Review: "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" is bold, beautiful, and brilliant
They did it again. Holy cow, they did it again.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is only half a movie, and it still makes damn near every other superhero film ever made look like Morbius.
Let’s start there: Nine times out of ten, when a movie splits itself into Part 1 and Part 2, it’s either because someone in the C-suite with a spreadsheet decreed it as a way to boost and spread out the earnings, or because a filmmaker’s head grew too big and they’ve inflated the run-time with copious amounts of ego. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay didn’t need to be two parts, but the math on the spreadsheet made sense. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune didn’t need to be two parts, but we’ve decided any book worth adapting can’t be done within 2 to 3 hours anymore, so it got (awkwardly) split in half. Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac didn’t have one movie’s worth of ideas in it, let alone two, but that ego got awful big, and so five-and-a-half hours of that crap were unleashed upon the world.
Across the Spider-Verse is different. This is the exceptionally rare case where once you’ve seen it, you believe the filmmakers 100% when they say they intended to make one movie and eventually found themselves telling too much story, tackling too many themes, to fit within the confines of a single feature film. And by the time the end credits roll, you know they’ve made the right call, because the film is using that space and that breathing room to make something profoundly beautiful: To deepen character, establish setting, and artistically experiment in ways and to profound degrees Hollywood movies, let alone superhero films, very rarely do. It moves us, it dazzles us, it enlightens us – and by the time it tells us “To be continued,” we trust it implicitly. It’s earned the faith and then some.
Of course, Across the Spider-Verse already had an awful lot of faith going in. Its immediate predecessor, 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, is the single most aesthetically bold and visually inventive film produced and released by a Hollywood studio in my lifetime, and it isn’t a particularly close competition. In an era where both animated and live-action productions have been largely drained of imagination, ambition, and technical skill, Spider-Verse felt like it dropped out of an alternate dimension, a kaleidoscopic explosion of color and texture and motion that broke every rule of the industry’s overly-homogenized 3D animation market. Saying it’s one of the 2 or 3 best superhero films ever made feels like damning its mammoth accomplishment with faint praise. The prospect of a sequel has obviously been extremely exciting, but still, in the back of my head, at least a small part of me worried: Would they be allowed to be that adventurous again? The first film’s influence on the industry has already been vast (see Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film for evidence), but it ‘only’ made $384 million worldwide. Maybe Sony – whose last live-action Spider-Man, the reprehensibly awful stand-in for all the terrible things Spider-Verse wasn’t, No Way Home, grossed close to $2 billion – would tighten the reins, demand something simpler, something more familiar, something closer to what the spreadsheet would ask for. Do we really live in the world where we could get two of these things?
Well, let me put it this way: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now the single most aesthetically bold and visually inventive film produced and released by a Hollywood studio in my lifetime, and it’s only competition isSpider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson take over for the first film’s trio of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, and instead of pulling back, they double all the way down, delivering a tour-de-force of digital animation that deploys every trick that wowed in the first film – the explosive use of color, the comic-book textures, the chromatic fringing on characters and surfaces, the bespoke hand-drawn attention to detail grafted into a limitless 3D space, etc. – and adds a bunch of its own, with each universe (er, Spider-Verse) the characters visit getting its own unique look and style and visual language. There are whole swaths of the film that push towards pure abstraction, like an early confrontation between Gwen Stacy and her father in which the backgrounds (already some of the most highly-stylized surfaces in the film) disappear altogether, giving way to expressive splashes of color that function purely as extensions of mood and emotion. One of the film’s main antagonists, The Spot, is a minimalist monstrosity operating on M.C. Escher logic who eventually transforms into a torrent of hand-drawn scribbles that clash violently with his surroundings. The opening action sequence is a fight with a version of The Vulture who fell out of a dimension of Leonardo da Vinci sketches, and brings that visual logic with him wherever he goes, while one of the main Spider-People on display is Spider-Punk, who cuts through the movie like he’s been sliced haphazardly out of a newspaper comic. The film is frequently is a genuine act of collage, layering multiple styles on top of each other at once and letting them clash, reveling in the visual disunity. Disney’s Marvel films can barely composite a character against a green screen these days; Across the Spider-Verse, meanwhile, is tossing countless styles of animation in a blender and boldly splashing the results across the screen like it’s a Jackson Pollock painting.
Of course, the film is also a masterwork of choreography and motion, its action set-pieces both finely-tuned exercises in clockwork precision and barely contained chaos, simultaneously embracing a sense of ‘holy shit, what did I just see?’ physics-defying largesse and precise slapstick timing that would make the Looney Tunes proud. Into the Spider-Verse had some of this, but not at this film’s scale; the sheer number of characters, objects, and abstract shapes on screen at any given time is mind-boggling. I don’t know if it produces any one single image as immediately profound and iconic as Miles’ upside-down leap off the skyscraper in the first film, but it produces dozens that are funnier, stranger, and more out-of-body breathtaking. When this film is cooking, you forget the boundaries of the screen even exist. You’re in it. Virtual reality wishes it could grab you this hard.
