Review by Tim Robins
WARNING: SPIDER-SPOILERS ABOUND! PROCEED WITH YOUR SENSES TINGLING!
After reuniting with Gwen Stacy, Brooklyn’s full-time, friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man is catapulted across the Multiverse, where he encounters a team of Spider-People charged with protecting its very existence. However, when the heroes clash on how to handle a new threat, Miles finds himself pitted against the other Spiders. He must soon redefine what it means to be a hero so he can save the people he loves most…
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the second in a trilogy of animated Spider-Man movies (Spider-Man: Beyond The Spider-Verse being promised for next year) and follows the further adventures of Miles Morales, last seen on the big screen five years ago, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and who replaced Peter Parker as the Spider-hero back in the successful Ultimate Spider-Man comic, where the character won a firm fan following.
Morales’s popularity has seen him cross-over into the Marvel mainstream, and now, the Multiverse where he encounters various iterations of himself including Spider-Garfield, Lego-verse Spider-man, PlayStation Spider-Man and,of course, Spider-Gwen, Miles’s love interest – and a hero in her own right. (There was supposed to be a stand-alone Spider-Gwen movie but that seems to have been folded into this film, which is a pity, as the character has her own fan following. A couple of young women sitting next to me in the cinema even whooped and punched the air whenever Spider-Gwen swung into action).
I watched Across the Spider-Verse with an audience full of young adults who laughed appreciatively at the many, many nods to the conventions and continuity of comic books, Spider-Man lore, and popular culture, and talked excitedly over the end credits. At least I got the humour behind Morales’s YouTube apologies, “I’ve made a mistake…”, “I made another mistake”. (Such apologies have become a much mocked genre in themselves).
Film over, I crept from the cinema during the end credits feeling like a grandpa who had forgotten to bring boiled sweets for all my grandchildren. Some of my feelings of being too old for this movie turned out to be problems with the sound, which seemed pushed to the front of the cinema and swaddled in a blanket. I thought my hearing was going, until twenty something-year-old friends told me the speaker system was faulty and they couldn’t hear anything either. So, in that respect, the evening-preview at Dukes at Komedia, Brighton, was a bit of a bust.
That said, there have been a lot of complaints about the film’s mix, which have led to producer Phil Lord to suggest that fans should ask their cinema to turn the sound up to 7 or 7.5. I’m not sure it would help even turning the sound up to 11 if mix rather than the sound level is the issue.
There are in-jokes for all ages, including an amusing addition to the Spider-Man 1970’s TV cartoon moment, of Spider-Man pointing at his double, which has long-since passed into the world of memes.
Differences between high and low culture are consciously erased in scenes such as fights between Spider-Gwen and an iteration of the Vulture modelled around the work of Leonardo da Vinci that results in a collision with Jeff Koonz’s Balloon Dog sculpture, breaking it like a pinata and spilling mini Balloon Dogs all over the floor. Perhaps not incidentally, a small replica of Koon’s Balloon Dog was shattered at an art fair. Are the film’s creators aware of this? Who knows? This is a film that sheds meaning as it runs along.
Across the Spider-Verse is wildly “meta, delivering multiple self referential gags per minute. I particularly appreciated the many nods to comic books themselves, as sales of “floppies” seem in a death spiral.
This is surely the only movie to come with the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of Approval. Comic covers are used to introduce characters, there’s a world where everything is rendered in Ben Day dots and the film itself uses panels, captions and sound effects which add to the fun – “Thwip, Thwip” falls limply from Spider-Man’s web shooters. The film’s creators have said that the covers to Spider-Gwen comics were an influence, but I still see a lot of Bill Sienkiewicz’s style up on the screen.
Much of the film looks as if an enthusiastic child has torn their comic book collection to bits to create a collage, then coloured with wax crayons. (something I actually did to my 1960’s Batman comics collection). A British Spider-Punk seems glued together from images torn from the pages of Deadline.
The film hip hops along to a soundtrack assembled by Metro Boomin. The music is a lot more effective than that of the popish Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3., perhaps because the tracks were actually inspired by the preproduction illustration rather than tacked on for the sake of nostalgia. And, thankfully, there’s minimal use of today’s beloved, nasal, auto-tune sound.
There are missteps in the movie, as if the production team’s exuberant dance had made them giddy, some scenes that only, for me, reinforced the generally amoral nature of Meta Capitalism.
The only reason Across the Spider-Verse isn’t a triumph of style over substance is because style is so much of its substance. Also, there are some long, much needed quieter moments between Morales, Gwen and their respective families which allow the voice cast to flex their performance muscles and the animators to focus on character’s facial expression and body language. Morales’ puffa jacket works over-time expressing the young man’s awkwardness and discomfort at interacting with his parents.
There is an emotional core to the movie, exploring young people’s need to become themselves, and the important role parents play in offering unconditional love allowing children to develop a positive sense of self in an often hostile world. Other strands woven into the plot include coping with loss and the delicate balance between keeping stuff secret from one’s parents or telling all – very much a case of deception and tangled webs.
Writer-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and writer David Callaham, do a good job stringing together the on screen jumble into a coherent story. At 140 minutes, Across the Spider-Verse is the longest animated feature made in America. I do feel the writers and multiple directors drop a narrative stitch or two, particularly with a protracted, climactic chase scene that sees Morales pursued by the Spider-Man of 2099. This is not the moment to start laying down lore. Script Writing 101 suggests that impactful continuity points are better placed at the start of a movie, not as events are rushing to a climax (Read Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, guys) and particularly not when hordes of Spider-Folk are pursuing your hero up some kind of mile-high elevator train.
Speaking of the film’s climax, the last act falls to pieces as it sets up events that will be going forward. I didn’t know the film would simply end, and was bewildered at an array of new incidents and yet more spider-characters were introduced. Even the score didn’t seem to know where to go as the climax trumpeted by the music simply failed to occur. I wondered where the heck this was all going? I didn’t have to wonder for long. The film just stopped.
There’s no doubt Spider-Man: Across the Universe caught me in its web of eye boggling and mind popping storytelling but it left me dangling on a thread.
• Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in cinemas across the UK now
The Spider-sonas are converging across the multiverse