Spider-Man/Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animations’ SPIDER-MAN™: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE. | Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

In one sense, I’m hardly a ripe candidate for reviewing Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the dazzling new chapter in the franchise. I’ve been willfully ignorant about the Marvel universe, in comic-book or movie-theater-near-us forms, and tend to agree with Martin Scorsese’s consternation — and virtual moral outrage — over Hollywood’s comic-book and sequel cash-cow obsession.

But from another angle, I may bring a fresh perspective to the game, as an open-minded movie-lover arriving late to the party but fascinated by the highly evolved spectacle. “Spectacle” is the proper term when it comes to this Spider-Verse wild ride, which deftly juggles its dizzying array of computer animation techniques and genres with adrenaline-pumping chase/fight scenes and even heartfelt matters around home, family, and fragile definitions of identity.

We might have expected such delicate balancing from co-director Kemp Powers (along with cartoon/action veterans Joaquim Dos Santos and Justin K. Thompson). Powers’s filmography includes One Night in Miami — about the fateful real-life meeting of Malcolm X, James Brown, and Sam Cooke. Kemp follows in the footsteps of other thoughtful and artful directors — and actors — drawn into the realms of Marvel, for reasons of box office, playing the new Hollywood game, and also trying to inject new artistic life into the genre.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the film has recently garnered controversy and censorship in the United Arab Emirates and certain parts of the U.S. over encoded, suspected, and actual support for trans rights and characters.

In the complex and, um, spidery premise laid out and freely riffed upon by writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham, aspiring Spider-Man Miles Morales cavorts, romantically and otherwise, with Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy. Their fast-paced exploits around the multiverse find them in relatively constant motion, enhanced by a hyper-visual computer animation palette which encompasses an almost psychedelic range of optical whizbang, including the expressive power of glitches — which also take on narrative meaning.

In a plot that sometimes suggests a samurai code and power structure, multi-dimensional mishaps occur and zones of time-space are crossed, sometimes accidentally. Varying degrees of Spider-People — rumor has it that the People are composed of nearly 300 different identities — pose threats and schemes, with comic quips and self-effacing humor all along the way. The grim-spirited Spider-Man 2099, played by Oscar Isaacs, is taken to task for his utter lack of humor, when another Spider-Peep taunts him: “I thought Spider-Man was supposed to be funny.”

For all of its sci-fi/comic character, elements of human empathy underscore the vertiginous viewing experience. Miles and Gwen are circling around a prospect of true affection, and Miles’s primary goal is to attain Spider-Man nirvana while saving his father from a foretold death. But multiverse machinations get in the way. Stay tuned for phase three of the trilogy.

Now, this neophyte needs to catch up with the first of the trilogy and eagerly await the next chapter, Beyond the Spider-Verse, neatly set up in old-school cliffhanger style in the current film.


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