The Comic-Book Aesthetic Comes of Age in “Across the Spider-Verse”

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The latest comic-book movie associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” certainly knows what kind of film it is. Most of the movie follows Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy, two animated teen-aged Spider-People, but, for the sake of the fandom, live actors from live-action blockbusters make surprise cameos. Gwen quips at one point that Doctor Strange—last seen in the M.C.U.’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”—should not practice medicine. Miles’s high-school roommate references another audience favorite, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017), when he tells Miles, “I’m not your guy in the chair.” Inevitably, there is a meme-inspired scene of Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man. This is the kind of self-aware fan fodder that, in lesser films, might feel tired.

And yet “Across the Spider-Verse,” which came out on June 2nd, does something that no live-action superhero movie has done before—or can do. It leans hard into, and emulates onscreen, the storytelling devices and the visual flair that make comic books special. Even more than its predecessor, “Into the Spider-Verse” (2018), the film feels designed to show young people, many of whom were raised on superhero movies, why they might care about the comics that launched these characters. It does this so well that, at a time when some Marvel movies haven’t been doing so hot at the box office, “Across the Spider-Verse” has already raked in nearly four hundred million dollars. At 7 P.M. on a Wednesday night, with local schools still in session, my seventh grader and I found most of the seats in our suburban multiplex full.

The first scene in the movie reintroduces us to Miles’s long-distance best friend, Gwen Stacy of Earth-65, a.k.a. Spider-Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld). Her world looks painterly, as if rendered by brushes and pastels; she often appears in Expressionist shades of blue and pink. That’s how the rest of the film will roll: each Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, or Spider-Villain, and each new Earth on which they live, has its own eye-popping art style. Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore), a Black Puerto Rican physics star who draws in all his notebooks, inhabits a world that evokes hip-hop album covers and graffiti. Miguel O’Hara, or Spider-Man 2099, comes with clean lines, techno details, and RoboCop vibes. Spider-Byte appears as a glowing avatar like the nineteen-eighties film “Tron.” Pavitr Prabhakar, a.k.a. Spider-Man India, swings through his home city of Mumbattan, all tropical colors and curvy architecture. (When characters move between dimensions, they pass through a portal made of hexagons—a basic geometric unit of Hollywood animation.)

Almost all of these characters existed in comic books before they hit the screen, and, crucially, all of them have what the scholar Hillary Chute identifies as the core property of comics: they look like somebody chose to draw them. They bear the mark of their creators’ hands. The Spot, a villain who sets the movie’s main plot in motion, looks like a blank page splattered with ink; each of his splotches opens up a little wormhole, in the same way that the pen stroke of a comic can open up another world. The animators of the film owe a lot to Marvel’s comic artists: the credits thank a “Black Panther” illustrator, Brian Stelfreeze; a co-creator of Miguel O’Hara, Rick Leonardi; and the nineteen-eighties titan Bill Sienkiewicz. All three have contributed to the making of “Across the Spider-Verse.”

The film’s version of Miguel O’Hara (voiced by Oscar Isaac) behaves like a stern, bad Spider-Dad. He resolves to stop Miles from disrupting something called a Canon Event—a plot development so important that it has to happen in every parallel world, lest the entire universe be at risk. “You break enough canons,” Miguel warns, “and we could lose everything.” He sounds almost like a Marvel Comics editor, telling writers that they can’t go too far. (One writer, Grant Morrison, called his longest project at Marvel “more like a prison than a playground.”) In the tradition of print comics, the film offers explanatory notes in 2-D colored boxes; some of them, in an homage to the comics of the nineteen-seventies, are even signed “–Ed.,” for editor.

Like all the best teen superhero comics, “Across the Spider-Verse” hints, or more than hints, at real-life dual identities. The colors that tend to accompany Gwen, blue and pink, are the colors of the transgender flag. A poster in her bedroom says “PROTECT TRANS KIDS,” and her father, a police officer who initially has no idea that she is Spider-Gwen, sports a trans-flag pin on his uniform. Gwen tells Miles that her parents “only know half of who I am.” She also wears her hair in an asymmetrical undercut—which, my seventh grader told me, is often a sign of trans or nonbinary identity among Gen Z. (It should not be confused with a half-and-half, my seventh grader added.)

