Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

You could take the words right out of Miguel O’Hara’s mouth and attribute them to the ugly, reactionary response to Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s decision to off Ultimate Comics’s Peter Parker: “Miles Morales was never meant to be Spider-Man”. When the creators of the now-beloved new Spider-Man decided that they could use that parallel Marvel imprint for a newer take on the character, people of course responded that Spider-Man is only Peter Parker - that’s ‘canon’, the inflexible idea of a character held in the mind of a fandom that so often refuses to change. 

Through its far-reaching aesthetics and embrace of animation’s potential for free form expressivity (I have seen worthy comparisons to Mind Game), Across the Spider-Verse highlights the need for change and adaptability. Even that very canon, becomes the focal point of Across the Spider-Verse’s ambitious, rather sprawling meta-commentary on the act of a sequel, of the character’s complicated publication history, both doubling as an allegory for Miles’s ongoing identity crisis. 

Directors Justin K. Thompson (a production designer on the last film, expanding his philosophy to giddy effect), Joaquim Dos Santos (an incredibly capable action director, having proven those chops on Season 1 of The Legend of Korra) and Kemp Powers (responsible for the few good bits of Soul) bend Miles’s coming-of-age story more towards existential tragedy than even the last did. It also feels like an unwitting confrontation of the fact that Marvel Comics have never really known what to do with him - even The Spot, typically a Peter Parker Z-list foe, gives himself the task of providing Miles with a villain worthy of fighting him. He’s practically - as his teacher says - a “blank page”, without the decades of canonical baggage of Peter, and Thompson, Dos Santos and Powers see this as an opportunity. For them and their artists, a blank page just means more space to create, and they fill that space with some staggeringly beautiful imagery.

As so often is the case with writing around animation the craft is treated as incidental, in Across the Spider-Verse it’s the clearest expression of Miles’s teenage angst and his journey toward independence. 

Thankfully, the multiversal story prioritises how it affects Miles and Gwen personally - and the visual storytelling remains clearer in expressing that even when the writing becomes a little too chaotic. The expansion of its palette goes far beyond even the glitchy, chimeric mix of styles of its predecessor; that visual non-conformity is an enthralling expression of Miles’s resistance to being placed within a box. His teachers want him to fit an immigrant narrative, his fellow Spider-People want him to fall in with how Spider-Man stories go - you could see it as a narrative about assimilation, though that’s not necessarily all that it’s about - Gwen’s path is something of an inverse trajectory to Miles, moving from isolation to relearning how to socialise and how to be part of a collective (and how to pick the right one). The film and Miles alike suggest they do something new. 

And so the animators build out the worlds previously hinted at in the first film, and go even beyond that. Gwen’s earth, a direct lift of the mood of Robbi Rodriguez’s art from her original comic book run, blows out most of the detail and prioritises large washes of colour, constantly shifting across both character and background to match the emotional contours of her conversations. Nueva York, the world of Spider-Man 2099, favours clean-cut, utopian and Syd Mead-esque futurist architecture. Spider-Punk - a joyful highlight - emerges from a world comprised exclusively of Basquiat, Sex Pistols album covers, zines and newspaper collages, the character himself a flattened, walking cutout of all of the above. Even better is when the artists and production designers cross-pollinate these different art styles to create maybe some of the most distinctive and expressive work of American 3D animation there’s been… since the last one. 

It feels completely without limits, capitalising on the potential of the blank page that animation allows - all while lovingly preserving the feeling of the artist’s hand - like in the way that The Spot and Miguel O’Hara both maintain their geometric sketch lines, lines hanging off them like an unfinished drawing.

It’s a testament to how much the animation landscape is post-Into The Spider-Verse that the stylish effects of Miles’s world have gentle familiarity, its colours slightly blurred through chromatic aberration. The other splashier quirks introduced in Into The Spider-Verse also triumphantly return, of course. “Burst cards” that emphasise single frames in striking 2D drawings, freeze grand moments of action in time as though it were affixed to a page. It substitutes the language of comic books – panels, onomatopoeia, motion lines, halftones, even editor's notes – and traditional hand-drawn animation in for other 3D techniques. Smears and motion lines replacing motion blur, characters textured with ben-day print dots and rough brushwork that sometimes hang off them like an artists’ still visible first draft. Across the Spider-Verse - as the title implies - takes these idiosyncrasies even further.

