I think it was fitting that I caught Superman’s 45th anniversary theatrical re-release on the same day I attended a preview for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. In one day, I had surveyed the past and future of the superhero movie.
In its misty innocence and straightforward storytelling, Superman is a modern masterpiece—a first snapshot of superheroes as avatars for values in both the moral and box-office senses. Tim Burton’s Batman moved the genre into post-modernism, where its cynical worldview went hand in hand with its winking self-consciousness as comic-book IP. Then Marvel took it into an era of smoothly oiled capitalism with 2008’s Iron Man—the superhero movie as efficient money-printing machine.
In 2018, Avengers: Infinity War was heralding the conclusion of a mighty Marvel cycle and dominating the culture. That same year, an offshoot of the Spider-Man universe featuring a Black Latino teenager named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) debuted in theaters to so-so opening numbers. But for critics like myself, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse felt like a jolt to the system: Here was the first meta-modern superhero movie—a stunningly animated movie that jumped, bounced, and reveled in its comic-book aesthetics while returning to the buoyant morality of Richard Donner’s Superman. No wonder Marvel under Kevin Feige has been in a slump ever since Avengers: Endgame; next to Miles and alternate universe Gwen Stacy and Spider-Pig, Thor and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man feel leaden and earthbound.
And now we have Across the Spider-Verse, a sequel that tops Into the Spider-Verse in quality of animation and quantity of ideas. The first thing that will strike you about this sequel is how much story it contains. Set a year after the events of the first movie, Across the Spider-Verse opens with a packed prologue that explains Gwen Stacy’s (Hailee Steinfeld) backstory: a devastating tragedy, a colossal misunderstanding, a museum-flattening confrontation that is a product of the first movie’s climax…all in five minutes.
Gwen soon finds herself conscripted into service by a haunted, humorless version of Spider-Man named Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) and a heavily pregnant, motorcycle-riding version of Spider-Woman named Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), who go around the different parallel realities (or multiverses) apprehending villains who don’t belong there and sending them home.
They’re part of a secret Spider-Society that essentially cleans up the punched-hole realities born out of the hadron collider climax of the first movie, and if your mind hasn’t been blown by the frenetic yet painterly animation marshalled by directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, then this dimension will have your inner geek shaking in paroxysms of glee. This interlude is too good to spoil with a description, but it’s safe to say that the creators have thrown every version of Spider-Man you can think of into the mix…and then some. There’s Spider-Man as a Lego figure! There’s Spider-Cat! There’s Spider-Cowboy! There’s, uh, Spider-T. Rex! There’s even Spider-Man as an idling automobile! (Peter Parked-Car…get it?)
Meanwhile, Miles is balancing life as a teenage prodigy with the demands of being his Brooklyn neighborhood’s friendly Spider-Man. (Which Spider-Man hasn’t been there, am I right?) It is on one of Miles’ crime-busting forays that we meet Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman) aka Spot, a technician reduced by the cataclysm in the first movie’s climax to a faceless entity with dimension-portal holes in his body. (If Watchmen’s Rorschach had comic timing, that would be Spot.) It is a testament to the freshness of Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham’s script that Spot’s jokey, slapstick ineptitude and impotent rage (“I am your nemesis!” Spot hollers at Miles while our Spidey texts his parents—what a diss!) make us reduce him to a “villain of the week” the way Miles does, before turning him into a worthy enemy with actual world-ending power.
If Into the Spider-Verse showed us what superhero movies could be, Across the Spider-Verse shows us what they should be. If the first movie debuted an animation style that unabashedly embraces its comic-book origins, with its Lichtenstein-ian dots and misaligned color palettes, this installment takes it even further: pushing the limits of its animation into something even more stunning, something even more tactile, something that morphs moment by moment with the emotional beats of its storytelling.
This penchant for envelope-pushing extends to the story. Across the Spider-Verse is meta enough to acknowledge that there are events that are canon in every Spider-Man story (the death of an Uncle Ben, for example, is defined as a Canon Event), but it is meta-modern in its bouncy optimism, positing that no life should be defined by these traumas. Across the Spider-Verse plumbs the depths of this thesis by framing it in a thorny moral dilemma: Could you devastate your own life if it meant keeping the balance of many others?
If the first film questions who gets to be a hero, then this new film interrogates the notion of what makes a hero. Why should heroism only be borne out of pain and tragedy? Lord, Miller and Callaham use the unfettered, gravity-defying freedom of animation to tell a story that explores, unpacks and reconfigures this idea.
Their script justifies every second of Across the Spider-Verse’s hefty 140-minute running time, packing so many ideas and frantically cycling through each one of them that it might be hard for your brain to keep up. But you’re guaranteed to have a smile plastered on your face the entire time. Because you know that what you’re seeing is the future of superhero movies.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is currently showing in Philippine cinemas.
Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures