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Across the Spider-Verse and Artistic Ambition


I literally just got back from Across the Spider-Verse and sat down at my computer, so this is about as fresh as a take as I can manage.

Short version: it’s an astonishingly and relentlessly ambitious film that aims to outdo every other Spider-Man movie, every other multi-verse movie, and even its own first entry in the Miles Morales trilogy. And it succeeds.

Full spoilers below the cut. You have been warned.

The Visuals

Before I get into anything about the story, I want to first give full credit to the directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemo Powers, Justin K. Thompson, and the entire team at Sony Pictures Animation. If you saw the first Spider-Verse movie and aren’t an animation nerd, you probably were impressed but didn’t realize how revolutionary it was. I’ll let Movies With Mikey explain the details, because it’s easier if you can see what people are talking about:

When your first entry wins an Academy Award by thumbing your nose at Pixar, the reigning king of animation, and the principles of animation set down by the Nine Old Men, you have every right to sit back on your laurels.

For Across the Spider-Verse, the Sony Pictures Animation team clearly decided: fuck that. If the first film had wowed audiences by combining a half-dozen styles of animation on the screen at the same time, the second film would drown you in dozens and dozens of Spiders-Men and -Women (and -Animals) drawn in every style imaginable: Da Vinci’s yellowing parchments and sketchy penicls, harsh cell-shading, punk rock collage art, 90s-style comic panels full of impossibly rippling muscles, crappy hand-drawn animation from the 1967 tv show, and then for a tip of the hat to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the man who should have been Spider-Man – live action.

The backgrounds show the same love: from the off-set printing of Miles’ world (my favorite detail is that you know that Miles gets sent to the wrong Earth when the color scheme shifts from purple to green), to the dripping painterly pastels of the Gweniverse, to the riotous greens and yellows of Mumbattan, to the clean Pixaresque light blooms of the Spider-Society’s technological utopia (which looks a hell of a lot like something out of Brad Bird’s dreams).

I am thoroughly in awe of the mentality behind the animation in this film, the absolute determination to challenge one’s own limits and exceed one’s past accomplishments.

The Story

If there is a single world that defines Across the Spider-Verse, it’s “canon.” The moment Miguel O’Hara uttered that word, my spidey-senses started tingling and I realized that Lord & Miller came to this film with a sermon. See, if there’s one message from the first Spider-Verse movie it’s that “anyone can be Spider-Man.” But if there’s two messages is that “you can’t save everyone” – the idea that the thing that unites all Spiders-Folk from across the multiverse, it is a common understanding of loss, a tragic origin that drives each hero to impossible efforts to never let it happen again.

Across the Spider-Verse‘s message is: “why?” I cannot begin to explain the absolute vibranium balls it took to question not just a core premise of your previous movie, but one of the core premises of the entire multi-media multi-corporate franchise. And yet, Lord & Miller show nothing but confidence executing this turn.





At the beginning of the film, which makes the brilliant move to start by telling Spider-Gwen’s story since we already know Miles, we are introduced to Miguel O’Hara (the Spider-Man from 2099) as a badass who leads a secret organization dedicated to protecting the mutliverse…but who secretly is also here to protect “canon.”

At the turning point of the film, when Miles is finally invited to join the Spider-Society, we are let in on a dark truth: the safety of the multiverse depends on the suffering of Spiders. Just as Uncle Ben must die, so must a gallant police captain – although almost subtextually, Spider-Gwen hints that so too must the Gwen Stacys who “fall for Spider-Man” – to keep Spider-Man emotionally isolated and solely dedicated to his mission of protecting New York. Trying to avert this lonely fate, to live a happier life, brings about the destruction of all that is.

Through an act of unabashed heroism in Mumbattan – saving the life of a gallant police captain and an innocent child – Miles has inadvertently endangered an entire universe. And unless he allows his own father, the gallant captain, to die as well – the same fate will befall his own. Miles, being a good son and a good person, refuses to accept this and takes on the entire Spider-Society to get home and save his father.

