Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Jun 2, 2023
Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, Kemp Powers
Dave Callaham, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Jake Johnson, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae, Daniel Kaluuya, Karan Soni
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Critics Chris Olson and Brian Penn host UK Film Club - a new film podcast covering all film types. From blockbusters to old favourites and even indie & shorts.
The multiverse trend is tough to navigate. It’s so easy to either underwhelm the narrative by not living up to the scale implied by its premise, or to completely overdo it to the point that the structural integrity of a blancmange would become enviable. In Spider-Man: No Way Home, for example, it’s used for little more than to introduce a couple of nostalgia-bait cameos. To be fair, they may have been fun at the time, but on reflection, they don’t go anywhere near far enough to demonstrate the magnitude of possibilities that come with the idea that any and all eventualities are happening somewhere. In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the problem only gets worse. Instead of expanding the breadth and depth of the concept, it leant more into the idea that different multiverses are all essentially the same thing with a few aesthetic differences, even contradicting the already small scale of Spider-Man: No Way Home in favour of an even smaller one. If nothing else, at least the three Peter Parkers were different people, unlike the Doctor Stranges who were so identical that they could be held accountable for one another’s misdemeanours.
The most successful of the subgenre so far is undoubtedly Everything Everywhere All at Once, but there’s still a feeling that more could have been explored than just hotdog fingers, everything bagels and altered relationship dynamics between the same characters in a few different settings.
What Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse does so well is entirely a continuation of what made Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse such a great representation of what the multiverse premise can achieve. It uses the idea to present a genuinely diverse set of characters, all connected by the experiences that they share instead of divided by the ones they don’t. There are Spider-beings with different cultures, ethnicities, genders, species, and even art styles and cinematic forms, all managing to co-exist in the same space because they all share fundamental similarities that go far deeper than any surface-level distinction ever could. It’s a refreshing view of the intersectionalities that are often used politically to pull people apart from one another, and there’s a lesson to be learnt from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse about how we can just choose to try and understand each other instead.
There’s really only one thing, though, that separates the Spider-Society from any other normal person. They’re all lucky enough to have been bitten by the spider that started them on a journey of self-discovery by literally hiding who they are behind a mask. In an early sequence, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is in the position to talk to his father, Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry), in a way where he’s able to discover that his dad has his own mask too. Without realising that he’s speaking to his son when he encounters Spider-Man, Jefferson talks about the intimate struggles of parenting that are otherwise hidden behind a tough exterior which has been crafted with the best intentions of raising a child in the right way. Similar is true for Miles’s mother, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez). We’re almost given two characters for her; one who loves her son to the point of self-harm, and one who presents unachievable expectations of him in the hope that it might steer him towards becoming the best person he can be.
The struggle between having a truly authentic self as well as a version of it that has to be presented to the world is a commonality between every character, just as it is among people in general. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) has a similar family dynamic to Miles, Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) is played off in a more satirical way, and there are many shades in-between with Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) and many other characters doing their utmost to fulfil their purposes in life while embracing what makes them who they really are. Not only does Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse manage to tell a very personal story at the heart of a huge multiverse blockbuster, but it does it on such a scale that the multiverse becomes necessary to contain it.
Spider-Man has always been a character used to convey a metaphor for identity. His superpower is a burden because he’s not able to reveal himself to the people he loves, and he’s not able to be anything else because the values of what it is to be Spider-Man are fundamental to his core. He’s a character naturally filled with loneliness, but Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse changes that ever so slightly while remaining faithful to who and what the character is supposed to be. There are people who he’s allowed to reveal his true self to because they’re all part of the same Spider-Society, but that doesn’t make it any less painful that he has to lead a double life of sorts in front of the people who were there for him before any of this happened. Although he’s found a new community to be a part of, that doesn’t replace the one that he came from.
It’s so well-crafted that by changing the traditional Spider-Man archetype for something that’s more of a communal experience, it supercharges the issue of identity to a new height of relevance where it could have easily abandoned it. In a world where topics concerning identity are spoken about in far more divisive terms than they could ever warrant, it’s another lesson that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse offers at a time when it’s necessary.
All of that said, it’s also just incredibly fun. When Martin Scorsese delivered his now-infamous line about how superhero movies were more akin to theme park rides than cinema, it didn’t have to be taken as such an outrageous statement. The simple fact is that part of their purpose is, like theme park rides, to provide us with a good time full of excitement and elation. In Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse we’re given so many reasons to smile alongside all of the deep and meaningful stuff, with a number of action set-pieces that any master of the art would be immensely proud of. By anyone’s standard, it hits all of the markers of being great cinema as well as being a great theme park ride.
In Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse there’s a story and an experience for everyone. If there’s any point in exploring the concept of a multiverse in film, then it’s to do exactly what this film has done. It highlights the emotional tether that, in one way or another, links us all together, but it also celebrates the things that make us different. It may be quite early to make such a claim, but it’s nothing short of a masterpiece of genre filmmaking.