Miles and Gwen both have well-intentioned cops for dads, who try hard but can’t seem to stop enforcing rules. In one scene, Miles tells his father, “Men of your generation ignore their mental health too long.” In part for this reason, Miles and Gwen feel the kind of solidarity that young people can share only with one another. When they finally get some tender alone time above a twilit Brooklyn, Gwen asks Miles, “How many people can you talk to about this stuff?” He tells her, “You don’t even know.” That’s what happens when trans people meet one another, too—something that the Internet pointed out right away. (This isn’t the sole Spider-Man film to be interpreted as an L.G.B.T.Q.+ allegory; some viewers saw Tom Holland’s Spidey as transmasculine, too.)

“Across the Spider-Verse” is a sequel, but it’s arguably the first superhero film to take such full advantage of what comic-book art can achieve. At the Guggenheim Museum, Gwen has to fight a version of an old Spidey villain, the Vulture, who looks, in her words, like a “big flying turkey from the Renaissance.” He’s drawn in the style of ink on parchment, with the scratchy, busy lines you’d expect from a goose-quill pen. He’s not just from another Earth but from a different artistic universe. Elsewhere, several Spider-People chase Miles across the body of a rocket and up what appears to be a space elevator. Theoretically, C.G.I. could help live actors imitate some of these stunts—but not in such colors, and not with such dynamism and glee. In another sequence, Miles races a moving subway train while he fights a pangolin-esque villain, who rolls up in an armored ball. In a live-action film, the scene would cost a ton and still look cheesy. With animation this artful, it’s all part of the fun.

Comics are at their core a visual medium. “Everyone’s first response to your work will be to the visual aspect,” Brian Michael Bendis, the co-creator of Miles Morales, wrote, in his 2014 book about creating comics, “Words for Pictures.” In a comic, the script has to serve the art, which in turn has to serve the characters. And this script does. Each of the Spiders brings not just an art style but a personality and a backstory: tragedy for Miguel, teen heartbreak for Gwen, dad jokes for Peter B. Parker, that lovable sad sack from “Into the Spider-Verse.” (There’s even a Spider-Baby.) Each character and each gadget—one is called a Go-Home Machine—says something about generational change. Today’s kids may feel that they can’t live up to adult expectations and still be themselves. Where, if anywhere, can they find heroes?

Maybe Gen Z could find them in superhero comics, but it’s not clear that they’re reading many. The best-selling U.S. single-issue comic book of all time remains “X-Men No. 1,” published in 1991, which moved more than eight million units; in the past ten years, the best-selling superhero comics have tallied half a million instead. “The captive audiences of the pandemic era are out doing other things,” the comics journalist Heidi MacDonald wrote this year. When Zoomers read comics, it’s often via online platforms such as Tapas and Webtoon, which span genres from high fantasy to romance, or else in all-ages, slice-of-life graphic novels. (“Guts,” by Raina Telgemeier, was America’s most-purchased book—not comic book, book—one week in September, 2019.) “Across the Spider-Verse” could help to boost printed comics. Marvel has leaned hard on movies to promote Spider- titles, including the made-for-mobile online comic “Spider-Verse Unlimited.” Viewers who want to read stories that look like the Spider-Verse might also check out recent issues of “New Mutants,” by Vita Ayala and Rod Reis, in which feelings are more important than fisticuffs, and the expressive art fits the strong emotions.

“Across the Spider-Verse” is full of astonishing action, but a quiet scene midway through, when Miles and Gwen finally get a moment together above Brooklyn, might be the most affecting in the film. It lets viewers—including my rapt seventh grader—contemplate what young people want from one another, what they can never get from adults. Perhaps it’s a budding romance. Perhaps it’s trans bonding. These moments set up the conflict that comes later, when Miguel O’Hara tells Miles what he must do for the multiverse, and Miles, facing a superhero-level trolley problem, just says no. And the whole thing takes place, beautifully, with Brooklyn inverted: Miles and Gwen, using their tenderness, and also their powers, conduct the whole conversation upside down. ♦


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