03 September 2023

First Impressions: Across the Spider-Verse

 Hey Folks! What a long strange couple of months. I never get personal here, but needless to say, I've been busy. Mostly a lot of travel, including a few cross-hemispheric weddings this summer, playing a lot of Tears of the Kingdom, and also my wife is pregnant. I have seen a decent amount of films, although August was the lowest month in years. I have not been exploiting Netflix DVD's last ride quite at all, I'm afraid. I also failed to make a post in August, which is the first post-less month since we started this in June 2009.

So is this done? Maybe? I can't really see me ever being done, but I'll certainly take a step back with impending children and whatnot. But I've seen four theatrical movies this summer and it's our solemn duty to review each one, dammit. So let's pretend it's June, 2023 again and talk about Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

More and more I really think Into the Spider-Verse (2018) is not only one of the greatest superhero movies, greatest animated movies, but straight up greatest movies of all time. It created this new visual style which has finally started creeping into other mainstream works, it echoes and comments on a very old superhero story and still finds something new to say, is incredibly funny, and most importantly, all three aforementioned aspects relate to and enhance the actual story being told. It's amazing. So how do you follow this up?

Well, just do it again. I might give Into the edge because of its novelty, and it's always hard to really strike out on your own when you're following up such a project, but damn Across really comes close to surpassing it. It is an excessively long movie that never feels quite so long. It takes a tremendous time with its characters and dealing with all their problems and sincerely fleshes out both Gwen Stacy and Miles Morales. At first it seemed like it would just be a Gwen movie, and you could still make the deuteragonist argument, but then they circle back and give Miles both an organic advancement of his story from the first movie, but his own sincere stakes as well.

That sincerity is something that it seems like some filmmakers are having trouble coming to grips with. This and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) are so deeply, deeply silly, but the characters have real emotions and they react like real people when conflict arises and when obstacles emerge to interrupt the path to both their tangible and subtextual goals. It's why these are films people can actually connect to and why something like Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) completely falls apart, despite being equally (or more) silly. We continually learn the wrong lessons, but nothing is new there.

The basic premise is that Miles is a few years into his career as Spider-Man now (maybe even one year), but he's visibly older and more confident, although like all Spider-Men, he's having a tough time balancing school and family and all that good stuff. Gwen, having her own issues with her father and struggling to find her place after her best friend Lizard Pete died, joins a multidimensional Spider-Person task force. They succumb to temptation and see each other and then the whole world gets into a mess.

There is a lot more going on here. First of all, this series is adept at consequences. Even very minute things from Into seem to echo here. And that is also the whole point of both this movie and Spider-Man himself. This movie centers on what it means to be Spider-Man and not affecting "canon" events, or arbitrary moments that every hero deals with like deaths, that try as they might, they cannot affect lest they not learn the lesson they need to learn. This is inherent to Spider-Man. Don't do your duty and stop a burgler? Well, he killed your Uncle Ben.

It's revealed that the whole reason why Miles became Spider-Man is because of an intradimensional spider got loose and bit him, giving him both slightly odd powers and a misalignment with the other Spider-People. His universe got two Spider-Men after all, although Miles' presence got the Alpha Spider-Man killed (or so he's blamed, I mean, choose your own interpretation of what happened).

The butterfly effect carries from there. He threw a bagel (maybe everything) at a guy and he got caught in the dimensional collider and became the Spot - a great perfect throwaway villain that they joke about being an A-lister, who then turns into an A-lister. Spider-Man has too many great villains to not use them in a movie (I guess all I'm really waiting for at this point is Kraven...and no, that movie does not look good. Where's my Stegron?!). Maybe a proper Scorpion. At the same time, we've seen a lot of these jabronis on screen already, so it's fun to find a new antagonist. But then that antagonist becomes Spider-Man 2099, who treats Miles harshly for both refusing to comply with his rules about canon and frankly, for being a different, out of place Spider-Man.

And this core concept has so many ramifications. For one, what does it really mean to be Spider-Man? Or a hero in general? Are we a hero because of the tragedies that made us or can we just forge our own path and make our righteous decisions? What does it take to actually be a Spider-Man? And what doesn't seem to be written about that much is the huge elephant in the room - that Miles Morales is a Latino African-American Spider-Man.

There was this whole undercurrent in the first film that Miles had to prove he could be his own Spider-Man and do it his way. This involved the infusion of a lot more black culture than the typical Peter Parker, who is the whitest dude on earth. Not only is this a way better update for a contemporary resident of Queens and the downtrodden underdog that Spider-Man is supposed to be, but it pushes the other-ness of the character. Folks write him off, or say that he can't be a real Spider-Man. Like the best sci-fi this is interdimensional on the surface, but the subtext is racial.

The truly amazing feat is that this was all there in Into, but it's fully formed in Across. He's outright rejected as a Spider-Man because his background isn't the same as everyone else's. But he shows that he can be the best out of all of them. He outwits hundreds of Spider-Folk and earns the admiration and trust of both new and old friends because of his character, drive, and righteousness, not because it's automatic. And it's not automatic because he's not a white Spider-Man.

Continuing this theme, the first movie felt like it had a satisfying ending and could have been done, and it's also amazing that this movie makes that feel like a necessarily first installment in a trilogy. I'm not sure I've ever felt that way, maybe in the John Wick movies. Like, this is such a perfect second installment in Miles' character journey. He's no longer the naive kid, he's an experienced hero, but the big thing he needs to learn is that he doesn't know everything yet. He thinks he's got everything down pat, but he has a long way to go. It's such a crystal clear character progression. You can really see that he will hopefully become a fully formed hero by the third installment. Suddenly there is meaning to everything from the first film that echoes here.

Against all this we also have Gwen, which is where the film starts, then we get a big Miles section but she comes and goes. You can feel her pain quite a bit here, with her conflicting feelings about protecting Miles, even that means abandoning him, but that's all because of Lizard Pete. She's guarded but the movie earns it, with some of the most brilliant abstract art on film to display emotion that I've ever seen. The whole movie is gorgeous but they saved the most stunning aspect for the Gwenverse.

And apparently the animators were treated like shit, so it's important to remember workers rights. The art on display here isn't some tortured artists enacting his or her vision at all hours of the night. It was paid professionals executing someone else's vision toiling under pretty rough circumstances. Every movie needs a disclaimer now! Nothing is ever fun.

What stuck out the most is the juxtaposition of radically different animation styles simultaneously, which is downright breathtaking to behold. This of course only works because everything else is firing at such a high level. It is thankfully not the kind of film where you say "the story sucks but you gotta see it for the visuals!" You definitely need to see this for the visuals, which seem to somehow push the genre even more further than the first film, but it's also for the characters, the story progression, and the tight as hell thematic resonance.

Also SPOILER here, although if you're still reading you should know the deal with this website, the ending is mind-blowing. You can see it coming quite a bit but it doesn't deaden the impact. My only real gripe is that for again, an excessively long film that ends on a cliffhanger, it definitely Return of the King (2003)'s its ending and you're sitting there like, "Okay, I get it, let's go" but it still has a tremendous impact. I'd like to think that mostly this is because this movie series is so obsessed with genuine consequences that this should carry on for the whole third movie, with three antagonists. It should hopefully be a lot of fun.

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