There’s always been an element of Groundhog Day in the Spider-Man narrative. “Okay, one last time,” begins Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens, and she tells us how she was bitten by a radioactive arachnid in a lab, suddenly found she had these amazing powers, saved a lot of people, yada, yada, yada. Not just the frequent cinematic revivals feel like déjà vu—always leading to a trilogy, like this one—but Spider-Man’s very arc has been dictated by canon from its ‘60s comic book origins through its countless alternate versions.
Creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller respect that sprawling canon in the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in ways richer than most DC or Marvel comic reboots would allow. In fact, they have an opportunity here to weave in all things Spider-Man—everywhere, all at once—that few arc retellings ever could.
By taking us through Mumbattan, Gwen Stacy’s Earth-65, Miles Morales’ Home Dimension introduced in the first film, a ‘70s Spider Punk London, a Blade Runner-influenced world where testy Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) resides, and scores of other alternate Spidey-occupied universes, the sequel emerges as something geekier, richer, darker than the first. The ante—and the stakes—are raised, as well as the visual game, and it works equally as pure fan satisfaction as well as a straight narrative that’s not wedded (webbed?) to any prior comic book stock knowledge.
Of course, that’s why 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was such a gas to begin with: It was fresher and wilder than any previous Toby/Andrew/Tom outing could be, because it was inextricably bound to the art of the comics.
It takes a village—no, a multiverse—of animators to propel this story through so many dimensions.
Art is a very important reference point in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and not just Jacky Kirby’s iconic dot work. We see it in the opening sequence, set in a museum in Gwen’s New York, where an entry from Vulture, a Renaissance sketch villain, nearly destroys an exhibit of Jeff Koons dog balloon sculptures. Is it art? “We’re talking about it, aren’t we?” says Gwen in the middle of web-lassoing the Vulture. “That makes it art.” A Banksy reference comes not far behind. But the bigger visual picture is how the history of art works its way into the Spider-Verse worlds. There’s the kind of Xeroxed punk art aesthetic of Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya) that draws from ‘70s punk album covers, everything from The Clash to Bad Brains; there’s an almost Robert Rauschenberg/dripped paint look to Gwen’s ‘90s NYC, which also aligns with the Grunge era; there’s an eye-popping explosion of Ben-Day dots that recalls the Pop art of both Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol; it’s that overlapping universe of comic books and “serious” art that fed Pop art to begin with.
It takes a village—no, a multiverse—of animators to propel this story through so many dimensions. Pinoy FX artist Anton Scarella (who worked on adding special touches to Mumbattan for this sequel, among other things) says “over a thousand” artists and animators were involved in creating this multiverse. It shows. There’s almost style overload, propelling the viewer from one carefully-designed dimension to the next, casually tossing aside references like used candy bar wrappers. But it’s the kind of experience that rewards rewatching—which is not something we can say about all superhero outings these days.
Along with candy bar wrappers are the Easter eggs, and there are tons of cameos—things that made film and comic geeks let out whoops of delight at the screening I saw. (Just one example: Donald Glover—long pining to play Spidey, and who was involved in TV’s Ultimate Spider-Man as well as playing “Uncle Aaron” in Spider-Man: Homecoming—turns up in a sly turn.)
Lord and Miller pack in-joke after in-joke into this exploding multiverse, and if it is a little exhausting keeping up, it’s also exhilarating. Let’s just say, if you liked seeing all three live-action Spider-Man versions turn up in the last Doctor Strange movie, well, this is that—times infinity.
None of that would matter if the characters weren’t worthy of yet another trilogy. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a complex composite, a half-Black, half-Puerto Rican Spider-Man who must figure out how to reveal his secret identity to his parents; Gwen, visiting from the Spider-Verse, is dealing with her own daddy issues; Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Miles’ mentor, is now a doting father who wants to feel like he was a good role model.
Then there’s The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), someone also trapped in the lab when the super-collider created Miles’ particular radioactive spider of doom. The former scientist, now faceless but containing multitudes in his many holes, is a pesky villain here, but the fun and humor are never left by the wayside.
A more serious threat comes from a schism within the Spider-Verse, where literally infinite versions of the masked superhero hang together, trying to keep the canon intact. It’s an interesting place, reminding one of the infinite capacity of AI to be creative, or deal out lethal mischief.
In fact, if you had infinite time to devise new versions of Spider-Man, you could do worse than prompting ChatGPT to “Draw me a Spider-T-Rex hurtling through a Starburst world” (one of the images that comes up in Across the Spider-Verse) and endless other variations all day long.
But it would not be as convincing, engaging, and coherent as the worlds created by Miller and Lord in this outing. (Check out the Lego version of Spidey’s neighborhood, a nod to the directors’ previous Batman work.) There’s even more precision to the graphical look of Miles’ Home Dimension, the way it seems to contain layers of ink, printed dots, and the graphical language embedded in the comic book page. (At first, you may think you’re seeing a 3D movie without glasses; but it’s the signature merging of a 2D look with countless CGI layers that resonates in this trilogy.)
Writer/co-director Kemp Powers compares making a massive animated movie like Spider-Verse to jumping onto a high-speed train while it’s in motion. “You have to learn a lot of material fast,” he says. And so does the audience. And once again, it’s worth the wild ride.
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Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now in Philippine cinemas.