So it’s come to this: Spider-Man 10, technically. The future prophesied by many Hollywood alarmists, but now with more madness in the multi-verse (I cringe every time I hear it). Our prologue sees a super-powered Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) battling the iconic comic villain The Vulture, only to be interrupted by new variants like Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) and his pregnant wife Spider-Woman (Issa Rae) emerging from another universe to assist her. Come there be something a little nefarious with them?
We then catch up with the hero of the first film, Miles Morales, deep in the midst of anxiety about his secret identity being revealed to his parents (including his cop father, a parallel with his female counterpart Spider-Man). On top of this, when trailed by his own physics-bending villain The Spot (Jason Schwartzman)––who claims to have had a hand in Miles getting his powers––another complication arises as Gwen and Miles cross paths, again, across dimensions. These early encounters have a weird chill-wave YouTube compilation vibe (maybe that’s just what Zoomers like), but the style of the first Spider-Verse film that everyone fell in love with soon kicks into high gear. For some reason the two have to hop from one dimension to another so they can encounter new Burger King collectibles like Spider-Man India, Spider-Man Punk Rocker, etc. A setpiece (can you even say that for an animated movie?) with these characters swinging through a futuristic Mumbai is a particularly dynamic, eye-popping highlight that may even top the first film.
But Across the Spider-Verse comes with the same exhaustion point that hits during every comic book movie, where the stakes have to be undercut with “am I the guy who does the thing” soy banter despite all manner of plotting still somehow justifying 140 minutes of our time. When watching one of the longest cartoon movies in existence, character dynamics mustn’t ring so overly familiar or trite. (Again, people: Spider-Man 10.) Should I be thinking this during the officially sanctioned “artistic” Spider-Man movie that’s supposed to mark at least something of an antidote to the cookie-cutter Marvel product?
To its credit, both Spider-Verse films do justice to what comic books have actually been capable of innovating in artwork, certainly contra the green-screen standard of live-action counterparts. Switching between different animation formats (and in the aural department a hectic soundscape that makes room for both James Blake over a rap beat and SNL fan favorite Rachel Dratch), this is still a formal delight, but it’s hard shaking suspicion it’s all done in service of a toy commercial.
There was something further dispiriting about seeing this with a preview audience (including a grown man literally dressed as Kraven the Hunter) that applauded every cameo (including Donald Glover!) or in-joke (obviously the pointing Spider-Men meme). Maybe this idea’s been beaten into the ground by numerous cultural critics, but it’s hard sensing juvenilia has won for good, and I’m not saying this as any kind of snob––this isn’t a sensation I get during Mamoru Oshii’s anime or, hell, even Todd McFarlane’s Spawn cartoon from the ’90s.
And while this one ends on a cliffhanger, and it’s possible Part 3 will realize the emotional stakes in a more compelling fashion––there’s promising hint the true villain is “the canon,” and maybe thus toxic fandom––my lingering response is still that it’s time to put away childish things.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens on June 2.