In the chase, we are let in on a second, dark truth: Miles wasn’t invited to join the Spider-Society because he is one of the anomalies they hunt, because he was never supposed to be Spider-Man. (You see how this builds on both the speech from Miles’ mom about not letting white society tell him he doesn’t belong AND the message from the first film?) The Kingpin’s collider experiments allowed an Alchemax spider to cross over from Earth-42 to Earth-1610…and as a result, Earth-42 never got a Spider-Man.

When Miles accidentally is sent to Earth-42 instead of his actual home, he learns what that meant. Without Spider-Man, Captain Jeff Davis (Brian Michael Bendis is a real mensch like 99% of the time, but man did he fuck up with that one) died instead of his brother Aaron. Because the intended Spider-Man of Earth-42 was…Miles Morales. Instead, he has become a dystopian Brooklyn’s Prowler, a living reminder of the damage the accident of Earth-1610’s Miles’ creation has caused. This is why you don’t violate “canon.”

Except…as we learn, Miguel O’Hara is wrong and our Miles is right. When Gwen is sent back to her own universe, which she has been running away from because she knows that it means confronting both her father the gallant captain and the inevitability of his death, she learns that George Stacy quit the force rather than take his promotion: Captain Stacy doesn’t have to die. Nor did Captain Singh. Nor does Captain Davis. (For that matter, Miles doesn’t have to lie to his family and live a double life as Spider-Man, as we see from his accidentally-misdirected confession.)

We are not the prisoners of the “canon.”

Ever since Amazing Fantasy #15, “with great power there must also come great responsibility” has been the indisputable truth of Spider-Man. At this point, it’s become a meme: “the Parker luck.” Over and over again, Peter Parker must suffer for our sins – Uncle Ben dies, Captain Stacy dies, Gwen Stacy’s death ushers in a whole new era of comics and the phenomenon of “fridging,” his marriage to Mary Jane has to be done away with because the Spider Office are apparently psychological eternal adolescents, Aunt May has died and almost died so many times everyone’s stopped caring.

And that’s the problem: we’ve been playing the same hit for 61 years and it’s gotten old. In the process, creators and audience together have condemned Spider-Man to a Sisyphean existence of eternal backsliding, unable to move on, build a life for himself, mature, die and give way to new Spiders. Hell, the best thing that’s happened to Peter Parker in the last several decades was an AU in which he has a super-powered wife and daughter and can settle into a middle age of teaching at the Xavier School.

That’s the sermon that Lord & Miller came to preach: just as in 2018 it was time for a new Spider-Man, now it’s time for new stories that have the courage to try something different.

A Side-Note About the Multiverse

As with the animation side of the story, Lord & Miller could have sat back on their laurels when it came to the concept of the multiverse. After all, they were the ones who made it cool and sent Marvel Studios scrambling to catch up (still haven’t succeeded at that, by the way). I don’t think Everything Everywhere All At Once needed the creative help, but it absolutely helped sell the movie to producers that a multiverse movie could make millions and win Oscars. (Funny how that works.) Instead, Lord & Miller took it up a notch by asking “what is the purpose of a multiverse?”

Hot take: I don’t like the Spider-Verse events. For all that they’ve given us some amazing Spider designs – and we saw them all up on screen in Across the Spider-Verse – no one cares about the stories. That’s because the naked purpose of the comics was to market test Spider designs, see which ones generated buzz, and then make spin-off comics about those Spiders.

Across the Spider-Verse uses the concept of a multiverse, the shiny Macguffin that multi-billion dollar corporate conglomerates will hope will the ticket to riches, to strip Spider-Man down to the essentials by showing every conceivable variation and asking us what they all have in common. Is it suffering, or a commitment to doing the right thing?


Holy shit, is firing Lord & Miller the biggest mistake Disney has made since Walt refused to recognize the animators’ union in 1941.

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