" Get all the good you can outta 17 ‘cuz it sure wears out in one helluva hurry. "
— Paul Newman, Hud

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Across the Spider-Verse is a monumental work of art.

All Across the Multiverse

Miles and Gwen, hanging around
Miles and Gwen, hanging around

There’s no arguing with the ambitions and sophistication of this middle chapter in the Miles Morales Spider-Man saga.

It’s stylistically clever — each of the different worlds encountered are presented with unique styles of animation and color palettes — and there are even some slick cameos from both live action and animated versions of characters from the extended Spider-Man multiverse (with a preference given to those released by Columbia Pictures, extending all the way out to Mrs. Chen, the convenience store manager in Venom).

Those worlds — as with the other multiverses being explored in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe — reveal alternate realities in which characters play out different lives with different turning points, tragedies and triumphs. It’s how Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire all came together in Spider-Man: No Way Home.

In the case of Across the Spider-Verse, those worlds also include a delightful visit to a Lego world; it’s playful, fun and also meaningful. (Don’t forget: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, co-writers of the Across the Spider-Verse screenplay, also co-directed The Lego Movie.)

Imagery splashes across the screen in what is at times the ultimate motion comic — a multi-paneled eyeful that artfully captures the essence of the comic book format.

It is quite often a heady cinematic experience.

The Spider-Verse of Madness

Matching up with the elaborate stylings, the story is complex.

Picking up essentially where Into the Spider-Verse left off, it’s interesting to watch Across the Spider-Verse unfold and deal with things like relationships. Sure, it’s there in the best of the Pixar movies and other high-water mark animated features, but it’s writ large here. This is as much an animated drama as it is an animated action movie.

That’s both good and bad. As the saying goes, “your results may vary” and some of the dramatic elements weighing down the storyline might be a little off-putting to the more casual Spider-Fan.

But, as it stands, there are some terrific moments between Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). One of the best scenes finds the pair “hanging out” high up — and out — on a skyscraper, commiserating over their uncommon lives. Without getting into the weeds of the Spider-Verse, as a quick primer, Gwen is also Spider-Woman and Miles Morales is Spider-Man — or at least a version of Spider-Man in this multiverse which finds the classic Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) Spider-Man meeting a different fate (or two).

The character building offers some deeper meaning than the typical animated fare, such as Gwen’s observation that she really wanted to be in a band but wound up being a solo act out of necessity. The narrative gets heavy, which is itself humorously acknowledged in a therapy session between Spider-Men (Spider-Mans?) as they seek council over the death of everybody’s favorite uncle. There’s also the ominous expectation of doom surrounding a key character getting promoted to police captain.

This is a 140-minute feature, so Miller and Lord have the breathing room to work those character interactions and drama into a storyline with action revolving around a villain called The Spot (Jason Schwartzman). As the story unfolds, The Spot morphs from a bumbler and fumbler to a villain with a potency that becomes a significant threat to the webslinger.

The Multiverse of Patience

Miles Morales is Spider-Man
Miles Morales is Spider-Man

Here’s where things get a little controversial.

Could it be the whole multiverse construct is wearing a little thin already? Certainly, it’s an exciting way to explore new themes, dangers and storylines (oh so many storylines and variations upon variations). It’s something the MCU had been building up to over the years, finally reaching a crescendo in Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

But it’s a device that’s very quickly become common. It’s everywhere. The giddy excitement of three different iterations of Spider-Man in No Way Home was quickly followed by news of both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck appearing as their versions of Batman in this summer’s DC big-screen outing, The Flash.

At the very least, the novelty is gone as both Marvel and DC mine decades of source material for new crossover potential.

Even so, there is still a significant core attraction to Miller and Lord’s Spider-Verse. The very adult themes of empowerment, fate and individuality are addressed head-on. And there’s the simple — but remarkably important — message that bad things happen to everybody. It’s what makes us who we are and how we respond to those bad things is what makes all the difference in the world — or the multiverse.