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THB #379: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (spoiler-free)
There is going to be a fight in the days to come, as critics fight to be the one to best love this movie.
And the truth is, it’s hard to put into words. Because this animated film is more about the feeling than the words or the plot or any performance. It dares to be cinematic in the way you might feel about an Ari Aster movie or a more painterly Everything Everywhere All At Once. The recent movie it most recalled for me was Brett Morgan’s Moonage Daydream, which bent the idea of what a documentary is.
Part of what fascinates me about the film is that Phil Lord and Chris Miller reloaded this film with an entirely different group of directors than Into The Spider-Verse, Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson “replacing” the Oscar-winning trio of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Dave Callaham and Lord’s partner, Chris Miller leap into the co-writing couch with Phil.
And the new group, in the wake of a hugely successful, Oscar-winning film, that felt like the cutting edge, where did they go? More artistic. Less traditional. To the Bleeding Edge.
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse is fearless in a way we have never, ever seen in a commercial animated movie… almost never in an American commercial movie, period. When the characters feel something, the filmmakers allow that emotion to take over the whole space, keeping us engaged with story and character while sequences turn into expressionist paintings, steeped in color and feeling.
Interestingly, little if any of this is seen in the trailer, which focuses on the most easily consumable visuals in the film…
There are some more traditional representations in the film. Watch the trailer. The animation of the rooftop party sequence manages to feel exactly like an slightly over-full party of people you know, happy and frustrating and surprising and relentless. It could have been shot by any of the greatest directors and DPs who shot New York in the 70s (albeit with a lot more color).
It’s fascinating to go back to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which stills feels profoundly expansive, and to realize how much bigger a step “Across” is. "Into” is unique and beautiful and filled with imagery that we haven’t seen, combining all kinds of imagery that we had seen over the decades in a remarkable way. The conceit of creating action that often takes place without any traditional context but it still just as exciting as a great Bond movie is still thrilling. What exactly is happening behind the action? We don’t always know (though the filmmakers surely do). But it still works unreservedly.
It really feels like we were being trained by the filmmakers in “Into” to accept a visual style that demands more work from us than we are used to doing while watching movies (or tv). And now, with “Across,” they are pushing us even further, to accept and simply feel the imagery… so much so that I can barely imagine what next steps they will take in Spider-Man: Beyond The Spider-Verse. The thought is quite thrilling.
Also, Across The Spider-Verse deals head on with the multiverse concept in a way more clear and considered than any Marvel film in the past. For a movie that is so intensely visual, they are willing to do a lot of expositional talking… though they don’t feel like Basil Exposition moments. (Miquel O’Hara does go on…)
If there is anything to question about these films, it is the villains, who are beautiful to look at and well-voiced and feel really dangerous… but are not the stars in either film. It’s not really a flaw. But so much of action convention is the quality of the villain being the thing that makes one film better than another. Not so here. I do love some of them. The opening sequence of “Across” has a villain who is great fun in a variety of ways. But these films are really about Miles Morales and the other Spider-Mans. They are about growing up. And self-acceptance. And the acceptance of a flawed world.
(Sidebar: Going back to “Into,” there are a lot of blurry normal humans in Miles’ New York. That didn’t really stick with me until seeing “Across,” where everyone, human or super, is so distinct. Just thought I would mention it.)
And I wonder… is this character based on Amy Pascal?
I will see “Across” again later this week. But from this first sitting, I honestly have a hard time imagining that there will be 9 films this year, of any format, better than this one. Make of that what you will.
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