dirs: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K Thompson
There is so much going on here.
Visually, this film, like its predecessor, pushes the possibilities of the medium (animation) by not just trying to replicate the aesthetics of the comic book format, but creating entirely new ways of displaying images, action, and the fluid transitions between them for the purposes of telling this story. And, yes, we are all completely getting sick of the multiverse stuff, but this flick manages to be extra-dimensional beyond that as well, having Miles and his mates fight in more than just four dimensions.
It's visually intense but on point, maybe a lot of it is for its own sake but there’s just so much going on, with a kind of go for broke energy, an almost terror of not getting every single brilliant idea represented, that it really asks a lot of the viewer. I’m not sure what the ideal state of mind or being is for watching this. It demands your attention, filling every frame with dense detail, and if you’re not in the right frame of mind I could see why this would be baffling / overwhelming.
And that beginning, my gods.
Miles Morales isn’t even in it for the first twenty minutes. It’s Gwen’s story up till that point. And what a story it tells, as she’s narrating to us, but alternating drumming with a band she quits and fighting an Italian Renaissance version of The Vulture, as well as finding out about some other Spider-Persons who travel through the dimensions trying to fix anomalies.
And there’s the fact that her Peter Parker died on her watch, after trying to get revenge on their version of Flash Thompson, after turning himself into The Lizard, and how her dad thinks she killed him.
Not “she” Gwen Stacy (Hailie Steinfield), but “she” Spider-Woman, the one with the white/pink hood and the ballet flats/Converse sneakers.
That intro is so good, both excellently written and delivered. And yet it’s just a part of a mosaic, one which is perhaps too complicated even for abject fans of the first film or the comic books.
Miles (Shameik Moore) is still only fifteen, and still having to keep his parents happy while he tries to balance school and his superheroics. His parents are all parent-y, so it’s the not unusual shenanigans of having to get to parent / teacher meetings, get celebratory cakes and battle the villain of the week, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who makes holes appear everywhere, and maintain his secret identity.
And he has to pine after Gwen, apparently.
He’s got plenty to do, but the film takes time to make sure a) when he meets up with Gwen again, he acts like a jealous jerk, hinting that every time she mentions a (male) Spider-person, he practically accuses her of whoring around and b) when he realises the magnitude of the Spider-Society that he’s been excluded from, that he absolutely has to be part of it.
Tonally, maybe the jealous bullshit works (maybe if it’s seen as comedic rather than controlling, immature insecurity rather than the toxic version), but it was about the only negative thing I took away from the experience.
At first Miles is jealous of Miguel (Oscar Isaac, always so dreamy, even with a superheroic stick up his arse), but later he’s jealous of Hobie, Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), because he’s stayed over at Gwen’s a few times.
A few times? How many is a few? And did they do stuff over their clothes, or under their suits, or what?
It is right and proper for Miles to be jealous of Hobie. Hobie is cooler than every other Spider-person throughout the universes. Hobie also doesn’t subscribe to this hierarchical, organizational bullshit.
The revelation that there’s an infrastructure, ruled with an iron fist by Miguel, Spider-Man 2099, shouldn’t come as a great surprise. With Great Power comes the Great Urge to Control Everything and Force People to Do What You Know is Right. Anomalies pop up across the multiverse, and these Spider-People swoop in and sort things out, lest all the universes end up collapsing.
If you believe Miguel, and I certainly don’t, because he’s such an arsehole to Miles, the real threat to reality is when people go off book and stop what he calls “canon events” from happening, it messes up fate or destiny or something.
In Spider-Heroes’ lives, it means someone has to die early on (either Uncle Ben or variations thereof) for them to become the hero they have to be.
If Uncle Ben, Aunt May or someone’s Police Captain father doesn’t die, then the entire universe collapses. Or something. It sounds like total bullshit to me, and it sounds like bullshit to Miles, but everyone else accepts it as gospel. Everyone else in the Spider-Society acts like it’s the only truth that means anything. Even Gwen, which hurts the most, because we thought from the intro that she would side with Miles, but…
From a mild disagreement about what this should mean for these heroes, to Miles becoming Enemy Number One for the Society, there’s no shortage of conflict or in movement and action throughout the agonising course of this flick, and especially once Miles is not in Kansas anymore. In case we didn’t catch it easily ourselves, every different universe is depicted differently, with a different aesthetic and style. Gwen’s is all evocative watercolours, Miles’ is the clear, clean, linear metropolis of our own, most recognisable world (when it’s not suffused with his spraypaint aesthetics, Miguel’s is some Star Trek-like future perfect utopia.
But wherever Hobie goes, he and his guitar are depicted as two-dimensional and almost paper-like, as if he’s constructed from zines or old copies of NME or MelodyMaker, and that trumps location, beautifully.
The punk is literally made of zines!
And then there’s Bollywood Universe, or Mumbai-Manhattan (Mumbattan), or whatever variation they used there, where Spider-Man is not Peter Parker, he’s Pravitr Prabhakar, which is just terrible but oh so appropriate.
And I didn’t even mention that Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnston) returns, with delightful baby Mayday in her Baby Bjorn, who has her own powers even if she’s still in diapers! Adorable! And funny!
There is 2 hours and 40 minutes of this, plus a teaser mid-credits sequence. That’s a lot of film. That’s a lot of film for anyone. Especially when…
The ending is going to be mucho frustrating for a lot of people, if they don’t realise this flick is deliberately ending on a massive cliffhanger. The context of that ending doesn’t make a lot of sense in the preceding storylines, but perhaps makes sense in and of itself, it’s just not something you could reasonably have thought was going to happen, seeing as a) it’s not a universe we’ve seen before, even with its link to Miles’s origin story as a Spider-Man, and b) it resurrects one character and kills another off, as if to prove the counter-theory about Miguel’s obsession with canon events.
I think that it’s important to bring up the cliché of the hero’s motivation, the central, primal aspect, and its centrality especially to the superheroic / comic book genre. The reason I think it’s important is so that we can eventually get away from it, transcend it?
Young Bruce Wayne’s parents are always murdered. Young Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is murdered to inspire Spider-Man to fight crims and evil, in general. We get it, okay?
Okay, but can’t we move on from that now? Can’t we conceive of heroes, from some point onwards, that fight evil and try to save people because of other reasons? It was a lazy trope decades ago, and now it’s just tedious dogma.
I think that’s what the film is arguing. I’m hoping that’s what the film is arguing. We won’t know until the third film, which is apparently to be called Beyond the Spider-Verse. In all fairness I can’t really argue that this film works on its own, but Part 2s or trilogies rarely can.
I already think it’s a meticulously and yet somehow anarchic crafted masterpiece, but I might change my mind if the last film doesn’t work.
Seems unlikely, though. Oh yeah, and I guess The Spot will do something, and have to be stopped too.
It’s an experience. I’ve watched it twice, and, well, it was a rush each time. Visually, musically, stunningly; all its own thing. If they stick the landing, it’ll be an absolute triumph.
8 times this could be the action-y comic book-y animated movie of the year out of 10
“Let's do things differently this time.” – let’s try at least - Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse