This Aspect of 'Spider
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This Aspect of 'Spider

Sep 09, 2023

You could never tell this story in any other format.

Editor's Note: The following contains light spoilers for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.Does the world need even more Spider-Man movies? There have now been a grand total of 10 mainline Spider-Man films since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and we just got through Spider-Man: No Way Home, which advertised itself as a love letter to all things Spider-Man, but ultimately became more of a self-congratulatory pat on the back for Marvel's cinematic success and a redemption tour for Andrew Garfield. Even before No Way Home, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse served as the movie No Way Home wishes it could have been (and did it three years earlier): a stirring maximalist love letter to all things Spider-Man, beyond the movies and delving into even the most obscure comic and television references you could possibly imagine. At the time, it was considered maybe the best Spider-Man film ever made, among the best superhero films ever made, and a genuine game changer regarding how animation films allow themselves to look and feel and move.

With all that in mind, imagine the surprise at getting Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, a sequel that more than lives up to the legacy of the first film, and not only provides insightful criticism into the way superhero origin stories fetishize trauma as the source of power, not only gives us action scenes more dynamic and exhilarating than anything the MCU has given us in the past few years but also has the audacity to pull off a cliffhanger that leaves the audience desperately wanting more and having to wait an entire year for the conclusion. How did it manage to pull all of this off? While it did a lot of things expertly, the thing it does that makes these two movies so special lies in its animation style, and how that animation style displays the main characters' core worldviews so perfectly that it's radical empathy in action.

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Into the Spiderverse introduced us to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Man, which would normally be all the story needed for a Spider-Man film, except that Miles crosses paths with another Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who mentors him and ropes him into an even bigger adventure involving different dimensions and different spider-powered heroes, including Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and the talking cartoon pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).

Across the Spider-Verse sees Miles getting older, continuing to struggle with the balance between superhero life and normal person life as all Spider-People do. He's trying to keep his grades up to get into college, keeping his secret identity from his parents, and struggling to move on without Gwen. Of course, things only get worse when the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) shows up and thrusts Miles back into yet another inter-dimensional journey that will force him to cross paths with the likes of Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), another Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), and the return of Peter B. Parker.

With the central conceit of the franchise being Miles meeting different people from different dimensions, the animators chose to use the potential of animation to its fullest extent by giving every major character their own tailor-made aesthetic specific to their universe and character. Let's start with Miles himself; he's a biracial teenager with a deep love for hip-hop and graffiti art, and although he's the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man of Brooklyn, he's still a bit of an awkward teen. So when we focus on his portion of life, the soundtrack is largely dominated by hip-hop-influenced score or classic hip-hop songs. Regarding the animation itself, it's been established by co-director Peter Ramsey that the visual language doesn't adopt comic book-style language until after he gets bit by the spider, as this demonstrates how Miles' worldview is the "standard" one where nothing "super" happens.

Once he does get bitten, that's where the experience really comes to life. When Miles thinks internally, his words get splashed out on the screen in text boxes as he's speaking them. When he punches enemies, we see onomatopoeic giant words pop up overhead like something out of the Adam West Batman show, and when he first gets accustomed to swinging fast, the background blurs past him in an exaggerated swoosh. The spider that bit him glitches out because it's from another universe, and that glitch gets passed on to Miles, who will periodically glitch out all over his body, as a sign that he can't control his new powers. The way the film consistently externalizes the internal confusion and thrill that Miles is experiencing at all times is the most obvious way it communicates his feelings, but the most subtle and technical way is how the film animates Miles at 12 frames per second while all the other Spider-people are animated at 24 frames per second, to show how Miles is out of step and still learning to catch up with the best. When is it that we finally see Miles fully move at 24 fps? That leap of faith scene, when he's finally figured out how to be his own Spider-Man; kinetic motion married to the character development.

