‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’

Between canon and choice in ‘Across the Spider-Verse’

Courtesy: Sony

Peter Parker was just another kid in New York City when he was bitten by a radioactive spider, bringing physical gifts (and a simultaneous curse) beyond his wildest dreams. He may have a heightened sixth sense and strength hundreds of times that of a normal man, but at the end of the day, he is just that: a man. And a man cannot save everyone, try as he might. That’s what led to poor old Uncle Ben’s demise, a canonical event in the Spider-Man story, teaching Peter that with great power comes great responsibility.

But what if Uncle Ben didn’t have to die? What if Spider-Man could save a busload of children and Mary Jane at the same time? There’s a saying that if not for the darkness, we would never appreciate the light. But do we really need the darkness to see the light?

That’s one of many questions swirling around the dizzying and delightful Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Stuffed to the gills with philosophical quandaries, plot and more Spider men, women and children than you can count, Across the Spider-Verse is a blockbuster with a lot on its mind, both about pop culture and loftier things.

Picking up a few years after 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, the new animated feature takes Brooklyn’s one and only Spider-Man, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), and isolates him from the Spideys on other Earths, specifically Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who is missing Miles as much as he is missing her. But Gwen isn’t on her own the way Miles is: She’s part of an elite Spider-Team tasked by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) to travel across dimensions to right a wrong that threatens to snap the connecting threads of the Spider-Verse. The connections binding these universes together are the shared moments that forage Spider-Man out of the loss of Uncle Ben, or Captain Stacy, or you name it. Disrupt the origin, and you disrupt the outcome.

Hollywood has had a field day with these kinds of hopscotching multiverse stories thanks to a bottomless offering of franchises that reboot, rebrand and remake. Storylines get tangled, fans draw allegiances to certain incarnations, and the IP machine starts collapsing everything into one supergroup where anyone who’s donned the mask shows up for a whiz-bang spectacular.

Across the Spider-Verse plays in that sandbox but digs a little deeper. As Miles tries to defy his fate, he learns the same lesson another masked superhero learned in a different franchise: You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. It’s a flip of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces summation, “Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.”

Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham and directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, Across the Spider-Verse is a winning combination of heart and humor backed by some of the most engrossing and hypnotic artwork you’re likely to see in theaters. Continuing the theme established in Into the Spider-Verse, the new film changes animation styles with giddy aplomb and emotional expression. One scene involving a heart-to-heart between Gwen and her father (Shea Whigham) washes out the setting of their New York apartment in favor of popping abstract colors worthy of Stan Brakhage.

What are they talking about? Loneliness. What she has to do conflicts with what he has to do, and their actions isolate them from each other. So it goes in the Spider-Verse — with great power comes insurmountable loss. These are the Old Testament rules that rest in Miguel’s icy claws. Even the movie’s now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t villain, Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who can create portals in space and across dimensions, is just looking for recognition and validation.

And then there’s Miles, missing his uncle and hiding his true identity from his loving father (Brian Tyree Henry) and mother (Luna Lauren Velez). He’s hoping that one day the whole Spider-Verse will show up and help him not feel so alone. That day will come because, as Campbell concludes, “where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.” 

ON SCREEN: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now playing in theaters.

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