the easy path, and manages to ooze with apparent personality because of that.

The first takeaway I think most people will have from Across the Spider-Verse is that this series hasn’t lost its knack for creating incredibly charming characters in relatively short runtimes. The two main antagonists, Spot and Spider-Man 2099, are engaging before they even say a word. For Spot, he has this endearing shapelessness, with the vague sketchings of musculature still visible, giving the sense of a character half-finished and abandoned. That all melts away however, with Jason Scwartzman’s Johnathan Ohnn growing far more imposing after embracing a new photonegative style at the film’s halfway mark. Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara meanwhile feels like a Spider-Man who has maxed out his stats, his hulking frame and predatory fighting style make him seem lethal in a way you barely see in the other, far more zippy, Spider-People on display.

Karan Soni’s Pavitr Prabhakar/Spider-Man India and Daniel Kaluuya’s Hobie Brown/Spider-Punk are similarly engaging from the outset, injecting so much charm into the film’s second act. Spider-Man India might just be my favorite character in this whole film, acing it in costuming and shear ego, judging Shameik Moore’s Miles Morales from the very height of Dunning-Kruger’s Mt. Ignorance. Spider-Punk manages to summarize himself with the punchline “I don’t believe in consistency” better than any reviewer could. You can see it from his scattershot alignments, zine-style design and shifting features. The sequence of Pavitr, Hobie, Miles and Gwen all working together is probably my highlight of the film, and it really highlights that insecurity of meeting the cooler friends of your friend in high school, adding a new dimension of uncertainty to the more developed Miles Morales.

I don’t think every character introduction is perfect, for example I don’t think Spider-Byte’s set-up of ‘what if Spider-Man was a gamer?’ is particularly evocative, and a part of my skin crawled every time they shoved a whole live action character into the frame. But ultimately it’s hard to dock marks for a couple of naff Spideys in a film with hundreds of them to squeeze in. Plus we got Mayday in a little spider-beanie, that’s already enough innovation for one movie.

So much of the reason these characters excel is because the designers, writers, animators and directors are willing to pay homage to the creators behind these characters. Even from the chapter breaks it’s obvious, with actual comic covers used to open the book on a new character, place and predicament. It shows a genuine respect for these creators, rather than the usual trap of viewing comics as a ‘low art’ that needs to be ‘elevated’, with such films eventually falling into the same pitfalls they’re trying to erase. This was most apparent in the film’s opening on Earth-65, where the styles of artist Robbi Rodriguez and colorist Rico Renzi are lifted perfectly from the page and incorporated on screen, with slashes of color bringing an impressionist verdancy to every exchange. It’s a film that proves its creators love their archetypal character unconditionally, paying tribute to the Spider-Men of every platform and generation.

When it comes to style, Across the Spider-Verse is entirely unparalleled, in many ways exceeding its predecessor. I honestly feel like this whole film is a black box, you understand some basic influences going in, and you can see the product coming out, but the layers of synthesis that would have gone into structuring it are just unimaginable to me. From the multi-sensory drumming scene at the outset, the care put into creative expression is clear. Sony Animation wisely brought in the help of some other animation studios to build out the flats in this film, allowing spiky moments of hyper-stylistic freeze-framing that make the snap of a finger or the click of a phone a spectacle in itself.

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I had a lot of respect for the film’s willingness to embrace wide shots, pulling back its camera far enough out of confidence in their expressions still shining through. Whether Miles is running as fast as he can on the bottom of the Visions Academy bridge, or being chased by a kaleidoscope of web-slingers through a Kubrick-esque futurescape, the character’s unique sense of ruffled urgency shines through. The film is willing to show just how deeply it understands fluid movement, placing some actions in comparison to one another for emphasis, and stilting others to protract a moment. Every Spidey in this film thwips their own way, with an apparent reason why. All through that motion is a cavalcade of fun dialogue, showing a writing team that understands the golden rule of superhero comics: if you’re going to have a long conversation, at least give people something to look at while it happens. In fact, I felt at points that the meticulous choreography here almost held the film back at points, sequences fall with such lockstep rhythm of foreshadowing, visuals and interplay that I missed the more loose and ad-hoc action of the first film, which worked to make Miles’ inexperience a core texture of its action. Obviously our hero has grown a lot since then, but it’s hard not to feel like something was lost in the process.