This commitment to externalization wouldn't hit as hard if it only applied to Miles, but the film's stroke of genius is to follow this cartoonish rule to its logical conclusion. Every spider-powered character that is considered of main importance to the story and plot gets to come from a world that uniformly reflects their unique perspective and serves as a window into how these characters literally see and feel the world. So, knowing that Gwen Stacy is a ballerina punk rock drummer who has a composure and elegance that Miles doesn't, it makes perfect sense that her world is one awash in bright pastel watercolor painting backgrounds and rock music video energy while she displays moves that fit someone with a ballet background. Or how Spider-Man Noir comes from a world where everything is the most binary of black and white with paneling that comes straight from Frank Miller's Sin City, with woozy jazz score and Nicolas Cage's Humphrey Bogart-inspired monologuing about his tragic backstory (the man lived through the literal Great Depression, let him vent).

Whether it's Peni Parker's (Kimiko Glenn) bold anime expressions and colorful background pizzazz or Spider-Ham's 1930s Looney Tunes cartoon floppy body with matching silly sound effects, you get an instant read on the personality and temperament of each of the characters with an efficiency that removes the need to bloat the runtime with extended backstories on each of them.

What's even better is how the visual rules of the characters are allowed to be presented in a context where they are never dismissed or lampshaded for the sake of a joke or begging to be seen as "grounded". Unlike a lot of other modern superhero media, which have a misguided need to be seen as "realistic" in order to be relatable, the Spider-Verse films lean into how art pop their aesthetic choices are in order to fully commit to the premises they create. When we get scenes where Peni Parker's hyper-smooth and shiny anime-style movement coexists with Noir chilling on the couch in moody shadowing that makes it look like there's a spotlight on him despite being in a well-lit room, not a single character ever breaks character, and points out how strange it is. The sincerity on display goes a long way toward selling the warped nature of reality.

With Across the Spiderverse, it immediately puts its subjective logic up the front by showing us more of Gwen Stacy's backstory and the world she came from. While only hinted at and montaged in the first film, here we get to actually spend time with her on her own terms, and we get fully immersed in how her world works. It's an impressionistic watercolor version of New York where everything is constantly shifting around depending on the current mood, primarily dominated by bright blues and pinks like she's living in a soothing spring symphony. The color scheme will break conventional rules of lighting if the emotions change in a given scene; they'll remain soft and light when everything is chill, but if she gets into a sudden encounter or intense argument, the colors will shift to a harsh red with no logical explanation, other than emotional logic. Across the Spider-Verse uses animation to its full extent, this isn't something that can be replicated in live-action.

While this is impressive on its own, ultimately Gwen lives in another version of New York, so there's only so much that the animation can do to differentiate it from other locations. It's when the plot starts to explore brand-new worlds and cultures that you see how the creators have expanded their vision even further. When Miles and Gwen go to the world of Mumbattan, and they meet Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), the visual palette and vibe become dictated by Indian culture: the score becomes inflected with traditional Indian instruments and melodies, the fashion sense and city construction are altered to fit actual Indian cities more closely, and the animation style on the characters becomes a lot more sketched out, with harsh outlines around the characters that come from that world (the film still maintains the rule that characters don't change appearance when they switch worlds, thankfully).

Even on an individual character level, regardless of changing worlds, the style has gotten bolder and downright abstract at points with how far the animators will go to showcase each character's unique look. The Vulture (Jorma Taccone) makes a cameo appearance for one fight, and he is completely covered over with brown parchment and splotchy ink lines like he's a Da Vinci blueprint. Similarly, Spider-Punk is made up entirely of shredded paper that's a wild combination of black and white and colored paper, and it simultaneously screams his rebellious punk attitude and is an homage to the aesthetic inspiration of the Sex Pistols. Once again, we see this series forego any kind of rational anatomical logic in favor of bathing characters in their inner truth, no matter how strange that truth may be, and it's all the better for it.

Sam Raimi Spider-Man Spider-Man: No Way Home Andrew Garfield Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Shameik Moore Jake Johnson Hailee Steinfeld Nicolas Cage John Mulaney Across the Spider-Verse Jason Schwartzman Oscar Isaac Issa Rae Daniel Kaluuya Peter Ramsey Adam West Batman Frank Miller Sin City Humphrey Bogart Kimiko Glenn Karan Soni Jorma Taccone