Nearly every mainstream animated feature (and just about every comic-book movie too) sets a tone and visual design that the audience plugs into; the movie, bold and shiny and clever as it may be, won’t deviate much from that. But the images in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” have an intoxicating unpredictability. The film makes you feel like you’re dropping through the floors of a modern art museum on acid, yet there’s a thrilling moment-to-moment logic to it all. The madly eclectic images express something — an eyeball-tickling explosion of quantum physics, or a subliminal nod to some comic-book style from decades ago that’s so retro it’s new, not to mention bedazzling. This feels like it could have been the first movie designed to earn a thumbs up from Andy Warhol and Stephen Hawking.
Or maybe the second, since “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was like that too. Released in 2018, it was a comic-book movie so spry and urgent, with such hypnotic imagery, that it left most comic-book movies in the dust. A reason for that relates to one of the least-remarked-upon insanities of our comic-book-movie culture, which is that comic-book films, or 98 percent of them anyway, couldn’t be further removed — in tone, look, attitude, and effect — from comic books. They’re really two entirely different forms.
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Comic books, as I recall them from my youth, are fleet, terse, and puckishly deadpan, and you never know what the next panel will bring. But big-studio comic-book films tend to be top-heavy, rib-nudging, and visually bombastic, with rigidly overdetermined arcs. Within that, a lot of them are fun enough, but there’s no mystery to them. That’s what Martin Scorsese meant when he declared, in 2019, that Marvel movies aren’t cinema.
One of the many pleasures of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was that, as the first “Spider-Man” movie (and one of the only films of the Marvel/DC movie era) that was animated, it channeled the look and spirit and knowingly flat wonder of comic books. It drew on the elegant film-noir expressionism of the graphic novels of the ’90s, and it tapped their terse wit. (Grungy veteran Spider-Man: “Most people I meet in the workplace try to kill me.”)
But it was also a spectacular feast for the eyes. It was the comic-book movie as pop-art revelation, with trippy bursts of glitchiness, and when it came to depicting matter pouring out of a collider, it left you more drop-jawed than the headiest “Avengers” sequel. The story of Miles Morales, a Black Latino Brooklyn teenager who got bit by an electromagnetic spider, only to learn that he was one of many Spider-Men (and Spider-Women, not to mention Spider-Porky Pigs) in the multiverse of possibilities, the movie gripped us because there was something at stake. In most origin stories, the hero gets the hang of things reasonably quickly, but the upshot of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is that it was daunting to be Spider-Man. It was like literally jumping off a cliff, and then you had to keep jumping when you didn’t know what you were doing. That’s called drama (or maybe even cinema), something that most live-action comic-book films have the way that processed food has calories.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” set the bar high, and one reason I wondered if “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” could live up to it is that the original film’s co-directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) have returned only as executive producers, replaced by three other directors (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson). Could the new trio reproduce that heady combustible mutating pop-art magic, that sly storytelling finesse, that understanding of the inside-out logic of comic books that seems to elude almost every live-action comic-book film?
They’ve done it. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” doesn’t just extend the tale of Miles Morales. The film advances that story into newly jacked-up realms of wow-ness that make it a genuine spiritual companion piece to the first film. That one spun our heads and then some; this one spins our heads even more (and would fans, including me, have it any other way?).
The movie opens with a prelude designed to throw us, because it fills in the story of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), the rock drummer and Spider-Woman in white, in images of broad-brush expressionism that make the first film look like a vérité documentary. We think: Is this where they’re going? No, they’re just playing. But Gwen’s story sets the stakes, as her father, a police captain, blames her (wrongly) for the death of Peter Parker. This will be a movie about the gravity of responsibility.
Miles, voiced with a growing cockiness by Shameik Moore, is now a 15-year-old crime-fighting master of his New York Spider-Man domain, but as we learn that’s more or less tiddlywinks. The film enmeshes us in a bit of soap-opera conflict between Miles and his parents, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez), who still have no idea that he’s Spider-Man and therefore find a lot of his behavior erratic and disturbing. He comes off as a liar, a teenager with hidden problems (which is why his folks keep grounding him). But that’s the least of his problems.
A supervillain shows up: The Spot, a.k.a. Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a former science geek who worked for Alchemax and was genetically maimed by the spectacular collider implosion caused by Miles in the first film. Ohnn is now an all-white figure with splotchy black-hole ink blots on his body that turn out to be portals to the multiverse. He’s got more power than he knows, and he’s out for revenge. Between the family drama and this livid shape-shifter nemesis, we think we’re being set up for a conventional comic-book showdown: the version of this movie it would be if it were another live-action Marvel spectacular.
It’s weirder, wilder, and better than that. The movie gives us time to revel in the quiet loveliness of a scene where Miles and Gwen bond, hanging upside down, on the dome of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, or to notice that the texture of the characters’ skin is flecked with comic-book dots. But that’s before Miles dives into the multiverse — first to Mumbai (or the wiggly hand-drawn sci-fi alternate version of it), where he meets several new Spider-Folks, including Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), who’s like the star of a boy band from 2033; Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a Spider-Woman who‘s imperious and pregnant; and, most spectacularly, Spider-Punk (voiced most excellently by Daniel Kaluuya), a Mohawked London ruffian who is visualized, with a guitar slung down his back, like the walking version of the Sex Pistols album cover. The audience is still in conventional okay-so-this-must-be-the-new-team-of-superheroes mode, even as the characters glitch into psychedelic Cubist paintings. But once the Mumbai episode ends in victory, Miles gets sucked down to the Spider-Man HQ: the futuristic nerve center of the Spider-Society, where every last Spider-Man — there are hundreds of them — gathers.
The film has great fun with this, trotting out versions of Spider-Man who are cars, video games, cats, and dinosaurs. Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker returns, now with his act together and a Spider-tot in tow. But if this were all just a lark, the whole thing might collapse. Instead, the stakes are raised, with the Spider-Man brother/sisterhood taking on a more complex and even sinister dimension. The place is run by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the “ninja vampire” Spider-Man and the only Spider-Man who apparently lacks a sense of humor; he’s a glowering scarred figure who maintains the hallowed order of the place. To preserve that order, there are stories in the Spider-Man canon that cannot be violated, such as the death of Uncle Ben. They’re like mythologies. And as Miles’ testy but loving father gets promoted to the position of PDNY captain, he becomes one of those characters. Miles is going to have to do something very dark to preserve the integrity of the Spider-Verse.
It’s a thorny situation, and a dramatically compelling one, all spinning off the line that someone says to Miles: “There’s no playbook for being someone like you.” That hits home in the dizzying chase sequence where Miles, pursued by hundreds of dementedly diverse Spider-Men, attempts to escape the Spider-Man HQ and get back home. In the first film, he was still learning to swing from his web like vines. In this one, drawing on his powers of invisibility and electrification, it’s as if he’s got to become an existential gymnast operating according to the laws of three-dimensional chess. The movie plugs us into an altogether higher echelon of video game.
Without giving away more, I’ll say this: “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” ends with that old-fashioned thing, a cliffhanger. (The decision was made several years ago to slice the sequel in two.) At the preview showing I attended, I heard a surge of playful testiness in the audience: We have to wait? To find out what happens? For how long? The original cliffhanger serials, the ones that inspired “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” kept you waiting one week. In this case, we have to wait closer to a year. But the impatience I heard was really about the investment the audience felt. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” has made a pact with us, one that’s increasingly rare in the pop movie universe. It’s promising that the series is going to keep us hooked, in every frame, on surprise.
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