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‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Review
The best-looking half-a-movie you’ll see all year!
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is, without a doubt, a visual masterpiece, an occasionally jarring but altogether awe-inspiring collision of animation styles and optical ideas piled on top of one another, a movie that looks so good and that so elegantly rides the rhythmic and percussive nature of both the soundtrack and the barrage of images that you’ll likely forgive and forget the fact that it’s only one half of a movie.
It is hard to say how gloriously refreshing Across the Spider-Verse is to see on the big screen, an explosion of controlled chaos that rather deliberately sticks a finger in the eye of the immaculate-but-fussy-feeling computer animation of Pixar and the smoothly competent but uninventive stylings of Illumination (the home of the Minions and Mario Bros.). Dreamworks has moved somewhat out of its box in recent years with Puss in Boots and The Bad Guys—which both looked something like flat 3D, as if images from an illustrated children’s book were made to move—but the dynamism there is nothing compared to what we see in Across the Spider-Verse.
The stage was set for this new film, of course, by 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, with its mélange of styles, throwing together anime and noir and American animation from the 1970s and creating something fresh by “printing” it onscreen in a way that called to mind a modernized and animated version of the Ben-Day Dot system. Into the Spider-Verse had an almost tactile quality, conjuring up a childhood sense memory of the feel and smell of a comic book fresh off the spinner rack. But Across the Spider-Verse looks like every illustration style I’ve ever seen brought to life, all at once. Not just different eras of Spider-Man—there’s a repeated gag about the brooding emo mid-’90s iteration of Spider-Man known as Ben Reilly, voiced by Andy Samberg, who spends most of his time pouting and flexing his perfectly drawn musculature—but almost every style of animation, period.
Sometimes it’s all a bit much, as when Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya) is on the screen and his world is brought to life visually via punk collage, his movements calling to mind a Sex Pistols retrospective at MoMa. Indeed, “a bit much” kind of describes Across the Spider-Verse’s whole aesthetic: It’s the sort of movie that demands to be rewatched at home, frame-by-frame, to soak in the insane amount of effort that must have gone into crafting each discrete second of cinema. There’s a bravura 20-plus-minute chase scene headed into the last act of this picture that just makes you want to stand up and cheer at the sheer kinetic insanity of it all, a wave of energy that lifts you right over questions about how, exactly, this half-of-a-movie can possibly resolve itself when the second half drops next year (or, if Beyond is delayed as Across was delayed, 2025).
Make no mistake: Like Dune a couple of years back, this is one half of one movie, and it will be hard to judge whether it works as a story—as opposed to an audiovisual experience—until we get the second half.
You can sense Across the Spider-Verse trying to sneak around that one-halfness in the way it opens and closes not with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) but with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). She’s the Spider-Woman from another dimension whose tragic backstory involves her accidentally killing the Peter Parker from her universe when he turned himself into the Lizard; ever since then she’s been running from friendship and connection, trying to find those who are strong like her and whom she cannot hurt with her powers. Gwen thinks she has found a surrogate family in the Spider-Society—a group of Spider-People led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), aka Spider-Man 2099—who go around mending interdimensional riffs. By the movie’s end, she’s made a different, and possibly better, choice, accepting the universal need to find love and friendship.
You can see Gwen’s arc here if you squint, though it mostly feels like she ends up where the first picture left off. But the actual idea at the heart of this picture goes entirely unresolved. And the idea is this: Everyone knows Spider-Man’s backstory is one of angst and trauma. What this movie presupposes is: maybe it doesn’t have to be?
Maybe Uncle Ben doesn’t have to die in Peter’s arms so he can learn that with great power comes great responsibility. Maybe Gwen Stacy doesn’t have to die at the hands of the Green Goblin to teach Peter the importance of keeping his identity secret. Maybe police captains don’t have to be crushed under mountains of rubble while trying to save children to teach Spider-Man the importance of love and duty. These canonical events happen time and again, in some form or format, in virtually every Spider-Man story, and Miles Morales risks unraveling the universe when he decides that neither he nor any other Spider-being should be forced to suffer them.
In the film, snapping these strands of fate risks unraveling, literally, the entire web of existence. In our world, it feels like writers Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and David Callaham are desperate to jettison the trauma plot from Spidey legend, the idea that his nobility springs from suffering, but aren’t quite sure how to do so—or if the character even has a reason to exist without it.
This is genuine iconoclasm of the sort you don’t see too much of within the superhero genre, and—not only as a viewer and a critic, but also as someone who grew up on and with the character and whose attachment to the mythos has likely shaded my own appreciation of art and life in ways that I can’t entirely disentangle—I’m deeply curious to see what sort of solution they’ll come up with in the second half.
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