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“Nah, I’mma Do My Own Thing”:

A Review of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

Love or hate it, the cape-flick seems to be taking larger bites out of our cultural imagination with each passing year. Never mind the fact that I’ve noticed that many are becoming burnt out by Marvel’s yearly selection of “new chapters.” The superhero genre elongates its lifespan through continuous re-readings of decades-old characters, where dramatic shifts in their universal paradigms can be undone with the literal snap of a finger. It’s difficult to keep up and, admittedly, difficult to care beyond one’s own individual favorite heroes and villains, as their conflicts achieve new technological tempos at the hands of overworked and underpaid VFX artists. We’ve moved beyond the age where Raimi has his Green Goblin reduce people into a pile of cheap-looking CGI skeletons, but few modern additions to the genre capture that same level of unhinged invention. 

Regardless of where you stand in the discussion, it seems that everyone, die-hard superhero fans and Marvel’s most outspoken critics alike, has come together in celebration of Joaquim Dos Santos’s and Justin K. Thompson’s new animated-action fantasia “Across the Spider-Verse.” It continues in the example of its predecessor, tossing a visual salad of varied styles and dimensionalities. The story focuses on Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) as well as the previous film’s protagonist, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), as they navigate a mutual desire for kinship and belonging… all the while, addressing an outcrop of “interdimensional anomalies”: villains from other universes bleeding over into worlds they don’t call home.

Where “Into the Spider-Verse” centered itself in one visual universe and allowed the others to enter it, “Across” allows visual interplay between multiple artistic sensibilities. We begin in Spider-Gwen’s home world, rendered in impressionistic pastels… which is soon invaded by a version of The Vulture (Jorma Taccone) rendered in the style of Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches. The film’s action not only permits the Spider-People and their opponents to express themselves through movement, but to allow their conflicts to take on a greater sense of visual immediacy. Varying art styles, modern, classical, cartoonish and otherwise, collide onscreen in painstaking detail. So, too, do musical motifs representing individual characters interweave and clash to reflect the changing tides of battle onscreen. It’s a sensory onslaught, yet exhilarating to watch unfold. 

The level of attention given to and the pacing of its action carries into its dialogue. This doesn’t exist solely within the bounds of its shop-talk about parallel universes and the like either… the heart that pumps all of this colorful blood lies in the scenes between Miles, Gwen and their families. As Miles’ life has grown only more chaotic after becoming Spider-Man, it’s become increasingly difficult to be a student and son. As he struggles to explain to his parents why he’s failing to show up, the pacing of their banter becomes a dialogic action sequence in itself, especially as Miles struggles to negotiate and cover up his tracks in the hopes of keeping his secret safe. This being said, “Across” also knows when to slow down and present scenes without the ticking clock of an impending crisis. Exchanges between Gwen and her father come across like a dance more than a fight, allowing the subtext to carry a unique weight of its own that snappy pacing cannot achieve. When these moments come, so too, do the visuals oblige, often using color and character placement to let each frame tell its own emotional story. 

This barely scratches the surface of “Across the Spider-Verse”’s new universe of ideas, which includes “The Canon.” As Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Issac), the leader of the multiversal league of Spider-People. explains, the integrity of their network of universes relies on a set of “canon events” that occur in “every Spider’s story.” Uncle Ben always dies; a police captain close to Spider-Man always dies. Using a word like “canon” gets me thinking in literary terms. Animation has always struggled to be recognized by the mainstream as part of the artistic canon, but the “Spider-Verse” films have worked hard to represent as many varying visual styles in the conversation as possible. Funnily enough, the opening fight with Vulture reads like a conflict of artistic sensibilities, as the character symbolizing the Renaissance scoffs at the modern art of Gwen’s universe; the film is attempting to get us thinking beyond judging visual art beyond classical standards. So too, do new voices enter the equation, as “Across” boasts not only a fantastically diverse cast, but allows its members to question canon themselves. There’s Pavitir (Karan Soni), an Indian incarnation of Spider-Man who constantly jokes at Eurocentric and colonial ideas and language (“Don’t ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ me, bro!”), and Hobie (Daniel Kaluuya), a Black British, punk-rock Spider-Man so anti-establishment, it’s borderline comedic. 

As Miles figures out what his place in all this “canon” malarky is, the question arises as to whether the “canon” need be followed to the letter. While all of these diverse voices and visual styles grant Spider-Man’s story its own spin, it comes with the understanding that their stories will always play out the same. New “readings” are permitted within our own collective, cultural understanding of how the character works. Is Spider-Man always fated to be incapable of saving everyone he cares about? To this, Miles says, “Nah, I’mma do my own thing.” It’s simple, but this rejection and contemplation of “canon” are symptomatic of the remaining untapped potential of the genre. Marvel gives us how many movies and T.V. shows a year when this singular experience is stuffed to the gills with new possibilities that cannot be contained within the bounds of a one-thousand-word review alone? Spider-Man has been alive and kicking for decades, and yet this team reignites our imagination as if the idea of him were brand new. Whether the genre will continue clinging to the zeitgeist for the next decade is anyone’s guess, but I certainly can’t wait to see how “Across the Spider-Verse”’s second part will continue to surprise, as well as overwhelm. 

Rating: 5/5

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