Across the Spider-Verse Flees Its Own Message About Prejudice
The film is an extended, confusing effort not to confront its own canon.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has a very sophisticated visual style which revels in chaos and tangled disjunction—and a story which is just kind of tangled. The film attempts to be a commentary on the way that racism and prejudice is tied up in the impossibly convoluted continuity of superhero stories. But commercial considerations don’t really allow it to confront those issues head on, and, like many a classic comics story, it ends up crawling up its own continuity and mistaking that for profundity.
The plot is almost impossible to summarize, but broadly Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the spectacular superhero Spider-Man, is fighting a teleporting villain known as the Spot (Jason Schwartzman). His alternate dimension sort-of girlfriend Spider Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) shows up and tells him that Spot is a danger to the multiverse. So she takes Miles to meet the elite interdimensional team of Spider heroes. The leader of this force, Spider Man 2099/Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), informs Miles that Miles’ police captain dad Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry) has to die in order to preserve the multiverse. Miles (understandably) balks, setting himself against the combined multidimensional spider-force who want to prevent him from saving his father’s life from the Spot.
If you’re not hardcore buried in comics lore, that may sound incoherent. And so it is.
But the thematic center here is the idea that Miles is an interloper who was bitten by the wrong spider and should never have ended up as Spider-Man. That narrative reflects actual real-world controversies around Black characters, like Miles, taking up the mantle of (generally white) legacy heroes like Spider-Man. And of course it’s a broader commentary on the way that Hollywood has historically only centered the stories of white men.
The Spiderverse films imagine a more expansive world in which different people—Black people, women, anarchist punks, middle-aged dad-bods—can be heroes too. Miguel O’Hara is speaking for the dead weight of Hollywood tradition and fandom when he rants on and on about Miles being an “anomaly” who shouldn’t be Spider-Man at all. And Miles, in insisting he’s going to write his own narrative, is speaking for all the kids who didn’t get a chance to see themselves as heroes in canon, and who are now demanding that the canon change.
The problem is that the movie is constantly, almost compulsively, deflecting in order not to make it too, too clear what it’s actually about. Miles is the wrong person to be Spider-Man, supposedly, because he was bitten by a spider from a different dimension, not because he’s Black. The problem with canon is not that it’s too white or too male, but that Spider canon requires police captains (police captains?) to die to inspire the Spider heroes. In this context, the film’s relentless pace and equally relentless plot complications feel less like action fun, and more like an effort to drown out the huge blank holes of logic and concept it doesn’t want you to look at too closely.
The film doesn’t just avoid its own metaphors about race. It also avoids its own metaphors about queerness. Much of the drama of the film involves Miles and Gwen lying to their respective parents about their secret lives as Spider heroes. Many of the ensuing discussions, and the potential and actual rejection, heavily echo LGBT themes about the closet. But those echoes are carefully sidestepped. There are dinosaur spider heroes and horse spider heroes, but in this film there is no suggestion that queer spider heroes are a possibility or a reality. It’s an absence that’s especially noticeable since last year’s Everything Everywhere All At Once, a multiverse story about a parent trying to accept her queer child.
I feel a little like a grinch considering how many people love this movie unreservedly. The animation is undeniably eye-popping and packed with visual humor; the Gwen/Miles flirtation is sweet and funny; much of the writing is witty. There’s an undeniable charge in watching a Spider-Man movie which centers non-white male heroes. At an 140 minute run-time, though, it gets wearisome to have the film essentially pat itself on the back for its own progressiveness while it does acrobatics to avoid directly touching its back or its progressivism. This may well, as many have said, be as good as mainstream superhero movies get. That’s not exactly an unalloyed compliment, though.
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