Written by Tom Augustine.
Looking at it from a certain angle, the current ‘multiverse’ craze sweeping blockbuster cinema is a pretty decent representation of how we consume media in 2023 in general. The idea of ‘alternate dimensions’ is hardly new to science fiction storytelling, but its execution in the modern era, in everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Everything Everywhere All At Once to the forthcoming The Flash is uniquely concerned with unloading the maximum potential of IP – why have one Batman when you could have every Batman? In a modern culture where consumers demand to have everything, all at once, the multiverse is a method to deliver the ultimate nostalgia hit – a visual representation of a maximalist, capitalist desire to squeeze every ounce of recognition from a beloved franchise, qualms about cheap, corner-cutting storytelling but a quiet alarm in the background.
Of all of these multiversal iterations, the Spider-verse series has felt the most genuine about approaching the concept in a way that make it feel like more than an economic factor. The meta, spin-off animated series from the minds behind the similarly meta The Lego Movie had its dimension hopping potentialities baked into the very concept, literalising a valuable conceit in comic-book storytelling – in which the character of Spider-man takes many, many forms – and making something clever, entertaining and, blessedly, artistic. The original Into the Spider-verse focused on nü-Spiderman Miles Morales and his relationship with a wave of Spider-men and women from other worlds, including a schlubby, deadbeat version of Peter Parker, a Spider-girl Gwen Stacey, a noir Spider-man, a Spider-Pig and so on. What made Spider-verse one of the finest of the modern superhero films, however, was that the multiversal element of the story was not the key element of the film. Rather, the major draws were twofold – the telling of the story of Miles Morales, a beloved, POC character who had heretofore not graced the screen, and the style of animation, that utilised astonishing techniques to evoke different visual styles from many different comic book eras. The visual approach to the Spider-verse made it unique, made it stand out from the crowd. It was also a refreshingly modern piece of work, with winking references to the films and comics that had come before but enough modern-day savvy to place the story in a resolutely current context (with the soundtrack to match).
Now, with Across the Spider-verse, the series continues, growing exponentially outward in almost every way. The story is bigger, working in hundreds upon hundreds of Spider-men across a range of dimensions. The film is longer, topping out at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Tellingly, it’s also the first half of a two-parter, following the model of Avengers: Infinity War and the recent Fast X. It’s a film that at once showcases what makes this series special and succumbs to the less invigorating elements of other multiversal stories in the current zeitgeist.
Commendably, the film continues to value the things that made the original Spider-verse special. Morales is once again front-and-centre, his personal life – his relationships with his parents, dealing with school, romance, and his future – are given ample focus and screentime. There’s a genuine love for the character and his world, which deepens the emotional resonance of later portions of this enormous story. In Across the Spider-verse, Morales finds himself drawn into the wider multiverse after Gwen Stacy – Spider-Girl from another universe – makes contact with him about a ‘villain of the week’ he’s recently come into contact with. ‘The Spot’ (voiced with pathos and menace by Jason Schwartzmann) is a multi-dimensional being with a bone to pick with Morales, who can hop between worlds with ease. Along the way, Morales meets the Spider Society, an enormous network of Spider-people dedicated to protecting the multiverse, at any cost.
The sequel to the hit animated superhero flick Into the Spider-verse is an expansion in every way – a grander story, a longer run-time and ever more dazzling arrays of imagery. It’s a visually stunning and frequently thrilling effort, even as it occasionally succumbs to sequel bloat.
As with the previous instalment, the technical wizardry of Across the Spider-verse’s animation is beyond reproach. Worlds upon worlds are jam-packed with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail, from the Indian-influenced world of ‘Mumbattan’ to the gorgeous, watercolour world of Gwen Stacy, it represents the current pinnacle of Western animation, from a technical and creative standpoint. The sheer pace and volume of resplendent imagery is hypnotic and immersive, and is worth the price of admission alone. It’s unfair to say that the film coasts on this element, as parts of the storytelling are enormously engrossing, once the film finds its gear. It is fair to say that the film lacks the narrative tautness of the original – the film is a packed, maximalist experience in every way, including the way the plot unfolds. The decision to split the film in two is a frustrating one, ending this chapter on an enormous, frustrating cliffhanger that feels like someone hit pause on the story, rather than arrive at a more naturalistic intermission point. The fractured story also means that Across the Spider-verse is permitted to pool out in every direction. Indeed, the action of the film arguably doesn’t truly begin until about an hour has elapsed, with everything coming before it feeling like table setting for later action. It ensures we get that extended screentime for Miles’ (and Gwen’s) friends and family, but the lack of narrative urgency is only mostly concealed by the franticness of the animation.
Then there is the multiverse of it all – the many machinations of the many different dimensions at play in the Spider-verse are far more prominent here, feeling at once like the creators (including three credited directors – Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers) are banking on the spark of recognition in every minor reference or callback, and succumbing to the pressures of this kind of story – to create ever more at the expanse of narrative rigour. It’s not enough to diminish Spider-verse, which remains an entirely elating, frequently breathtaking visual experience centering some wonderful characters and a smorgasbord of clever gags – but it does take the shine off just enough to warrant a desire for the ending of multiversal storytelling once and for all.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse in cinemas now.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Movie title: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse (Dos Santos, Thompson, Powers, 2023)
Movie description: The sequel to the hit animated superhero flick Into the Spider-verse is an expansion in every way - a grander story, a longer run-time and ever more dazzling arrays of imagery. It’s a visually stunning and frequently thrilling effort, even as it occasionally succumbs to sequel bloat.
Date published: June 1, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dave Callaham
Director(s): Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
Actor(s): Shameek Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar Isaac, Jake Johnson
Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure