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Spider Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) review – Super-powered Sony Animation sets new bar – again

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Sixteen months after the events of the first film, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) reunites with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and is pulled into another, even more chaotic interdimensional adventure. The new Spider-Verse franchise is a significant example of the “multiverse trend” that has proliferated in popular culture throughout the last decade, evidenced by recent popular films such as the Academy Award winning Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022), Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness (2022), and of course, the live-action multiverse Spidey-flick, Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).

Jessica Drew, Gwen Stacy, Peter B & Mayday Parker. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

Into the Spider-Verse had its share of obscure comic book references, felt more confined to the structure of a mainstream Spider-Man film. Much of that film’s commentary pokes fun character moments that a main audience are more likely to recognise e.g., joking about the infamous dance scene from Spider-Man 3 (2007).

This sequel on the other hand, feels more like a direct adaptation of a sprawling comic book cross-over event, beginning with a prologue that brings the iridescent water coloured world of the Spider-Gwen comics to life. Compared to the first, this film feels like it is designed more for avid comic book enthusiasts, rather than casual viewers. However, the film is still a cut above most superhero films released in the past five years. It is more than references for the sake of it (though it has its share).

Miles Morales and Gwen Stacey enjoy a rare moment of peace. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

ATSV has a solid emotional core; Miles’ relationship with his family; and with Gwen and Peter B are genuinely heartfelt and touching. The Spider-People cope with their fear of bereavement and isolation. Parenthood is a big theme; Miles and Gwen struggle with their parents respectively, meanwhile Peter. B has pulled himself together and is raising a daughter.

Another major theme of the film is rejecting authority; the film features Hobie Brown, the Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), an anarchistic Spider-Man from Camden. Hobie “hates the AM” and “hates the PM”. Though a bit of a joke, and a real punk caricature, Hobie begins as a figure of jealousy for Miles, but later proves to be one of his most important allies and a genuine hero.

Miles is faced with a kind of “trolley-problem”, having to choose between saving those close to him, and preserving the larger fabric of space-time. Miles stands up for his morals, defying the authority of an unlikely antagonist who is supposedly on the force of good.

Speaking of unlikely antagonists, the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) is for me, the film’s stand out character. Adapted from a D-List Spider-Man comic villain with the power to create portals. Gangly, uncoordinated and odd, the Spot is classically queer-coded villain, one who jokes about his “holes”. The Spot’s fury of being classified as a villain of the week, motivates him to power, and he shifts from comic relief to genuine existential threat. His portal-creating abilities are a joy to watch on screen, and the idiosyncratic character is really the perfect villain for this story.

Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen battle The Spot. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

The film’s fluid and diverse animation captures the frenetic energy of a Spider-Man story, but at times it feels as if our brains aren’t fully equipped to process its visuals. In that sense the film almost demands a second viewing, as each frame is so dense that you’re bound to miss something.

Spider-Gwen. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

It is dizzying, but I spent much of the film in awe. It delivers an utterly sensational visual treat from its very first moment, featuring one of the most viscerally affective title card sequences in a film. The original set a new bar in animation, inspiring studios like Dreamworks and Paramount to create their own films in its style. Sony have now raised the bar, with what is the most impressive technical upgrade ever seen in a sequel.

Spider-Gwen. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

The sheer vibrancy of this new film is unmatched; it makes use of six different art styles that constantly intermingle on the same frame. A chase scene that serves as the film’s action climax, is a particularly grand example of the sheer scope of this project, a scene which took four years to make.

Gwen Stacy and Peter B. Parker in pursuit. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

The film also features the most infuriating cliff-hanger ever seen in a Western Blockbuster. This film and its upcoming sequel will originally be slated to be one and the same, however in December 2021 the directors Lord and Miller announced that it would be split into two parts. And so the result is a jarring anticlimactic finale, it feels like the film has no real ending and so the narrative experience is ultimately a bit unsatisfying. So, the film is at once, offering so much, yet not enough. It’s for this reason I think that the film’s predecessor is superior.

Gwen Stacy and Miles Morales in the Spider-Society. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

Though it could be called a bit too ambitious, the final product is staggering and its sheer visual quality is leagues ahead of the competition, with perhaps the solitary exception of Avatar 2. Pixar and DreamWorks, the established giants of western computer animation, have each recently released uninspiring and underachieving animated features.

Meanwhile, the most recent films released under the belt of Disney’s Marvel Studios have been widely criticised for their shallow plots and lacklustre special effects. In a period where Western Animation is taken less seriously, and Superhero films appear increasingly more cheaply produced, Across the Spider Verse kills these two birds with one stone, delivering arguably the best looking film in both the medium of animation, and the superhero genre.

Miles Morales mid web-swing. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

The film has also been celebrated for its diversity and politics; Miles and Gwen respectively have the ‘Black Lives Matter’ badge and Transgender flag on their belongings, a likely reason for its ban in the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, the film has rightfully received flak for the behind-the-scenes treatment of those who worked on the film.

A visual development image by Aymeric Kevin. Credit: Press/Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

No offence to the writers and the voice-acting cast; but this production owes its success to all of the people who worked hard to create the animation and VFX. It is a horrible shame to hear about the sub-par conditions they had to work in. Vulture reported that animators were made to work 11 hour days for seven days a week, that 100 animators left the project before its completion, and that major overhauls to the script lead to many sequences having to be remade

It is definitely not uncommon to hear about these kinds of reports in the Animation industry, but it is especially disappointing to hear about in this film, which so many celebrate as animation’s pinnacle. Personally, I could have waited a few more years for this film to be released, and I don’t think that I’m alone. In Across the Spider-Verse, the animators are undoubtedly the true stars of this production, and I hope that the reports that have come out can create some awareness for their harsh conditions.

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Clayton McLoughlin-Lopez

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