There’s a first time for everything, right?
The world melted down to expressive watercolor brushstrokes, a pastel dream of being caught between worlds while trying to reconcile with loss. Halftone spliced into an iridescent rainbow through chromatic aberration, distant from the only people who once understood you. Sketched lines flooded with vibrant cultural bliss, punk zine scraps and loosely scribbled marker pasted together into effortless anarchic cool, unformed futures unraveling across a blank canvas, parchment splattered with technical design, a sanitized and spotless city constructed by architectural precision. Endless possibility, the true and beautiful freedom of animation used to all of its most stunning potential.
2018’s Into the Spider-Verse introduced a breathtaking new world of opportunity for western blockbuster animation, masterfully crafting a breath of fresh air for a stale space overly reliant on a familiar style and a gradual creep toward hyperrealism, while also rejuvenating the superhero story when everything else had come to a redundant halt of self-referential decay and exhaustion. The film wielded the potential of animation with such reverence that unpacking each moment of visual joy became half of watching it – in each and every scene every single element is deployed with such grace and precision that constantly bolstered narrative arcs and character personality through nearly imperceptible choices in design and movement. Across the Spider-Verse is no different. Despite the phenomenal feats achieved with the previous film, this manages to go so far above and beyond every expectation, one of the most expressive and mesmerizing animated films – perhaps ever.
While Into was constrained by only taking place in the space of Earth-1610 (the home universe of protagonist Miles Morales (Shameik Moore)), Across expands itself by traversing the multiverse into a multitude of incredible new landscapes and strengthens itself further by unlocking even more within the realm of stylizing each different character to make them feel singular and unique. Secondary protagonist Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) lives in a world of kaleidoscopic pastels; the bustling streets of Mumbattan are drawn with highly detailed and thinly sketched vibrant building facades that encompass a delightfully diverse idea-space. Laid-back and endlessly cool Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) is composed of thick lines and paper cutouts, his rejection of any and all cultural normality constantly reflected in his ever-changing palette and appearance.
There isn’t a single frame of Across the Spider-Verse that doesn’t feel like it’s pushing all boundaries of its form, just pure beauty and expression splattered across the screen at every turn. From a purely visual standpoint, this is a truly flawless piece of work. Yet the weight of its construction is a draining presence on the film’s consciousness, a narrative trying so hard to weave a monumental tapestry that its inability to finish stitching any of its threads leaves a disappointing mark on the rest. To be the middle film in a trilogy is a painful spot to be in, a task tried and failed many times in cinematic history, but considering how strong every individual element is here, it makes it all the more frustrating that it is undeniably unfinished.
Across the Spider-Verse cannot exist on its own. Where Into crafts a beautiful narrative and weaves its many threads seamlessly into each other, finding its way to a bittersweet and cathartic conclusion that perfectly defines Miles’ growth as a character, Across is too focused on establishing the rules of its new story to complete any single arc. Here we are introduced to a litany of ideas, some of which present problematic positioning absent any conclusion. These loose threads can be extrapolated on and theorized as to what they will eventually mean, but ultimately what is presented can only be taken at face value without a real challenge to any of the more contradictory concepts. Miguel O’Hara’s (Oscar Isaac) vision of a world defined by canon feels almost hyperbolically goofy, but it’s hard to tell if this snide meta approach is a straight-faced lore dump of the new rules of this world or a clever subversion aimed at a fanbase that believes in every story following prescriptive, deterministic ideas.
This is a messy, imperfect film that aims at a lot, and the bitter cliffhanger ending leaves a lot of stunning beauty on a frustrating note that asks you to wait the better part of a year to find out if any of these threads find satisfying conclusions. No matter how satisfying the finale may be, the difficult fact that remains is that this will never be able to exist on its own. It’s easy to pick at a lot here, these loose ends almost ask to be picked apart, these little holes that are so easy to find when they may be covered up later – but somehow none of these things really matter all that much. This is an incomplete film but it is such an endless delight to watch that those things often completely melt away in the face of its effortlessly charming characters, dazzling diversity, sonorous soundtrack, and groundbreaking animation. Let’s do this one last time – the future holds so much incredible potential.