That the film not only finds space for a damn good story amidst all this visual virtuosity, but like the first film uses its dimension-hopping aesthetic anarchy as an essential springboard for so much of what this story has to say, feels like a borderline cruel dunk on everybody else working in the superhero space. Across the Spider-Verse has a lot of things on its mind, and it communicates each and every one of them beautifully. It is a film about growing up and stepping out into the world, about that moment when you realize how little about yourself you actually comprehend, just as you realize your parents are people too, and that they have fathoms of internality you’ll never fully appreciate. And it’s about that feeling of realizing how big and complicated and messy the world really is, and coming to understand how you will need a strong and durable sense of self, of who you are and who you love and what you value and what really matters, if you’re going to be able to cut through it with any kind of certainty. Plenty of coming-of-age films have tackled these ideas; what makes Across the Spider-Verse special is how it takes the metaphor and blows it wide open, weaponizes our culture’s current interest in multiverse stories and evergreen obsession with Spider-Man mythos into a playing field where the emotional intensity and messiness of these ideas can be made manifest. Nothing in this movie looks real, and every inch of it feels true – that’s art, in a nutshell.
Phil Lord returns to write the screenplay, joined this time by his usual partner-in-crime Christopher Miller and franchise newcomer David Callaham, who’s waded through an awful lot of shit to get this moment (the 2005Doom adaptation, the first two Expendables, Wonder Woman 1984, the new Mortal Kombat movie – the man has put in his time in the trenches). The film is structurally weird, opening with a Gwen Stacy short film, then featuring a very long first act, moving into a relatively normal-length second act, and then ending just as the characters leap into the third. All of these might be death knells in lesser hands (another Spidey flick, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, counts an unworkably long first act among its most egregious flaws), but this team makes it work. The Gwen Stacy opening is so good you start to forget this is supposed to be a Miles Morales movie, and once we do catch up with Miles, part of me never wanted to leave the sublime immersion of that first act. Miles’ character is so rich, both his parents so palpably human, the world he moves through so detailed and full of life and vitality, that Across the Spider-Verse more than earns its extended time setting up character and theme. Once he’s off on his multi-versal journey, the film is so creative and fleet-footed, and the script so smart and adroit in communicating character and thematic conflict, that it never feels ‘wrong’ that we’re still getting essential exposition about the basic rules of this world deep into the film’s relatively long runtime. And even though the film unapologetically ends on a cliffhanger, teeing itself up to resolve many of its biggest narrative and thematic ideas in Part 2, there is a real journey completed here, with both Miles and Gwen learning something big about themselves and their place in the world before credits roll. You don’t feel cheated by the “To be continued” – you feel like you’ve been promised something, by a group of artists who have earned your trust and then some.
That list of artists is long and includes dozens of animators, modelers, technicians, and so on; it also includes composer Daniel Pemberton, whose score is equal parts propulsive, bombastic, and gripping; and a long list of actors who uniformly impress, from returning players like Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld as Miles and Gwen to perfectly-cast newcomers like Jason Schwartzman and Oscar Isaac, the latter of whom proves he can be every bit as intense, charismatic, and smoldering behind a microphone as he in front of a camera. Special attention is due, though, to Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez as Miles’ parents, Jefferson and Rio. There is a warmth and a vulnerability to their work here that took me aback, over and over again; each got tears out of me at separate points. Spider-Man stories are very frequently about the hero’s relationship to their parental figures, but I don’t think there’s ever been one that cuts as close to the bone as this film does.
Across the Spider-Verse earns an immediate spot in the uppermost echelon of American superhero films; the top 5, I would say with a high degree of confidence, are this, Into the Spider-Verse, the traditionally animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie – I don’t think anything else quite comes close to broaching those inner ranks. That three of these films are animated is a clear sign Hollywood has been doing it wrong for a long time, and that a superhero’s most natural habitat probably isn’t in front of a film camera, but that’s a discussion for another day. This is a genre that’s mostly creatively dead at this point, and Across the Spider-Verse, like Into the Spider-Verse before it, feels like a portal to a different dimension where Disney hadn’t beaten this horse to death, and the passion and pathos these characters once occasioned was allowed to breathe freely through their cinematic adaptations. Thank God that portal landed this film in our world. Here is a superhero film that isn’t an act of commerce or of obligation – it is, to its core, an act of love.
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