Across the Spider-Verse Is As Perfect As Expected
The thing about watching Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is there was no question of if the movie would be good. The first Spider-Verse movie was a revelation, an epoch for animation, and I barely mean that as hyperbole. “What’s Up Danger” as a scene is one of the best culminations of animation, score, and thematic cohesion perhaps ever put to screen. If the sequel even came close to the same levels of competence as any of the previous, then victory was assured.
The odd thing, though, is that as a critic, this is almost a problem. The usual reprieve in this line of work is that the worst movie to review is a boring one. A bad movie can be mocked, and a seminal movie can be gushed over. But there’s a level of technical excellence where my mind went, “Yep, that’s incredible,” and I almost had trouble parsing past that conclusion. The animation in Across the Spider-Verse alone is absurdly gorgeous. A late-game scene with Spider-Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) utilized a slight melting effect alongside the subtly different painterly style of her home dimension to convey the sense of her degrading emotional state and a father and daughter’s conflict. And, while that stood out to me in the moment, on reflection, using the whole of every scene, every damn detail, to convey emotion and meaning was such a routine occurrence in Across the Spider-Verse that you almost don’t notice how often it’s happening. You could—and someone likely already has or will—pour over the entire film’s catalog of subtle touches, the flickering stylistic changes, and likely over a hundred background details that use the intricate interconnectedness of current media’s intertextuality to deliver deft storytelling and still fail to properly expound on how good a movie this is. I consider Everything Everywhere All at Once to be the pinnacle of the emotional power of “multiversal” storytelling, but there’s no question in my mind that Across the Spider-Verse is the pinnacle of the visual power of the same concept.
This Is Visual Storytelling On Another Level Of Skill
But all of this is a little abstract to describe. You really should go see the movie. Frankly, I don’t have the vocabulary to convey the sheer width and breadth of artistic styles, comic book homages, and visual tricks that allow different animation styles to mix in a way that only—at least in commonplace pop culture—The Amazing World of Gumball has ever attempted for this elongated of scenes. Simply know that you need to arrive at a theater prepared to be floored. Instead, I can talk about the characters—and how this is perhaps one of the most emotionally complicated coming-of-age stories I’ve ever seen.
To begin, Across the Spider-Verse correctly gives Gwen her own arc, allowing her and Mile’s (voiced by Shameik Moore) story to run parallel. The main formation of this second movie is playing with the established benchmarks of Spider-Man as a character and how it’s been played with by different artists for different variations or offshoots of Peter Parker. The first movie did this partially for fun, establishing some of the character’s more obscure or comical iterations, though of course also emphatically stating—thematically and literally in dialogue—that anyone can be Spider-Man. This second movie still uses that idea(s) even further: Spider-Cat and Pter Ptarker (a Spider-Man who is also a T-Rex) are certainly quirky, but Across the Spider-Verse also uses it for the established poignant storytelling. “Canon,” the writerly term for story points supported by the original text, as divorced from fan theory and speculation, is now a metaphysical, in-universe concept affecting people’s lives. And that’s heady sci-fi postmodern shenanigans to the nth degree, but they use it so well. Because what this boils down to on a scene-by-scene level is two teenagers (and wow, do they feel like teenagers—more so than most television could ever manage) have been told, by authority figures, by peers, by seemingly the multiverse itself, what their lives must be—what must happen to them. Perhaps all coming-of-age stories are about fighting for, falling into, or being forced to have independence and autonomy, but some of the most emotionally resonate ones are those that posit that society, expectations, and history are as much pressure as an authoritative parent. Not to evoke too emotionally loaded a concept, but this movie is the “you’ll change your mind when you’re older” concept lobbed at the average teenager elevated to, as the trailer states, a matter of billions of lives. But that’s not all they do with this one concept. Somehow, it’s a more robust narrative frame than even that.
