The recent cinematic release of The Little Mermaid continues Disney’s run of live-action remakes of their classic animated titles. Across a dozen or so years, over a dozen or more films, the studio that once set new benchmarks for animation has systematically sullied the craft, reheating studio IP with human actors interacting with photorealistic computer-generated talking animals.
It’s been a bizarre artistic undertaking, at best. Surely no one has ever watched a classic Disney animation and wished the anthropomorphised animal singing its Broadway-style musical number looked more “lifelike”. Accursed films such as The Lion King (2019 version), Aladdin (2019 version) or The Little Mermaid (2023 version) ultimately feel like stock-value cinema: movies made for shareholders, to fill release sheets and streaming-service menus.
Existing in the same Big Hollywood IP space as the Disney remakes but offering a thrilling example of contrary artistry, two animated iterations of Spider-Man – 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse and the newly released Across the Spider-Verse – make inspired use of the medium, creating groundbreaking technological visions while drawing deeply on the superhero’s origins in comic books.
Into the Spider-Verse swept that season’s animated awards – Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAs – and Across the Spider-Verse is surely on its way to doing the same. Working on a bigger canvas in theme, image and running time – 140 minutes, unheard of for animation – the sequel amplifies what made the original so great. It’s a glorious tribute to the wonders of animation and the expressive possibilities of the drawn line.
As with its predecessor, the film riffs on comic visual cues, employing split panels, text bubbles, dot colour and double-printing. It pulls artistic influence from a dizzying range of sources – from the Renaissance to Fauvism, Cubism, Pop Art and contemporary street art. In an art history sense, it summons both the early comic books that inspired Lichtenstein and Lichtensteinian art.
There are no generic backdrops or use of a studio house style. Rather, the film critiques this trope with a disapproving guidance counsellor rendered in generic-looking 3D animation, knowingly making her character feel as if she’s in the wrong movie. Instead, there’s wild abstraction and impressionism: every frame is many paintings coming together in a chaotic dance. This visual presentation takes the elasticity of animation to extremes, showing the potential for an art form that in recent years has often felt all too artless.
Across the Spider-Verse has three directors (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson), an entirely different set to the three filmmakers of the previous movie (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman). This team approach flies in the face of auteur theory, stereotypes of singular genius and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences guidelines for director credits. But series writer/producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller compare the creation of these movies to being in a band; the Spider-Verse films foreground the collaborative nature of any motion picture.
Working with the culturally omnipresent notion of the multiverse, Across the Spider-Verse is populated by a plurality of Spider-people: 280 in total, 95 of them named within the film. Each hails from a different version of Earth, and each version is animated in a distinctly different style. There are Spider-Mans from ’60s cartoons and ’90s comics, Lego and video-game Spider-people, Spider-therapists, knights, cowboys, cats, babies and Tyrannosaurus rexes, plus Spiders inhabiting various genres from Westerns to noir, virtual reality to anime. Not to mention impish repurposing of cinematic clips of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Mans.
Our two central characters are a Spider-Man (Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore) and Spider-Woman (aka Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), teen pals and potential paramours from the first film, each returned to their respective universes at the beginning of this one. Other key figures include an Indian Spider-Man (Pavitr Prabhakar, voiced by Karan Soni) inhabiting a mash-up Mumbai/Manhattan megalopolis of chaotic colour and spun gravity, and an English Spider-Punk (Hobie Brown, voiced by Daniel Kaluuya) whose individual, lo-fi, slower-frame-rated animation style is a riff on the rough collage of photocopied gig flyers.
Antagonists include The Spot (Dr Johnathan Ohnn, voiced by Jason Schwartzman), whose origin story is told in scribbled black and white. His form is a succession of fluid ink blots, and his presence rises from minor “villain of the week” to “transdimensional super-being”. And then there’s Spider-Man 2099 (Miguel O’Hara, voiced by Oscar Isaac), a kind of cranky multiversal time-cop making sure all of the endless spider variants obey his bureaucratic edicts.
The ultimate antagonist, though, turns out to be the concept of “canon”, a loaded term in the worlds of comic books, superhero movies and fan discourse. Amid the universe and time-line hopping, canon is decreed to be incidents that have to happen. Like the fact each Spider-person has to suffer a tragedy that shapes them (think the death of Uncle Ben). When Miles and Gwen both fear this means the imminent death of their fathers, the film finds its grand emotional stakes, which linger beyond its “to be continued” conclusion.
Evoking canon and then questioning it is in keeping with the wry ways of Lord and Miller, who minted the “we know this is a bad idea but we’re in on the joke” tone of postmodern IP-riffing with The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street. Their anarchic, rule-breaking spirit courses through the movie, from its experimental visual approach to its joke-a-minute pace and its poking at tropes. But what makes Across the Spider-Verse profound is the emotional counterweight to this: the comedic provocation and play is grounded by character, feeling and relationships that feel real.
Miles and Gwen both end the movie grappling with mortal terror, but they begin it struggling with their double lives, and their desire to confess their true, secret selves to their concerned parents offers obvious resonance as coming-out stories. Miles is moored deep in isolation and loneliness, as the multiversal friends he made in the first film have returned to realms he cannot access. His parents’ concern is palpable, and isn’t merely protectiveness. His mother (voiced by Luna Lauren Vélez) beautifully conveys the fear and sadness that comes with letting one’s child go out into a world that’s inevitably going to hurt them.
All of which is a reminder that, among the surfeit of comic book superheroes brought recently to the screen, the teenaged Spider-Man remains one of the most symbolic and easily relatable. With this character archetype at its centre, Across the Spider-Verse is free to take leaps in storytelling, as much as with visual imagination. Instead of the standard plots and visuals, viewers are given something they’ve never seen before. And this film’s success – both artistically and commercially – augurs well for a future in which viewers may escape the fate of seeing the same old stories, over and over.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Spiking the canon".
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