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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

"Across the Spider-Verse"

In this edition of Marginalia, we go into and across the Spidey multiverse.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

“Let’s do things differently this time.”

As micro-manifestos go, Across the Spider-Verse’s opening line of voice-over neatly sets the vision and tone of this sequel. Everything about the first film was such a miracle that even if the filmmakers had wanted to go the studio-friendly route of simply repeating the successes of the first film, they couldn’t have done it. Even Jesus only walked on water the one time.

My encounter with the first film, Into the Spider-Verse, was something like what sci-fi nerds must have felt when they saw the first Star Wars film: here was something I had long wanted, even if I hadn’t known I wanted it. It was as if the filmmakers had not only given me what I desired but, in doing so, revealed the desire. And maybe it’s going too far, but I’ll make the connection anyway – watching Into for the first time might have been like watching the first film with sound or the first colour film: I didn’t even know films could be like this.

Into came as close to reading a comic book as you can get without actually reading a comic book. If that had been all it did, then it would have been a mere trick, a gimmick. But it went further and blended the sensibilities of comic books with the tools and language of cinema, producing something unique. The film was a commercial and critical success, and somehow managed to serve the nerdiest of fans and the most casual of viewers. It’s easy to see why a studio would want a repeat of the first film in the hopes of repeating its success.

Thankfully, the creative teams behind Across – from debut directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson to writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham, and all the art directors, sound mixers, editors, and crew in between – have bigger and bolder ideas. Across isn’t a mere rehash of Into, nor is it an addition in the traditional sense of a sequel – like our own universe, the multiverse of these films is expanding.

I won’t synopsise what happens in Across, because one of its many joys is its story, the ways it cleverly folds in the first film and is plotted with incredible dexterity (look out for details setting up reveals that will make you gasp with how ingeniously simple and effective they are). As with Into, the superhero story works at all times in service to the human story, and some of the finest scenes are those between Miles and his parents, especially the scene in which his mother makes him promise, as he grows older, to always care for the boy within whom she raised and loves.

There is, however, a tendency throughout the film towards a reactionary kind of humour, a James Gunn-esque reliance on bathos at the expense of pathos, which was markedly absent from the first film. In that first story, moments of humour that seemed to undercut the gravity or sincerity of a scene almost always served to place us in the reality of being a teenager. When Miles is first testing his newfound abilities and the music swells as he prepares to leap from a building, the sudden cut to him chickening out and taking the stairs reminds us that he’s a normal teen boy, not yet a superhero – and it balances nicely with the later scene when he finally does make the leap.

In Across, there are too many jokes about the silliness of a supervillain’s look or the name of the multiverse, and aside from wondering what they brought to the film, I worried that the lead villain would turn out to be a kind of McGuffin, a running joke that justified the occasional fight scene. It turns out we’ll have to wait for part two of Across to see whether the filmmakers will allow for the ridiculousness of this character to become tragic, a motivation (desiring to be taken seriously by those we respect) we can empathise with even as it leads him to a terrible end.

When the jokes land, though, they land well, and thankfully they land often. The humour is spread evenly across the bread of this film, serving as a nice relish to the meat of character work and thematic exploration in this cinematic sandwich. (Note to self – don’t write on an empty stomach.) There’s an entire section set in Mumbattan, a multiverse variant of Manhattan crossed with Mumbai, in which the jokes come so fast and with such spot-on timing that my stomach had barely recovered before I was belly-laughing again. When Miles mentions having crossed the multiverse to “find himself”, Pavitr Prabhakar (that universe’s Peter Parker) says, “Don’t Eat. Pray. Love me!” I was holding onto my popcorn and shaking with laughter at a running gag about “chai” meaning “tea” and “naan” meaning “bread”, so that “chai tea” is like saying “tea tea” and “naan bread” like saying “bread bread”.

It’s clear in every single frame how much fun the filmmakers had in making Across. One of many highlights is the art style that defines Gwen Stacy’s universe. It’s a wash of expressive watercolour, not defined or delimited by outlining, which allows a nebulous backdrop that haunts the characters, as if the space is the ghost rather than the people. This colour-scape bleeds, blends, fades, and radiates with moods. When Gwen seizes her father in a hug, the backdrop blooms with colour that spreads out from the embrace. Later, when the two of them confront each other in an emotional showdown, the colours run as if rain is washing them out. It couldn’t be more wonderful, in the truest sense of the word.

While it’s not that serious an element, and is often wonderfully silly in its execution, the various versions of Spider-Man shown to us are a treat to spot in the backgrounds and marvel at their increasing weirdness. These are often taken from comic books and video games, but they work as part of the whole multi-verse concept and are aesthetically aligned – even in their glorious strangeness – with the film enough that they deepen the viewing experience. If only the filmmakers had restricted themselves (and self-restriction was clearly not something they imposed often) to these creative variations.

Unfortunately, Across does something that Into never did: it slides into a lazy complicity with the contemporary fad for postmodern self-consciousness packaged in so-called Easter Eggs, made popular by the MCU. We have J. K. Simmons reprising his role as J. Jonah Jameson, just as he did in the MCU Spider-Man movies; Donald Glover makes a live-action cameo that I assume is intended to placate fans who wanted more of him in the MCU; there is, of all things, a tedious moment that brings the Venom franchise into this universe. Rather than expanding the multiverse, these inclusions of live-action characters and flippant nods to the MCU took me out of it, reminding me each time that this is a film and it’s part of an ecosystem of superhero movies.

Still, these are thankfully fleeting moments that are easy to look past, and, besides, it feels ungrateful to complain about something so slight when we’ve been gifted with such a gorgeous and engrossing film. But if we are going to complain, then it’s worth pointing out that the MCU has much more to answer for in this film’s relatively few flaws. The bigness of Across – the epic scale in storytelling, the weight of detail that burdens parts of the 140-minute runtime, and the dragging out of this film into two parts – is a problem.

Into is only twenty minutes shorter than Across, but its propulsive pacing and the tightness of its narrative mean that it never meanders. It carries you swiftly towards its definitive and expertly crafted conclusion. There are a few sequences here where the attention wanders, some that I found myself wondering what they were here for, especially a scene in which Spider-Man does nothing but swing through the streets outrunning the visualisation of the tough moments we just watched him go through. And when a brand new storyline is introduced 130 minutes into the film, which is clearly designed to justify part two, it’s hard to have any patience with it. When the “To Be Continued…” card came up at the end, my first and honest thought was Why can’t this just be a movie? Why must all films now be the lead-in to something else?

I strongly suspect that in a few years’ time, I will have little to no problem with the bigness, even the bagginess, of Across. After all, I never complain that there’s just too much to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, that I wish they were one, much shorter film. There is a need within me for the occasional epic, a narrative world I can lose myself in, and I can think of few more enjoyable than the Spider-Verse to explore. But cultural items exist within a culture, and ours has currently depleted my energy for this kind of long-form, multi-movie franchise. The very culture of MCU sagas and reboots and sequels that should have prepared me for a film sequence like Spider-Verse has actually exhausted me for it.

It will only be possible to fully appreciate and assess what the creative team behind the Spider-Verse has done once the third and final instalment is out. But whether they stick or fumble the landing, the leaps they’ve taken so far will remain part of the greatest joys in modern cinema. I can’t wait to recover my energy, then visit the Spider-Verse again.


Marginalia, plur. noun: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe

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