Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse (2023)
There’s a lot of moaning (some justified, some not) about the prevalence of superhero movies in the 2020s, though we note that lately there’s also an overlapping prevalence of multiverse stories — what Everything Everywhere All at Once winning the Best Picture Oscar and now with a new Spider-Verse and a Crisis-type Flash movie opening in the same month. Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man Far From Home (which set precedents for The Flash – though the TV series The Flash crept in there first) both draw on a seemingly infinite series of parallel spider stories – the cartoon yoked in unfamiliar, wildly divergent takes on the bitten-by-a-radioactive-spider character while the live-action film connects with a twenty-year history of Spider-Man movies. Both approaches landed – though it was the cartoon that took the most radical filmmaking approach.
Across the Spider-Verse is an astonishing piece of work – ambitious technically in a way that only a follow-up to an established hit can be, though we might note with alarm that the series is now following the pattern of The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean (and, a while ago, Back to the Future) by delivering a sequel that’s part one of a two-part story (even though it has a hefty running time of its own). Several franchises floundered thanks to such inflation – though they still got further instalments out – and I had come concerns as this entered what turned out not to be the home stretch with so much up in the air. It used to be thought that there was a limit to how long audiences could stand an animated film to be, and this reminded me of an effect I noticed in the 1970s when rep cinemas often programmed whole evenings of Tex Avery or Chuck Jones cartoons – after two hours of concentrated genius and hilarity, audiences get punch-drunk. Across the Spider-Verse gets into that territory – it has just so much going on, so many different styles (gorgeously realised – with homages to a vast range of comic book art), so many glimpsed background details, so many many Spider-Folk that everyone is going to be overwhelmed by it. Like Into the Spider-Verse, it’s going to take multiple viewings – and freeze-framing – to get all the jokes and appreciate all the tiny little details. Besides the reality of Miles Morales, whose signature style was established in the first film, we get the different world of Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), done in a gorgeous painted style, the Mumbattan of an Indian Spider-Man (Karan Soni), the SF world of Spider-Man 2099 (Miguel O’Hara, voiced by Oscar Isaac) and side-trips to dozens of other universes, including the Lego Spider-World and the live-action worlds of the MCU Venom spinoffs.
Like EEAAO, all this verse-hopping is anchored by a character and situation strong enough in all its variations to serve as an anchor and a focus. It goes back to a Spider-Man comics trope – that the death of an uncle wasn’t enough, there must also be another significant loss (often a member of the Stacy family) to keep Peter Parker or variant on course as a hero who also suffers but does his duty. It’s always been a tricky balancing act in comics – too much misery and you lose Spider-Man’s quippiness (Spider-Man 2099 is a heavy here because he’s the only Spider who isn’t funny), too many good things (marrying a supermodel, becoming a tech tycoon, joining the A-team of the Avengers) and Spider-Man becomes too establishment a hero to work. Miles (Shameik Moore), relatively fresh to adaptation after many Peters, has a fifteen-year-old’s set of problems – he’s initially glum because his possible girlfriend lives in another universe, but he’s also failing Spanish and struggling to live up to family expectations while keeping a big secret – but shows a spine that keeps him central to a story which could be pulled apart by the whirling of all the other spiders, including Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) – whose collage look is an astonishing effect in a mainstream summer blockbuster (the DaVinci cartoon Vulture is similarly an out there idea carried off with aplomb).
The plot motor is another canny bit of self-referentiality that somehow everybody is now privy too – Jonathan Ohm (Jason Schwartzman), aka ‘the Spot’, has a bizarre mutant ability which reads onscreen as a Looney Tunes effect and is introduced in a typical New York skirmish over a grocery store ATM. Off-handedly, Miles calls him a ‘villain of the week’ – which ticks him off so much that he crosses dimensions, gorges on dark matter and becomes a universe-threatening menace on the scale of Galactus or Thanos but still isn’t the primary antagonist of this movie. Indeed, by the time of the cliffhanger, we’re not even sure who the worst person in Miles Morales’ multiverse is – with several strong candidates presented to be battled with in Beyond the Spider-Verse. Yes, it has a Moebius Strip infinite loop version of the Spider-Men pointing meme, but it also has very funny use of often-disliked Spider-Presence Ben Reilly/Scarlet Spider (Andy Samberg) and a rethink of Spider-Woman Jessica Drew (Issa Rae) as a pregnant Pam Grier type on a bike which should be good for a spinoff. With all this going on, some of the principles of Into the Spider-Verse are downgraded to cameos – Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) turns up late and Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) suffers the temporary-in-these-circumstances inconvenience of being dead – but Miles’ parents (Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez) actually get stronger material this time round, with Rio Morales (Velez) especially coming to the fore in a couple of brilliantly-scripted and played mother-son scenes.
Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham – from more sources than even the lengthy end credits can comfortably list – directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson … and Stan Lee Only knows how all this was held together for long enough to come into focus.