Across the Spider-Verse Has Such A Versatile Core
Because, as many fans were champing at the bit for, this movie begins the process of Miles and Gwen’s potential romance. And once again, I’m floored by how they handle it. Because it’s again a matter of fate—of canon—interfering with these teenagers’ choices. As a property, Spider-Man has often dealt with loneliness, especially because Peter so often loses people he cares about. Gwen being both aware that she loves him (and I believe she is already sure of that fact) and that if she lets herself love him, she’ll likely die is a tragedy of the highest narrative order. Some of the only people in the world who could understand each other, and they can’t be together. And because Miles is a teenage boy, it’s entirely believable—at least to me—that he would try to fight all that. A character whose arc in the first movie is learning to trust himself, to use his emotions, to not run from things is presented with a future he wants, a chance to belong, and an understanding of protecting those he loves—specifically, the knowledge that people can die at any time—is, of course, going to go through exactly this arc in this story. And so does Gwen, in her own way—which makes for quite an interesting philosophical conundrum about the universality of experience in a movie grappling and arguing against a very specific universality of happenstances.
But this is at least somewhat trodden ground for cinematic Spider-Man. Balancing romance with responsibility is everywhere in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, and (though super poorly handled) also a pivotal tragic moment in Spider-Man: No Way Home. I think Across the Spider-Verse is the best this has been done in a Spider-Man movie, but it’s at least got precedent and something to build from, which might be why it’s able to be so nuanced and well-considered. What’s more whole cloth, what I haven’t seen before, is such a potent exploration of parental connections. I keep returning to coming-of-age narratives because I think it’s the crux of why Across the Spider-Verse holds together so well. This movie covers the oft-neglected flip side of such stories, albeit doing so more briefly than the teenage perspective. Across The Spider-Verse is overtly about a parent’s responsibilities—and where they can succeed and fail. It tackles how a parent feels and navigates their child’s rising desire for independence and abject, aggressive refusal to be denied that independence. Usually, Spider-Man, at least the most well-known cinematic versions, doesn’t have parents; he has an aunt and a dead uncle—and there’s not a strong essence of him being limited in his activities. He can just leave the house whenever. But more versions of him in movies (and animated shows) should keep the parents around because it allows a level of drama that’s one of the main storytelling benefits of a “secret identity.” Mile’s mom and dad feel like actual parents, and the story is sympathetic to parents—and they will be in the audience to see that. Rio (voiced by Luna Lauren Velez) and Jefferson’s (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry) conversations with Miles, especially when they think that all his tardiness, erratic behavior, and secret-keeping are caused by falling in with some shady girlfriend, are shockingly grounded. In the same vein, Gwen’s arguments with her dad (voiced by Shea Whigham) are some of the best scenes in the whole movie. The first film focused on Mile’s father—but with this extra room, they can do so much more. Across the Spider-Verse not only gives more amazing scenes with Miles and his dad, comedic and poignant alike, but also shows the mother’s perspective. And I’ve barely seen a mother’s love so earnestly and honestly portrayed in film. I nearly cried.
This Is How To Do Powerful Emotional Storytelling
And, yes, we’re still talking about a movie about a person with the powers of a spider. Somehow, someway, a movie with this premise, an absurdly large cast, and this many in-built excuses for bombastic, kinetic scenes keeps things shockingly grounded and, more importantly, grounded in its characters. This level of restraint, a remarkably slow build to the multiverse stuff, ensuring the audience is comfortable and engaged in the inner struggles of these characters is a testament, a confirmation, and a resolute announcement of pure storytelling precision. Seriously and emphatically, study this goddam movie if you ever want to write or produce anything about superheroes, please.
But that’s not to say that this movie isn’t absurdly fun from the word jump (or perhaps, from the word “leap”). When Across the Spider-Verse wants to be, it knows how amazing it is having lots and lots of spider-people running around in a single scene. The sheer diversity of body types, cultures, ages, and variations on how the power set of “rapidly moves by defying gravity, usually assisted by something that can stretch” gets explored is simply wonderful. As is the obvious intent and seemingly already the case in the comics, every Spider-Person feels like a character I want to see a whole story about. Across the Spider-Verse is a culmination of why people like animation as a medium. The dynamic camera movements real-world cameras could probably never do with real actors, the syncing of motion to music down to the second, and the distinct and detailed character designs that are instantly understandable the second you see them are all put into this one project. And it’s that last one that’s sticking with me the most. People already are gushing about characters like Pavitr Prabhakar (voiced by Karan Soni), Spider-Punk (voiced by Daniel Kaluuya), and Jessica Drew (voiced by Issa Rae), alongside so many others, because so much care went into them all. Went into establishing the variations: how they move, use their powers, and their personalities, but also because they all have splendid visual designs. Some have different animation styles to bring them to life, from CGI to Spider-Punk’s anarchic, almost cut-up newspaper pop-art style. Though some characters probably get under five minutes of screen time by actual count, if they’re a main character, they feel fleshed out and understandable—and the ones that don’t, as I said, demand the same treatment. This is such a good movie.
