I’ll come out as a grouch right of the bat: I didn’t like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse nearly as much as the first movie.1To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.
That’s to be expected, though: Into the Spider-Verse was a once-in-a-generation masterpiece. It seemed to come out of nowhere and not just do every single thing right, but to be so relentlessly imaginative that it tricked you into believing that anything was possible.
And the moments when Across the Spider-Verse works best are truly astonishing. It is near-flawless technically and artistically, seemingly designed and art directed with the overriding rule being that absolutely nothing would be dismissed because it was too difficult, or because it didn’t fit.
It builds on that feeling of confidence that made the first movie so exciting: mixing and matching art and animation styles not just between universes, but between characters and even between shots in the same scene. You can see the sketch marks and guide lines on some characters, the crisp lines on others, and more than one is made from paper or newsprint2And for two completely different story reasons!. When it’s working, the movie captures that feeling of “anything goes” experimentation from comic books, but applied to animation.3The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.
But still I was a bit disappointed simply because I could see the seams in this one. Into the Spider-Verse was relentlessly inventive but also felt “tight,” as if every detail and every stray idea was in the movie for a reason. Plus it never insulted the audience’s (or at least my) intelligence: you pretty much figured out things at the same time as the characters did, and there were no overly drawn-out revelations, or twists meant to blow your mind that you’d seen coming a mile away. Across the Spider-Verse was frustrating at points, because I was either wanting it to hurry up and get to the point already, or because I was wanting it to just calm down and be quiet for a second.
So much of it was manic. I felt like the first movie was able to throw everything together and make it all work, while the second often felt over-stuffed to me. It often seemed like the team knew they had made a masterpiece, and were now desperately trying not just to recapture lightning in a bottle, but to stretch it out into a franchise, Peter Jackson-style, even if it didn’t fit the story.
But this post is supposed to emphasize what I liked about the movie, and what I especially liked were the moments when it stopped the chase scenes and the constant one-liners and asides, and used all its artistic mastery not to overwhelm, but to just tell a story.
The beginning is excellent, deliberately deviating from the format of the first movie’s manic introductions (with a self-referential first line setting up exactly that) to re-introduce characters and introduce one of the main themes of the movie: that these stories are about characters defined by tragedy. It worked wonderfully and was one of the highlights of the entire movie, combining art and music and melodrama and humor in a way that only this series has been able to pull off.
There’s a lengthy scene with Miles and his mother that had me in tears, just because it was such a fearlessly earnest (but not quite maudlin) description of how much a mother can love her son, and the inevitable sadness that comes from realizing that letting a child reach their full potential means losing a huge part of them.
But my favorite scene in the movie is one fairly late in the movie, when (mild spoiler) Gwen returns to her home and has an extended conversation with her father. The scene itself is well performed by the actors, although I don’t think it’s quite as powerful as the one between Rio and Miles. But what makes it so remarkable is that every single aspect of the scene goes towards expressing all the emotion contained in the scene. The backgrounds gain and lose detail. The characters shift between more and less sketchy, full clarity to black shadow, as their moods change. The entire color palette of the scene changes with the characters’ emotional state.
It feels as experimental as the pinnacle of the most inventive Warner Bros shorts, but all in the context of a feature film, and all for a purpose.
I guess that it’s good that I didn’t like Across the Spider-Verse quite as much — and to be clear, it’s like the difference between a B+ and an A++ — because Into the Spider-Verse was almost too perfect in execution. Since these movies are so technically proficient and seemingly capable of absolutely anything, it’s nice to be reminded that there are real, talented, artists behind it all, trying to express something real and personal.
- 1To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.
- 2And for two completely different story reasons!
- 3The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.