By Greg Carlson
Until I saw “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” I really thought the cinematic expression of the multiverse concept had peaked with the triumphant Best Picture Academy Award for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a movie that catapults us – as I wrote in my original review – “onto the tracks of a rollercoaster careening through a dizzying set of alternative (sur)realities.”
But the new superhero film, which continues the onscreen story of teenagers Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and a whole army of colorful Spider-people that began in 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” is a glorious follow-up. “Across the Spider-Verse” is to the original installment as “Toy Story 2,” “The Godfather Part II,” and “The Empire Strikes Back” are to their franchises.
Last year, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” arrived in theaters just ahead of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” And here we are again, as “The Flash” – yet another multiverse-oriented movie – lands in two short weeks. The concept of parallel worlds has been evolving since at least the ancient Greeks, and Marvel has been steadily laying the groundwork for even more of it.
In the narrow corridor of contemporary media, fatigue has been the common F-word when it comes to superhero cinema. “Across the Spider-Verse” presents a strong argument that there is still plenty of gas in the tank.
Admittedly, it helps if you’re already a fan (of comics, graphic design, animation, cinema, intertextuality, etc.), but directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson, working from a screenplay by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham, locate the emotional core at the heart of the saga and never let it get smothered or obscured by the stunning visuals.
The Spider-Man brought to life by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko is arguably the greatest hero of the Silver Age. Even average citizens have likely heard some variation of the aphorism “With great power comes great responsibility.” And one of the triumphs of this iteration is the way it creates a conversation between the old and the new.
The filmmakers pack a lot of story into the movie’s 140 minutes, introducing another set of web-slingers who either assist or oppose Miles – for any number of reasons made clear along the way – once he leaves Earth-1610 through a portal and unwittingly threatens a canon-disrupting event.
Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld, as Miles and Gwen, interact with a dazzling ensemble that includes Oscar Isaac’s Spider-Man 2099, Daniel Kaluuya’s Spider-Punk, Issa Rae’s Spider-Woman, Karan Soni’s Spider-Man India, and several others involved in the complicated business of the Spider-Society. To paraphrase Shakespeare from “The Merchant of Venice,” everyone plays a part.
But for all the head-swiveling action sequences and clever homages (including several direct tributes to “Everything Everywhere All at Once”), “Across the Spider-Verse” successfully reimagines the character while retaining the things that have made Spidey great since 1962: coming-of-age questions of identity, the challenges of personal growth, conflict with loved ones, the pain of sacrifice, and the uncertainties and anxieties that exist in the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood.
Contrary to the racist objections that have been playing out since the introduction of Miles Morales in 2011, all the differences and updates take absolutely nothing away from Peter Parker. And that’s amazing.
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