Every Single Central Character Design Is Incredible
But I must talk about every facet on my mind. Is there stuff not to like in this movie? Yes, a few things, and it’s almost entirely technical, and it might even be something that’s only a problem because I watched it in theaters fairly soon after its release. When it comes out for streaming, it probably will all be fixed. But we’ll still talk about it.
The first is the sound. I’ve not done much research into this, but it’s my understanding that Sony is working on fixing matters, but I still saw the version I saw. The basic problem is that dialog was hard to hear sometimes, especially early in the movie—the problem seemed to level out eventually. I missed or strained to hear certain things. Despite this, the story is still understandable, but with the sheer volume of quips, poignant lines, and Easter Eggs, any missed lines feel like a loss. The second one is a problem for monolingual people. I only speak English, and Across the Spider-Verse has dialog in several languages, with no subtitles and insufficient body language/context cues to get what’s happening sometimes. It also has a character who speaks in a thick Cockney accent and uses at least one instance of Cockney Rhyming Slang—which is translated in a comic book style aside once, but probably not every time. I love that in Across the Spider-Verse the variety, diversity, and breadth of who spider-people are is also shown through what language(s) they speak, but I wish I got more subtitles, or more instances of diegetic, in-dialog translations after the fact. And if you’re like me, I would suggest seeing this movie in theaters/the biggest screen possible (because it’s gorgeous) and then again on a probably smaller device once it’s available for streaming (so you can pause, rewind, and translate dialog easily) for the full experience. And then watch it a third time for various reasons but also because it’s an amazing movie that deserves it.
Across the Spider-Verse Has So Much To Love In It
My second complaint, and I only have two overarching gripes about Across the Spider-Verse, is a full-on spoiler. A big freaking spoiler I don’t want to ruin for you unless you’re sure you don’t mind spoilers. It changes how you watch this movie. I didn’t know of it before going in, and I’m unsure how I would’ve reacted differently if I’d known. Skip to the final paragraph if you want to avoid it. And…so, the ending of this movie shocked me. I audibly said something like, “You can’t Infinity War us like that!” It ends on such an amazing setup for a sequel I wanted it to play Beyond the Spider-Verse immediately. And not knowing this actually makes the tonal flow of the ending weird. Because, if you know the general progression of movies, it feels like things were calming down, or at least getting moodier and contemplative, right when it should’ve picked up into the climax. I was sitting there wondering how freaking long this movie must be if we’re not at the big The Spot (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) battle yet—but it looks like that’ll be a whole other film. This is why to watch Across the Spider-Verse a third time, and that third time is right before seeing the sequel, whenever that is. It promises to be one hell of a double feature. The temptation to say wait until you can just watch both back-to-back is strong, but I can’t imagine waiting that long and avoiding spoilers with a film this wonderful and this culturally relevant.
Okay, spoilers are done, and the wrap-up for this one is self-evident. You know what I’m going to say. Across the Spider-Verse is a phenomenal movie operating on a level of precision, craft, and understanding of its source material that makes most other movies feel like anti-climaxes, half-hearted attempts in comparison. If you’ve ever liked Spider-Man, in any form, in any medium, ever, then this is the movie for you. Across the Spider-Verse is a blend of hundreds of factors all connected in one glorious viewing experience, with emotionally charged moments that’ll hit like a truck, amazing spectacle moments that will make you wish so damn bad you had spider powers (without canon restraints, of course), and a story that only gets better, more robust, more resonantly true to so many experiences the longer you think about it that even a week after I saw this film I’m still realizing new things to marvel about. I’m honestly not sure a better movie will be released until the sequel arrives and reinvents the game, once again.
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