Five Things I Loved in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and One I Didn't

Well, hot damn.

I actually wasn't keen on the idea of a sequel to 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The first film was so remarkable, so brilliant on so many different levels, that it seemed impossible for its achievement to be reproduced. I wasn't eager to watch it transformed, like so many other exceptional pop culture events, into fodder for endless sequels and imitations—especially since the latter happened almost immediately, with Hollywood instantly embracing the film's most notable innovations, its deliberately skewed, not-entirely-realistic animation style, and the idea of the multiverse, both of which have become almost ubiquitous in a mere five years. A Spider-Verse sequel, I thought, couldn't help but feel like it was playing catch-up with the film's own imitators.

So I guess that's me told, then, because Across the Spider-Verse is simply stunning. It's not just a step forward from the original film in practically every respect, but from where the industry currently is. Like its predecessor, it's setting a standard that every other film in its vicinity—every Spider-Man movie, of course, but also every superhero movie, every animated movie, every summer blockbuster—is going to have to measure itself against. And, aside from all that, it's just a truly great movie, easily the best I've seen so far this year.

I don't feel quite equal to reviewing it yet—not unlike Everything Everywhere All at Once, I suspect this is a movie that I'll only fully be able to articulate my thoughts about once I've seen it a second time, ideally with a pause and rewind button at hand. But I wanted to put together a preliminary list of things that Across the Spider-Verse does extremely well—and the one that I'm a little uncertain about.

  • First and foremost, this is sequel, but not a recapitulation of the first movie. A lot of the ideas that the first movie was interested in remain in place, of course: this is still a movie about Miles Morales's (Shameik Moore) journey towards heroism, and the multiverse still plays a key role. But as a piece of storytelling, Across the Spider-Verse is significantly different from its prequel, not merely a stepping up of the same tropes and concepts. It's not as concerned with mentorship as the first movie (presumably for this reason, Jake Johnson's Peter B. Parker appears in a vastly reduced role, and only very near the film's end), and its story is not as straightforwadly a tale of coming of age. Its villains (plural: there are three, each very different in their powers, their relationship to Miles, and the threat they pose him) are something completely new in this fictional universe, and that universe, while it builds on the ideas introduced in the first movie, also has a lot of new detail. It's telling a Miles Morales story, not Into the Spider-Verse 2.

    This is extremely satisfying to me, because one of the things I most appreciated about Into the Spider-Verse was the argument it made that there were more, and more interesting, stories to be told about Spider-Man than the endless repetition of the tale of self-sacrifice, loss, and return to heroism that has characterized all the live-action movies about him. Even those films that haven't been origin stories have gone back to this well (think of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, or Spider-Man: No Way Home). While I recognize that it is a key component of the character, I don't think that his stories should always revolve around it. One of the reasons I was concerned about a Spider-Verse sequel was my fear that having landed on a new type of story to tell with Spider-Man (albeit a different Spider-Man), this series would immediately assume that this was the only story to be told about him. That every sequel would offer yet another variation on the "leap of faith" concept that was the first film's lynchpin. Instead, Across the Spider-Verse is continuing to innovate, persuasively arguing that even though Miles himself is on a single journey, the adventures he has on that journey can still be variable. And I don't think it could have made this point so effectively if it weren't for...

  • The Structure. If there's one complaint being made about Across the Spider-Verse, it is that it's a stealth part one, ending on a surprise "To Be Continued" screen. I do think that it was a mistake to spring this on audiences, whose enjoyment in every other aspect of the movie starts to curdle as they realize how long it's been running, and how far the story is from anything resembling a resolution. (I've already noticed altered forms of the film's posters online with a prominently displayed Part One below the title.) But if you go into the film knowing that it's the first half of the story (as I did) I think it quickly becomes clear that this is an enormously rewarding choice, one that allows for much more adventurous (and comics-like) storytelling. 

    James Gunn already experimented with more episodic storytelling within the comic book film in his delightful 2021 reboot The Suicide Squad, but Across the Spider-Verse takes that approach and makes it its own. It starts with a long preamble that not only gives Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) the chance to establish herself as a point of view character and the film's co-lead, but includes its own pulse-pounding action scene, before introducing some key characters and concepts. It gives Miles a long, mostly-solo chapter in which to not only establish what his life looks like, a year and a half after the events of the first film, but reveal the conflict he now has with his increasingly puzzled parents (Luna Lauren Velez and Brian Tyree Henry), who don't understand where their son keeps disappearing to and what his new priorities are. Two of its villains—the initially pathetic and then increasingly terrifying Spot (Jason Schwartzman), and the initially heroic and then increasingly autocratic Miguel O'Hara, AKA Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac)—get their own origin story interludes. It's not until halfway through the movie that we're introduced to what is arguably its core McGuffin, the Spider Society, a collection of all Spider-People from across the multiverse who have come together under Miguel's leadership to stamp out cross-dimensional incursions and preserve The Canon. And even once that happens—and once Miles finds himself in opposition to this group—there are still more revelations to come. Miles arrives in a universe with no Spider-Man, and ends up face-to-face with the film's third villain, the Miles Morales of this dimension, AKA The Prowler (Jharrel Jerome).

    In a way, this is an extension of the first film's "let's do this one more time" interludes. Except instead of getting a potted introduction to each alternate Spider-Person, we now get to see them in their world, for example a sequence set in Mumbattan, which is patrolled by Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni), a handsome, happy-go-lucky Indian Spider-Man, in which Miles not only gets to feel some feelings of inadequacy and romantic jealousy, but to engage in a gargantuan action sequence. But it's also a very comics approach to storytelling, one that doesn't feel beholden to a single, linear plot but free to start its story again and again from different perspectives. And what that ends up revealing in Across the Spider-Verse is that this isn't just one story, but a myriad of them. That every character here, even the ones we end up rooting against, is the hero of their own tale. Into the Spider-Verse told us that "anyone can wear the mask". Across the Spider-Verse shows us what that looks like. And when I say "shows", I mean literally, because one of the key tools of the film's multiversal storytelling is...

  • The Visuals. This is the one place where I really didn't expect a sequel to Into the Spider-Verse to innovate too much, simply because the first film was such a revelation on this score that I didn't think there could possibly be another level to its artistry. Turns out, there are three or four more levels at least. But as much as the film's visuals deliver bombastic action scenes—including some mind-bending explorations of the fact that these are all characters on whom gravity does not exert the kind of pull that it does on regular people (or even other heroes), and whose definitions of "up" and "down" are pretty loose—the most interesting choice made in Across the Spider-Verse is the one to distinguish each Spider-Person's world through visual style.

    Into the Spider-Verse took place almost entirely in Miles's world, which is not our own, but distinguished from it in fairly subtle ways, such as PDNY instead of NYPD. For all that the film's action scenes were full of phantasmagorical splendor, the core design of this world was fairly standard for computer-animated movies. Its comics-like flourishes—panels, dialogue boxes, offset colors—rested on a foundation of realistic animation. Across the Spider-Verse throws that realism out the window right off the bat when it opens in Gwen's world, where the backdrops are far more impressionistic, dabs of pastel watercolors creating the impression of a cityscape. And if this feels like a metaphor for Gwen's detached emotional state (or perhaps even a hint that she is trans), the more we see of the Spider-Verse, the clearer it becomes that the film means this all quite literally. There is a world where everyone and everything is made of Lego, and a world with bold, black border lines and Lichtensteinian dots in all the color blocks. Spot, who can create holes in reality and eventually between different dimensions, occupies an extra-dimensional space drawn in black and white penstrokes. The amount of thought that has clearly gone into creating these different visual spaces, and evoking different emotional responses with them, is immense.

    What I find even more impressive, however, is the way that individual characters carry their own visual motifs over with them, even into other (and more naturalistic-seeming) worlds. In the Gwen-focused preamble, she fights a version of the Vulture (Jorma Taccone) who comes from Renaissance Italy. Even when he crosses over into Gwen's world, the character is illustrated in Da Vinci-esque sketches, with charcoal strokes over parchment. Later in the film, Miles meets Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), a punk Spider-Man drawn in a janky, collage style, whose jerky movements (the character was designed to refresh slightly out of sync with everyone else's frame rate) establish him as a bit of grit impeding the smooth operation of the system. Both characters move through environments drawn in completely different styles from them with absolute seamlessness, a feat of lighting and direction that is all the more impressive for how natural it looks. And it's precisely because characters who are so visually out of place fit so well into the film's world—and especially the Pixar-esque headquarters of the Spider Society—that we notice how the comparatively normal-looking Miles is still the odd man out. How every character—both the ones we know and the ones new to this movie—seems to take a beat when they meet him, and how he seems to have been the only Spider-Person excluded from the Society. Which means that the ground has been thoroughly laid for the revelation that...

  • "You're not supposed to be Spider-Man!" For as much as I've praised Across the Spider-Verse for feeling like its own thing rather than just a follow-up to Into the Spider-Verse, there's no denying that its events were well-seeded in that movie. One of those seeds is the number 42 on the back of the spider that bites Miles and gives him spider powers. Early in Across the Spider-Verse it's revealed that it came through the supercollider that jumpstarted that film's entire sequence of events. But it takes nearly the entire length of the movie for it to spell out what that means—that Miles got his powers by accident, instead of the person who was supposed to get them in the universe the spider came from.

    Within the context of the movie—which eventually reveals that the Spider Society is fanatically devoted to preserving The Canon, including ensuring that every Spider-Person experiences a foundational loss in the vein of Uncle Ben's death—this is a brilliant way of setting Miles apart and setting up his conflict with the Society and Miguel (who claims that allowing the Canon to be violated will lead to whole universes being swallowed out of existence). But as a meta statement, it is something even better—a sharp, effective way of bringing into the movie the constant drum of real-world criticism against the very concept of a Spider-Man who is not Peter Parker, and who is an Afro-Latino teen. It feels deliberate that so many of the background Spider-People in the movie are some variant on Peter Parker, if only on the level of their name. It makes Miles stand out even more, and makes the entire film a commentary on the resistance that can emerge to even token efforts at diversity. Against Into the Spider-Verse's perhaps too-easy affirmation of inclusiveness, Across the Spider-Verse reminds us what can happen when people—especially people from certain backgrounds—try to claim their own space. Which brings us to...

  • Miles. A crisis of confidence is a fairly common character beat in a superhero story, and for Spider-Man in particular it feels almost de rigueur. For any other Spider-Man—and certainly all the versions of Peter Parker we've seen on screen in the last two decades—it seems clear that a revelation such as the one that arrives near the end of Across the Spider-Verse would have sent them into a spiral of self-doubt. So the fact that Miles doesn't do that is both enormously refreshing, and a profound reflection of who he is and how he understand himself as a hero. After a whole movie in which we've been privy to all of Miles's doubts and insecurities—his fear of telling his parents his secret, his tentative romantic overtures towards Gwen, his envy of older, more established Spider-Men like Pavitr, Hobie, and Miguel, his relative inexperience as a superhero and the mistakes he makes because of it—what we realize is that under it all, there is one thing Miles is in absolutely no doubt of. "Everyone keeps telling me how my story is supposed to go," he defiantly, but with surprising calm, tells Miguel. "Nah. I'ma do my own thing."

    It's impossible to disentangle this reaction—and the way in which it is presented to us, with no small amount of swagger—from race. Earlier in the film, Miles's mother tries to explain her fears for him as he grows up and goes into the world. More than violence or prejudice, what worries her is that Miles will be ground down by a world that doesn't value him, and which will try to teach him not to value himself. Miles refusing, with such force and immediacy, Miguel's claim that he has no right to the mask is a direct result of her urging him to hold on to his sense of self-worth. It's a reminder that self-doubt means something different in a white character who is, implicitly, the designated hero, than it does in a black teen who is viewed with suspicion and hostility by so much of society. Across the Spider-Verse not only incorporating the "anti-woke" response to characters like Miles Morales into its storytelling, but having its main character reject it so forcefully and immediately, is the sort of moment that makes you want to stand up and cheer. And it's almost enough to make me forgive the convolutions of plot it took to get us there, the one part of the movie that gives me pause...

  • The Sacred Spider-Timeline. A film like Across the Spider-Verse naturally has a prominent metafictional component, all the way back to the comics covers that introduced each character in the first movie. So the fact that a major element of its storytelling is trying to work out what the essence of Spider-Man is is not only unsurprising, but probably inevitable. But the more Across the Spider-Verse delves into this question, the more schematic and unconvincing its answers seem. Even before he learns that he got bitten by the wrong spider, Miles clashes with Miguel over the latter's claim that he should have let a police captain in Pavitr's world die, because this is a Canon Event that is essential to the whole universe's survival. In fact, every Spider-Person has to fail to save a father/uncle/captain figure in their life in order to actualize as a hero (and apparently, in order for their whole universe not to be sucked into nothingness). Both Miles and Gwen have that loss yet to come, a fact that she has accepted, and he refuses to.

    In itself, this is pretty cheap, and feels like it's instrumentalizing what is supposed to be a key character moment, but that's not even what bothers me about it. No, my problem with this revelation is that not just Gwen, but every other Spider-Person in the movie is fine with it. That Gwen, in fact, tried to stop Miles from saving Pavitr's captain figure. And that is simply wrong. It's one thing to say that Spider-Man can never save everyone and that coming back from the heartbreak of that is what makes him, in all his variations, a hero. But it's something quite different to suggest that Spider-Man would stand back and let an innocent die because that's what's "supposed" to happen. That's not who the character is, and the idea that Miles is the only Spider-Person who realizes this simply doesn't make any sense. (This is where the film's choice to downplay Peter B proves most problematic, because his refusal to engage with this dilemma in favor of cooing over his adorable toddler daughter makes him seem like a pod person.)

    My strong suspicion is that one of the upcoming Beyond the Spider-Verse's tasks will be to explode this status quo and maybe even reveal it as a lie. But I wonder how far this series is willing to defy the canonical form of the character. To put it another way, I'm less invested in whether Miles and Gwen's fathers will survive than in whether they manage to wake up the rest of Spider Society to the monstrousness of standing by as those deaths occur, and I'm not sure what that will mean for all Spider-People going forward. I hope that this is the reaction I'm meant to have, and that Beyond the Spider-Verse will carry its themes home as surely as Across the Spider-Verse brought them to this point. Certainly, given how completely this film blew past my already high expectations, there's good reason to have faith.


