Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse confirms the power of art, and non-conformity

Movie review: Spider-man Across the Spider-Verse

Relying more on a smart and accessible script than mechanical action sequences, this second visit to the Spider-Verse is even better than the first as it leaves all expectations behind, to offer a new, bold-faced type.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

4.5/5

Starring: Shameik Moore, Brian Tyree Henry, Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae, Jason Schwartzman

Directed by: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson

Written by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dave Callaham

Running time: 2 hrs 20 mins

Rating: Parental Guidance

Opens in theatres June 2, 2023

Streaming now on Paramount+

By Katherine Monk

Reaffirming the power of art to overcome chaos, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse spins much-needed a safety net for the Zeitgeist, not to mention a superhero story for a new century.

Reprising the adventure of an upstart Spider-Man named Miles Morales, this sequel to the creatively inspired Spider-Verse picks up the pieces of a recently fragmented reality.

To recap: High school student Miles was bitten by a radioactive spider that turned him into a talented and powerful web spinner called Spider-Man. The details of the arachnid origin story were not new, but Miles, the mixed race teenager at the centre of this new narrative web was nothing short of revolutionary for a comic book hero with a well-established past.

For decades, Spider-Man was Peter Parker in a mask, but the first Spider-Verse introduced us to a multidimensional reality, where many Spider-like superheroes could co-exist in parallel worlds. In short, Miles and Peter Parker could both be Spider-Man at the same time — and so could every other iteration of the wise-cracking web-slinger who ever occupied a paper panel or a celluloid frame.

The core idea in that first movie seemed to be about free will, and the constant potential for personal reinvention. Transformation is possible, but it requires personal vigilance, as well as uncompromising honesty. These are perfect themes to address the coming-of-age process, which makes the teenaged character of Miles, as well as his parallel world friend, Spider-Woman Gwen, time capsules of generational angst.

Displaying all the social skepticism, emotional weariness and profound doubt over the status quo as most contemporary youth, our two central Spider-heroes find themselves in a moral quandary from the opening frames. They want to reveal the secret of their true identities to the people they love most. Miles wants to tell his policeman Dad, and his RN mom, about his new gig fighting crime in Spandex. Similarly, Gwen wants to share her silky thread of truth with her Pop, who also happens to be a police officer.

These details are not random. As we soon learn from one of the many other Spider-Man figures to occupy the frame, there may be a multitude of Spider-Man manifestations across the Spider-verse, but they must all conform to the comic book canon set out by the inky creator.

These requirements include a bite from a radioactive spider, a crush on a gal with red hair, and the devastating loss of a loved one. Spider-Man is doomed to sacrifice and suffer.

It’s a rule that can’t be broken. Or can it?

It’s the big compelling question that sits at the heart of this undeniably beautiful and creatively inspired piece of animation: What happens when you try to rewrite your destiny? Are you offending the creator by rejecting the expected trajectory? Or are you living up to your divine potential by assuming agency over your own life?

Such metaphysical lines of inquiry don’t usually find enough room in the superhero genre, where big existential nuts are squeezed into super tight devices in order to make room for all the action sequences and epic fight scenes.

It’s the big compelling question that sits at the heart of this undeniably beautiful and creatively inspired piece of animation: What happens when you try to rewrite your destiny? Are you offending the creator by rejecting the expected trajectory? Or are you living up to your divine potential by assuming agency over your own life?

This movie miraculously pulls it all together through the mixed media miss-en-scene that uses art history shorthand to fill in philosophical blanks. It’s an elegant approach that’s flagged in the  opening scene as we begin with Gwen and a scene at the Guggenheim museum in New York City.

The metallic balloon art of Jeff Koons is used as a featured motif, signalling both a lack of genuine substance and an urge for childish distraction, but that’s just the beginning of this film’s smart references to the art world as a whole.

Every character is rendered with a slightly different hand, and given slightly different stylistic flourishes. We’re given a Spider-Man with Indian inflections, a Spider-Woman who channels 1970s Pam Grier, and my personal favourite, a punk Spider-Man who constantly appears with torn edges and Sex Pistols neon pink and yellow outlines. Sure, we also get a classic Peter Parker, a futuristic and creepily authoritarian Spider-Man with claws, plus a super cute Spider-Baby.

Spider-Man No Expectations

Miles Morales surveys the fragmenting world around him, and finds the only ordering principle is the power to create.

All the Spider creations converge at Spider-Headquarters, a nexus point for the Spider-Verse where comic book geeks can get lost in juicy references, but it’s also here, in the heart of Spider-land where Miles is forced to make the biggest decision of his life: Conform to the rules of the Spider-Verse, or follow the voice in your head that tells you something entirely different.

Miles desperately wants to belong and hang out with the other Spider people who have accepted their fate and surrendered to the prescribed suffering. But something inside him screams “resist!”

Miles decides to fight, and that deeply personal decision to contradict the superhero canon means the Spider-verse could be torn asunder. The future becomes unknown, the past fragments, and the present rises as a wave of potential.

With big metaphysical themes lying beneath the surface of this layered work of art, it’s not surprising the central villain in this reel is a black hole of a human named Spot. A particle physicist who was transformed into a non-human package of portable dark matter voids, Spot comes Lady Macbeth baggage and a desire for revenge.

He is nihilism made anti-flesh, the word made mute, a villain who negates existence by simply being. Spot is called “villain of the week” when he’s first introduced as comic relief in the opening sequences, but by the time this movie ends, he’s been transformed into an epic force of darkness that threatens to consume everyone, and everything.

Sure, it all sounds a little silly when you use words to describe the erratic and seemingly disjointed denouement. Yet, when you watch this movie on the big (or even little) screen, the imagery is so well-matched to the material, wordy explanations are unneeded.

Every frame is laden with subtext and an art history lesson. Where other superhero movies encourage an encyclopedic knowledge of back issues and geek lore to excite the fanboys and fangirls, this film spurs the viewer to crack the back of Jansen’s classic, A History of Art.

References to everyone from Leonardo Da Vinci to Ralph Steadman stream across the handmade landscape, pushing us to appreciate all the imperfections — all the undeniably non-straight lines — that make up the human experience, and our shared destiny.
Indeed, where so many other movies in the superhero genre simply go about repeating the same pattern with more technological bells and whistles, Across the Spider-Verse stares down the drooling face of nerd expectation, and gives it a good, grown-up slap. No wonder this movie feels like the birth of something brand new: It has the courage to explore its two-dimensional past, and aspire to something deeper, more substantial, and more immediately relevant than anything we’ve ever seen before.

@katherinemonk

Main image above: Spider-Man wrestles with Spot, the metaphysical anti-hero with powers of anti-matter.
THE EX-PRESS, June 2, 2023

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Review: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

User Rating

5 (2 Votes)

Summary

4.5Score

Relying more on a smart and accessible script than mechanical action sequences, this second visit to the Spider-Verse is even better than the first as it leaves all expectations behind, to offer a new, bold-faced type. With big metaphysical themes lying beneath the surface of this layered work of art, it’s not surprising the central villain in this reel is a black hole of a human named Spot. A particle physicist who was transformed into a non-human package of portable dark matter voids, Spot comes Lady Macbeth baggage and a desire for revenge. It's a true face off between nihilism and humanity, which is why it fits the moment so well. -- Katherine Monk

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