It’s exhilarating how the drive to experiment is so present in a work that feels constantly under threat of being hijacked by corporate interests, especially as far as films about the 'multiverse' are concerned. Where this stands apart is that it's an excuse to widen a visual palette, rather than just get different intellectual properties standing in a room together.

The score is similarly expansive, working in concert with the expressionism of the animation - when Gwen brings smudged watercolours with her, she also brings aggressive drums, in the beginning accented with synesthetic flourishes recalling Fantasia’s “pure sound” segment, abstract flashes of colour emerging in response to musical notes. 2099 brings sinister synths, Spider-Punk brings jagged guitars, and so on.

In the new film writers Lord, Miller and Dave Callaham throw a wrench in the essential idea that Into The Spider-Verse presented of Spider-Man ("he always gets back up", etc) by having a literal police force of Spider-People, run by the severe and serious O’Hara, dedicated to enforcing the canonical idea of what a Spider-Person does. (It’s like Fantastic Four’s Council of Reeds, but with more dead uncles). Deviating from the course means you’re Spider-Man/Woman/Ham no more (and also the universe is destroyed).

Miguel’s crew of Spider-Dimension-Cops have all accepted Amazing Spider-Man #90 as a Spider-versal constant and rule of law - and Miles fights back against that fate as penned by Stan Lee, Gil Kane and John Romita Sr. “AND DEATH SHALL COME!” so Lee announces with dramatic certainty at the top of that issue, the one marking the death of Captain George Stacy and Spider-Man’s internalisation of his culpability: definitive moments in the character’s 60+year arc. 

Through addressing this tradition Across the Spider-Verse also asks if the tenets of decades of Spider-Man really need to apply to Miles for him to be considered legitimate. Gerry Conway killed Gwen Stacy because Spider-Man is apparently about "guilt and pain". It’s an ethos that Marvel Comics editorial have decided to run with, so it’s nice that Hobie Brown, Spider-Punk (voiced with laid back cool by Daniel Kaluuya), highlights that it’s actually about self-determination, “being your own boss”. Miles has been taught but he’s only been going through the motions according to what other people have said. Spider-Man has to be guilty, to live in pain, apparently, but Across the Spider-Verse forces him to decide for himself, and forces itself to be different.

It doubles as a reflection on the restrictions of staying canonical, instead of riffing and going with the gut. (You could couple this, strangely enough, with Tetsuya Nomura’s batshit ending to Final Fantasy VII Remake, where the idea of a canonical storyline is partially represented by a gigantic, gaping void and the characters have to fight fate itself). It comes back to the very way that the two antagonists of the piece are drawn: both incomplete in different ways. The Spot yearns for something more substantial than being a throwaway “villain of the week”, while Miguel’s sole mission is about preserving that played out editorial remit.

On a simpler level, it’s also constantly very funny to counter all that angst - stuffed with cute visual gags (I enjoyed a little Puerto Rican flag appearing above Rio Morales angrily snapping her fingers at her son) and armed with sharp jokes that befit the characters without feeling like a cynical, defensive layer. Speaking of angst, that becomes the bit of the brief, recurring appearances of Ben “Scarlet Spider” Reilly, an overblown parody of 90s comic book edginess, both visually impressive and mildly ridiculous in his evocation of Tom Lyle’s intense design of the character.

As a fellow screening attendee noted, if the first film was The Matrix - a visually inventive American blockbuster incorporation of styles across mediums and genre - this is The Matrix Reloaded, itself an allegory for the filmmaker sisters refusing to simply repeat the successes of the first film. The nature of this film's ending, a pretty exciting middle-chapter cliffhanger, means that this feels incomplete for now. Doesn't mean that it's anything less than exhilarating in the moment, though.

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