Murc said…
No, my problem with this revelation is that not just Gwen, but every other Spider-Person in the movie is fine with it. That Gwen, in fact, tried to stop Miles from saving Pavitr's captain figure. And that is simply wrong. It's one thing to say that Spider-Man can never save everyone and that coming back from the heartbreak of that is what makes him, in all his variations, a hero. But it's something quite different to suggest that Spider-Man would stand back and let an innocent die because that's what's "supposed" to happen. That's not who the character is, and the idea that Miles is the only Spider-Person who realizes this simply doesn't make any sense.

I mean. I guess my response to this is "what are they supposed to do instead?"

Like, suppose Miguel tells his story to another spider-person and makes the case there are certain things they gotta let happen, and they go "well that's awful, I'm going to save people anyway." As you would expect.

And then they do that, and their universe unspools and billions of people, including the person they were trying to save, dies in what is, if Miguel's experience is indicative, a truly horrifying fashion.

I feel like after the fifth or sixth time the spider-society sees something like that happen, all of the spider-people would get on board with it, if for no other reason than that most of them will have already lost someone close to them and are paranoid about losing more. After you've seen a bunch of other versions of you get obliterated in universal genocides that they caused... yeah. They'd get on board REAL fast.

From the perspective of the spider-people, what they're doing is saving billions of lives.

I will say that... I've talked to some people who are familiar with Miguel's specific corner of the comics (Spider-Man 2099, which I've not read a single issue of) and they say "oh, no, what's going on isn't what seems to be going on if you've read that; Miguel's understanding of the multiverse is flawed and what he thinks is a naturally occurring cosmological event in the form of 'canon violation = universe implosion' is in fact being deliberately caused by a villain." So if that's the case its a very easy out.

But if that's not the case and things are as they seem... I mean, you could make the case that the writers should not construct a universe where Spider-Man has to stand by and let people die because otherwise the universe will slaughter billions, because that's not a great story to tell. But if they HAVE constructed a universe like that, then there isn't, you know, an actual ethical choice but to do just that, and in fact to police multiversal travel harshly and closely to prevent universes from obliterating each other due to cross-contamination.
Chuk said…
I was cautiously optimistic after seeing good reviews, but the movie is so much better than I was hoping. Right from Gwen's intro with her drumming and narration building to a crescendo, I was just hooked. I do think there has to be more to all these Spider-Mans just accepting that there has to be a tragedy to motivate them, though, it did ring hollow that everyone (well, not quite everyone as we see at the end) would just accept it. I also felt coming out of the theatre that I'm going to have to see it at least once more.
Ian said…
The fact that we literally see one of Spot's spots begin to grow out of control after Captain Singh is saved, that the Spider-Squad predicted it, knew it was coming, and had a countermeasure prepared... that gives evidence that Miguel is right. Not proof; Miles may be right that there is another way, but the fact that the Spiders-men have genuine evidence that Miguel has a point changes things. All Spiders-Men, even the silliest, have experienced loss and pain caused by their own failures, and usually their own moral failures. The argument that they may be required to choose the greater good over what is easy is 100% one that they will find compelling, the fact that the loss is one that will hurt them personally is relevant. They have internalized the idea that they have to face loss without giving up: the fact that they are actually making someone else experience loss is maybe not 100% clear. They had to face it; they are all the same; it is what they had to do. It doesn't mean Miguel is right and Miles is wrong, but I understand why the Spiders would believe it.
mc2rpg said…
I feel like the main issue with everyone accepting the stations of canon is that they all are able to mingle and know the specific beats. It seems far easier to buy into Gwen's original statement that its an elite squad with limited slots.

Miguel having a few handfuls of spider people that know the score and have bought into doing what has to be done to save uncountable billions, even if it means not saving a few of them, seems far more believable than the entire society fully buying in. Then the locals they reach out to for information and local aid won't know what the dimension hopping spiders are ultimately willing to let them sacrifice but will know that they are trying to save lives and need to be contacted if something blatantly out of place shows up.
Jason said…
I really enjoyed it but I will say I didn't know it was only a part 1 and didn't really come to realize it until the cliffhanger ending, and that soured me on it a little. I walked out of the theater fairly frustrated and unsatisfied. I'm sure that all will be soothed when the sequel comes out, and knowing it will be 9 months and not 6 years helps.
Danny Sichel said…
Miles *has* gone through a foundational loss of an uncle figure. In the first movie, his uncle Aaron was killed right in front of him.

Popular posts from this blog

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Somehow, It Got Worse

Recent Movie: The Batman

The 2023 Hugo Awards: Now With an Asterisk