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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ restores faith, exceeds expectations

by Piers Marchant | June 2, 2023 at 2:05 a.m.

I think this is about the highest compliment one could give an animated film such as this: If you watched it without sound, the exquisite art alone would hold you perfectly in awe; but if you had no images, and instead were forced to listen to it as a sort of radio adventure drama, it would captivate you just the same.

This is where we've arrived with the highly-anticipated sequel to the marvelous (pun vaguely intended) "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," released some five years ago, a fantastically fun and frenetic film that captured massive audience acclaim, and swooning critical accolades.

As a follow-up, the largely new creative team, including directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, working from a scintillating screenplay by Phil Lord (who co-wrote "Into"), along with newcomers Christopher Miller, and Dave Callaham, have managed to capture much of the first film's tremendously entertaining verve and heart, while expanding the story, and enriching the characters we met the first time around.

This film opens with Gwen Stacy's Spider-Gwen/Spider-Woman (voice of Hailee Steinfeld), introducing us, more or less, to her version of Earth (each different Earth in the film is numbered, ostensibly to help us keep track of all the variants, but unless you're really into Dewey Decimals and the like, it's not tremendously helpful), one in which her best friend, Peter Parker, trying to become "special," drinks a formula he has concocted, which eventually leads to his death, with Gwen becoming the lead suspect, as hunted by her father, Captain Stacy (Shea Whigham), not realizing who his daughter actually is.

This tragedy is a theme, it turns out, among the many, many other Spider-Verse denizens, each of whom suffers a terrible loss en route to becoming fully formed heroes, the common thread, if you will, that connects all of their separate world timelines together. The "canon event," in other words, that binds spider-people, and keeps the pathways of their worlds running smoothly along.

All of this is eventually revealed to "our" Spider-Man, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a now 15-year-old kid just coming into his own in the past year since the events of his first adventure. Visited by a multi-verse-spanning Gwen, soon after she has been taken in by the elite operatives of a shadowy Spider Order, a veritable army of spider-folk -- including, Spider-Cat, Bombastic Bag Man, Insomniac Spider-Man (from the wildly popular video game), Spider-Monkey, and Spider-Man Unlimited (from a cult favorite cartoon series), among a throng of others -- Miles, thrilled to see her again (there are feelings involved), also becomes fascinated by the idea of the higher order of Spider-agents.

It turns out this enormous crew is led by Spider-Man 2099, a hard-bitten case (pun fully intended, this time) named Miguel O'Hara (Oscar Isaac), there to prevent anomalies in different Earths from destroying their worlds. Miles eventually tags along with Gwen long enough to determine she's actually there to take out a mysterious dalmatian-colored man known as The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), one of Miles' former "villain-of-the-week" adversaries.

Eventually, following her back to the Spider HQ dimension, Miles also learns some terrible truths about himself -- including, as 2099 callously informs him, he himself was an anomaly, getting in the way of his world's Peter Parker by receiving the illustrious spider-bite by accident -- along with the idea that in order for his world to work properly, he will have to lose his beloved father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), as part of his own tragic canon.

Unable to accept that fate, Miles breaks free from HQ, a delirious scene, with Miles being pursued by hundreds of different Spider-folks -- stuffed with enough easter eggs, special shout-outs, and inside jokes to keep fans up late at night with the remote, going frame by frame, when this is released to the home market -- in order to make it home in time to save his father, somehow without upsetting the delicate web of the world he calls home.

There are, as you might imagine, many other twists and tricks up the film's suitably red-and-blue sleeves, of which the less is known about, the better, but suffice it to say, the film creates more than enough impetus to carry it through to its planned second half, due out next spring.

As with the first film, there is much to praise not only from a story and character-building perspective, but the art -- and here, to be clear, I mean all the different types of art the film employs, from comic-book like colorings, to cut-out 'zine style collage (especially used for Spider-Punk, voiced by Daniel Kaluuya, a British guitarist with a snarling anti-conformist streak), to the '90s-style over-muscled 2-D stylings surrounding Scarlet-Spider (Andy Samberg), and everything else -- a staggering kaleidoscope of styles that somehow captures the effect of reading a comic, while simultaneously enjoying brilliantly animated material.

Even more so than in the first installment, the art direction, led by Dean Gordon and Araiz Khalid, incorporates a formidable range of techniques and effects, deliriously taking us through a kind of history of comic-book art in the Marvel era, while paying homage to many different artists along the way. For those of us reared on such material, it's almost unbearably beautiful to watch at times.

In one gloriously rendered scene, shortly after Spider-Gwen has re-engaged with Miles on his Earth, the pair of wall-crawlers meander around, over, and under the rounded peak of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower in Brooklyn, enjoying a warm sunset while hanging upside down in the pink orange hues, the shot turned upside down such that the city appears above their heads, as if in the reflection of a pond.

At times, the film is so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, it's almost too much to take in at once (as previously mentioned, this film will require multiple viewings to fully appreciate), but despite its artistic grandeur, it's equally down for silly gags (in one of the best, if not preordained, bits, the various Spider-people, upon being told to stop "Spider-Man," briefly accuse one another, utilizing the now ubiquitous multiple Spider-Men meme), and digging into the pathos of its many characters (including a brief hilarious bit with a sobbing and overcome Ben Reilly, a Spider-Man clone with an even more tragic history of loss and failure than Peter Parker).

From a scripting standpoint, more than anything else, it's witty and well-conceived, avoiding topical jokes that won't age well, and defying the brand of stereotypical behavior all too common among big studio animated fare. As definitive and unique as the art is, the character work is equally committed to breaking away from the standard way of doing things. Characters are vain, and mean-spirited, and sometimes duplicitous, but never not singular. The combination of art and story produce an extraordinarily entertaining spectacle. One, in my besotted daughter's words, that can be a near "life-changing event" for fans of a certain streak and devotion.

It was another, highly venerated animated masterpiece that was concerned with the concept that "anyone can cook," but in this Sony miracle of miracles, just about anyone, or anything, it seems can be a Spider-character; it's just a matter of sorting out who actually deserves to be.

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'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse'

90 Cast: (voices of) Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Issa Rae, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Dratch, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Samberg, Shea Whigham

Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson

Rating: PG

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Playing theatrically


Print Headline: Web gem


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