Across feels most markedly different from Into through the way it outlines its plot. There’s a deliberately slower start which works to set up its symmetries (Police captain dads, the struggle to reconcile dual lives), rather than the forces at play. This works well in proving the importance of ‘canon events’ later on, but that’s not a reveal with much weight beyond its meta-commentary. In comparison, learning the mechanics and scope of multiversal travelers in the first film felt revelatory, still, it’s hard to fault a film for not living up to its own previous good ideas. Plus, this slower start means we get the best Guggenheim chase scene since Men in Black. The aforementioned focus on symmetry, and the hall of mirrors-esque journey through the Spider-Menagerie also seems to dull down the film’s cliffhanger climax rather than inflating it, the Prowler Miles of Earth-42 is a great looking character, but it’s hard to see much substance to his introduction beyond one more moral hurdle of arbitrary guilt for a character who’s still proven themself to be on the right side of righteousness every single time.

All of the pacing problems with this film ultimately just boil down to the fact that this is one half of a two-parter, and like the recent Dune, you really leave feeling like this was half a movie. I’m not saying it doesn’t deserve the wider real estate, but I don’t think it actually has the plot to fill it (with the majority of it clear from the first two trailers). There’s a lot of space to give the action sequences the breathing room needed to progress satisfyingly, but I can’t help but wonder, if the first film was less successful, and this follow-up had to answer all of its set-ups within the 140 minutes allotted, would it have been better just through that urgency? This film is never rushing itself, and the core mysteries aren’t strong enough to keep me invested in the next climactic moment, though I’ll still be counting down the days until we can see the next style these animators put on display.

I am almost certainly being hard on this movie, but there are core wrinkles with this that need to be ironed out if Spider-Verse can remain inventive and inspiring as a series. For one, I’d argue that for both Across and Into, the variety can actually get in the way of the film’s heart. Just spending time in the Brooklyn of the Morales family is a delight, it’s vibrant, communal and carries a natural tempo that feels interrupted by the cross-rhythms of these other characters and the settings they carry the essence of with them. For the sequel to double down on the cameos, rather than the core, feels like it’s learnt the wrong lesson from itself. In fact Gwen’s story focuses on how traveling the multiverse is a distraction from her real-life (which is how most of these crossover stories are treated in the comics too, funnily enough), giving the whole adventure a bit of irony when you see the creators not learning a lesson they put their own character through.

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Across the Spider-Verse is as massive of a visual innovation as its predecessor, but doesn’t necessarily present a new direction for its story, instead trying to build a more symbolic journey that it can interrogate the central tropes of across a longer, character-focused runtime.

And because I still have too much to gush about in this film, here are some other random highlights:

  • An incredibly talent voice cast, profiting in being celebrity-dense (Brian Tyree Henry, Jason Schwartzman, Oscar Isaac, Luna Lauren Valez, Mahershala Ali) rather than getting stuck in it
  • The effortless chemistry of Jeff and Rio Morales
  • I will never get sick of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson
  • Peter B. Parker going from a man of pure agony to endless joy as he enters fatherhood
  • Ganke being intentionally useless, beating out the canon event of needlessly convoluted best friends to Spider-Man
  • The highs and lows of Renaissance Vulture
  • Spider-Horse : )

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James Dowling

James Dowling is probably the last person on Earth who enjoyed the film Real Steel. He has other weird opinions about Hellboy, CHVRCHES, Squirrel Girl and the disappearance of Harold Holt. Follow him @James_Dow1ing on Twitter if you want to argue about Hugh Jackman's best film to date.


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