A great deal has happened since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won an Oscar, in 2019. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), our key webslinger, now wears a #BLM badge. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) spluttered, the dazzling animation cemented its position as the superhero flick it’s still okay to like. Meanwhile the entertainment world became exhaustingly obsessed with confusing, no-stakes parallel universes. They are there in the MCU. They are there in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Is the new Spider-Verse film a victim of its predecessor’s deserved success? Has the multiverse seam been mined out?
On balance, no and no. Built around Miles’s efforts to thwart an interdimensional trickster called the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) – “more than a villain of the week”, the bad’un claims – the film continues that remarkable blend of knobbly humanity and fit-inducing visual invention. To an even greater extent than the earlier film, Across the Spider-Verse, unlike the MCU adventures, plugs straight into the aesthetic of the comic book.
This is not just to trivially note that the animation, sometimes incorporating the Ben Day dot graphics that so intrigued Roy Lichtenstein, borrows from Marvel’s artists of the silver age. There is also a busyness to the frame that invites the prolonged perusal that Jack Kirby demanded with his two-page spreads. If you miss the multiplying captions on the big screen (and you will) you can look forward to catching them on a streaming service in a few months. You just don’t get this bebop freedom in the adult-contemporary live-action films. You don’t get the clattering montages that replicate the eye moving around a comic book’s flashy grid.
None of this distracts from the unexpected richness of the characterisation. We begin with a prologue in which Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) – Spider-Woman in her universe – storms out of her punk band and, still upset by closing events in part one, mopes home to her police-captain dad (Shea Whigham). Following the credits, Morales, expected at school to discuss his college application, arrives late after encountering the Spot robbing a bodega.
The film is at its considerable best in an opening half that juggles everyday teenage angst with a breathless multi-universal scoot – teasing the Spider-conventions to breaking point and beyond. An early variation on the Vulture, apparently sketched by Leonardo da Vinci, showcases the film-makers’ commitment to a risky, heterogenous image palette. Last time we got Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham. The new film has further riffs that we won’t spoil in this place.
And yet, the longer the film goes on, the greater the sense that the film-makers – the unavoidable Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are back on script duties – have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs. Close to perfection over that opening spread, Across the Spider-Verse puffs and pants as the two-hour mark recedes in the rear-view mirror. “In every other universe Gwen Stacy falls for Spider-Man,” Gwen herself says. “And in every other universe it doesn’t end well.”
The final act is much taken up with arguments about causal determinism and the importance of the “canon” that you expect to find in the more boring corners of comic-book Reddit. There is something here – stay with me as I strain a comparison into absurdity – of the debate that closes Martin Scorsese’s Silence: a theological quandary that only the most pious will care about. As the energy runs down, the no-stakes quality of the multiverse finally begins to grate. If everything is possible then nothing is properly amazing.
The main body of Across the Spider-Verse is, however, so endlessly, dizzyingly imaginative that few will lose hope at the mildly disappointing denouement. There is surely more to come, and the potential is there for endless variation. Excelsior!
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in cinemas from Thursday, June 1st