Wednesday 14 June 2023

Web 2.0: "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse"

With a flurry of inspired pen strokes, 2018's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made the multiverse concept that had baffled the mass audience circa 1988's A Brief History of Time seem like child's play; in a reality not dissimilar to our own, it likely had something to do with Everything Everywhere All at Once winning the Best Film Oscar in March 2023. (All that theoretical physics had a conclusion.) Into the Spider-Verse ran two hours; its follow-up, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, runs to two hours twenty, as per superhero sequel norms, and those extra twenty minutes may be the crucial difference between a fun time at the movies and a somewhat exhausting chore. Two hours is just long enough to don the romper suit that has become as de rigueur for modern moviegoing as 3D glasses were a decade ago, toddle around inside the mnemonic remnants of somebody else's childhood, and get back home in time for the nightly news. At two hours twenty, it starts to feel as though you're being pinned down at Comic-Con and sandblasted with this stuff. It also, in this case, gives us time to ponder how the multiverse provides the perfect cover for creative indecision and insecurity. In ruling everything in, there is no longer a need to rule anything (or anyone) out; the old, adult responsibilities of making movies - making firm, clear, decisive choices - are no more. The films are so much more inclusive for that, their cheerleaders argue, and there are certainly points to be argued and maybe won there. Yet the laws of this universe mean the gains of franchises becoming more inclusive have to be weighed against the losses of their becoming less exclusive (in the old sense of special). Thick and fast these things now arrive, offering more and more and yet much of a muchness, Tipp-Exing asterisks next to anything fateful lest subsequent instalments seek to take that action back. "Let's do things differently... so differently," murmurs Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) in Across the Spider-Verse's opening narration. But how different can it be, when you're doing it all over again?

A concession: much like its predecessor, Across the Spider-Verse collates a dazzling gallery of images while functioning as a repository of zippy, dynamic action scenes. One complaint commonly sounded against live-action superhero movies is that their constituent spectacle knows nothing of gravity. (I'm still not over the flying he-men of the recent Black Panther sequel, elevated by dainty, serviette-thin wings on their ankles.) What producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, presiding spirits of this spin-off, have reassured their directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman for film one; Joaquim dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson here) is that a cartoon has no real need for gravity. The first movie offered the thrillingly great liberation of watching a free hand moving over a blank canvas: you felt the animators and characters could really take off and go anywhere, and there was something buoying in seeing a major studio animation that rejected the prosaic, grounded model of a Madagascar or Minions and instead reached out towards the more ambitious animes of our times. (Lord and Miller's point was surely that there is more to animation than generally rocks up at the Odeon in half-term week with a tie-in popcorn promotion: the boundaries were literally being redrawn.) Yet settling in before Across the Spider-Verse, you soon realise no Japanimation has yet moved at this velocity - doubtless because few Eastern production houses have the resources to gather and process this much data, and thus to cover this much ground. While reintroducing the established Spideys (Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, the middle-aged one voiced by Nick from New Girl), the new film also tosses into the mix glimpses of the old comic-book avatar, a Lego Spider-Man (nodding to a past Lord/Miller triumph), a Spider-Cat and even a Spider-Horse. The action unfolds in mixed media over multiple locations and realities, connected by space-time wormholes through which pass people and props shifting shape and/or shade as they travel. Miles (Shameik Moore) and Gwen enjoy a swoony, breathless catch-up swinging through New York at sundown, but even conventional scenes of exposition pulse with a jittery energy: you can both see and somehow feel the ink itching to jump from one spot on the screen to another. Everything is awesome. Everything is ADHD in HD.

And yet it's pure sugar rush, scattering its ideas like a seven-year-old after a heavy afternoon on the Skittles; you can but brace, awaiting the crash. This Across the Spider-Verse does around the 90-minute mark, but even before then, this thoroughly agitated multiverse starts wearing itself thin: the colour comes off in your hands, and you spy the duller corporate condescension in the webbing underneath. My Spidey senses for market-driven BS began tingling upon the arrival of an Indian Spider-Man, Pavitr Prabhakar, introduced replaying one of the most memorable setpieces in Sam Raimi's 2002 movie in his hometown of "Mumbattan" ("Let's do things differently... so differently"). For all this setpiece's relentless toing-and-froing, you never for a minute lose sight of the memo hanging out of the characters' back pockets: a Spider-Guy for every territory the film will play! Everyone gets a lollipop! (Maybe I'm just resentful that the British Spider-Man is a dated punk archetype, no fun and no use to anyone at all: we don't quite get "London Calling" on the soundtrack, but we can only have been one or two realities off.) By the time one Spidey broke into an extended lecture on The Significance of the Canon ("the events that bind our lives together"), I was no longer having fun; superficial thrills - the good stuff - had given way to solemn self-absorption. With its doors thrown wide open to actively bad ideas, the film's final hour offers the sight of a franchise fighting with itself (or among its selves), unwilling to kill either its darlings or its demons because there's a third instalment coming down the line. The free hand these animators were gifted back in 2018 now comes with a heavy cost: being tethered to a machine that prints money, and obliged to paint over the cracks in the studio system. They're some of the best painters in the business, granted - and, man alive, you should see the colours. But it may now be too big a job for even a team of superheroes to successfully pull off. "I don't know how to fix this," sighs Spider-Gwen, shortly before taking possession of the trinket that admits her to Team Multiverse. "Yeah, well, join the club," shrugs Latino Spidey (Oscar Isaac). For a brief pause in the middle of arachno-chaos, we set down in a reality not so very far from home: that of creatives faced with a self-sustaining crisis of storytelling.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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