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Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse Offers a Deep Dive Into Family and Identity

Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse
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Who gets to choose our destiny? Who gets to tell us what we’re capable of? How on earth did they do that?! These are just three of the many questions that have been running…or swinging through my head since I first saw Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the highly anticipated and supremely executed sequel to the Oscar-winning 2018 animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a visual feast, story masterpiece, and musical joy for the ears directed by first-time feature directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson. Was that a bit hyperbolic? No, not at all because this film is one of the most audacious films ever done in either the animated or live-action genre. The years of work by the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people who put every ounce of creativity into making every aspect of this film is not to be understated or underappreciated.

It’s a very well-known fact that very few feature films manage to top their predecessors, especially when they’re about a character like Miles Morales. With a voice cast featuring Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Bryan Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, and Jake Johnson reprising their roles as Miles, Gwen Stacy is best friend and fellow and the intrepid radioactively powered Spider Woman, Miles’s funny and protective parents Jeff and Rio, and Peter B. Parker, yes, that Peter, the Sony animated Spider-Man films already had/have a solid leading voice cast. Now, they have an absolutely stacked cast that accurately represents the characters they’re portraying, which in Hollywood is ridiculously rare. Even in 2023.

Continuing with the voice and character casting, the directors, and writers broke barriers on what was previously treated as being impossible with animation, as well as with racial, ethnic, gender, and disability representation. Joining the adventure is Issa Rae as Jessica Drew, a Black, pregnant, badass motorcycle riding, afro-wearing Spider Woman from a different dimension, whose humor and slightly more easy-going personality is a great balance to Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara, a brilliant Irish Mexican geneticist from 2099, whose tragic backstory and angsty aura make him an anomaly (more on that later) amongst the other Spider-People. Speaking of other Spider-People, this film is packed to the brim with every iteration of a Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Spider-Person, Spider animal, and object imaginable.

At the forefront is Spider-Punk punk rocker Hobart “Hobie” Brown, a tall and lanky Black Brit anarchist with large dreads, facial piercings, who wears donned in grunge fashion and a biting and funny acerbic wit delivered through the voice of Academy-award winner Daniel Kaluuya. Artistically, he’s in a style reminiscent of iconic African American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and music posters of the 60s and 70s. Next up is the super energetic, fast-talking, colorfully dressed, and new to the web-swinging game Pavitr Prabhakar aka Spider-Man India voiced by Karan Soni. Following him are Lyla (Greta Lee), Miguel’s AI assistant, and Margo Kess or Spider-Byte as she also goes by; a Black teenager with natural hair who enjoys trying out new hairstyles and spending her time working with Lyla and working as the head of tech as a member of Miguel’s Spider Society. All of these characters are all interconnected like the most intricate and delicate spider web, or Spider-Verse as Miles so aptly named this unique comic structure, in one of the film’s most meta but also poignant moments.

As much as Miles and Gwen are the main characters, so too is every character we’re introduced to. Without Jeff and Rio’s presence, we wouldn’t understand why Miles is as stubborn, funny, and determined as he is. Seeing his mother speak so openly about her love for him and her wish that he always remembers that he belongs in whatever space he enters no matter how big or intimidating, or far away it is, sits as close to his heart as it does to those of us watching. Despite his imposing size, Jeff is a man who’s worried about his son’s present and future in a world that poses obstacles for him as a young Black boy and worries that he’s not conveying his love and concern in the best way communicatively. Their relationship as a couple is great to see and is especially hilarious when their different ethnic backgrounds create a fun dynamic in their individual relationships with Miles. Hands up for the representation of bilingual households and Black and Puerto Rican food and music.

One thing that I must mention regarding Miles’s universe, the art style used was a bit disconcerting for me visually. As a person with photosensitivity and visual processing issues and a person who wears glasses and has Multiple Sclerosis, particular sequences that take place in the film such as the rooftop part for Jeff, and the opening credits, were challenging for me to watch. This is a caution for others who also suffer from photosensitivity, and neurological conditions such as Epilepsy, as well as any member of the film’s creative team, and industry animators, to please take into consideration that we are all not the same. As beautiful as a film is, it’s necessary to think about how those who quite literally don’t see the world the way you do, and how this can potentially affect their enjoyment.

And of course, there’s Gwen. Here we get to see her as more than Miles’s potential love interest, something that none of the live-action films ever bothered to even try to do. In the beginning, the writers with the aid of the stunning watercolor world of her universe shows us that Gwen is going through an intensely emotional time in her life. Losing her best friend Peter, then forming an attachment to Miles, only to become separated from him, to then going being doubted by her father, has Gwen unsure of her place in the universe. And honestly, Gwen’s universe is my favorite. It’s beautiful the way the feelings of the characters come to life in their environment. The colors shift, move and meld into each other, changing the entire color palette in a subtle 3D effect that would be a true experience to be part of.
When Gwen renters Miles’s world – it tickles me that I can use that phrase and have a completely different context and subtext each time is legitimately one of my other favorite things about these Spider-Man films, but I digress – it’s reconnected not only with someone she misses dearly but someone who understands him the way no one else does, not even the other Spider-People do. And the same goes for him. He’s struggling with keeping the monumental secret of his hidden identity and what revealing that could mean for his relationship with his parents, and his part in his uncle Aaron’s (Mahershala Ali) death.

Miles is filled with the angst of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, but also the braggadocio of a young man who enjoys being a superhero and thinks he always has the upper hand over his problems, and that includes his new nemesis The Spot, whom Miles mistakenly underestimates as Justin being a typical run-of-the-mill “villain of the week. “Out you damn spot. Out!” I can’t have been the only person to think that when this, not-quite-new character Dr. Jonathan Ohn voiced by Jason Swartzman turned up. I think The Spot is a great foil for Miles because he teaches him the valuable lesson to never overlook the harm caused to others.

For Miles, Jonathan is someone insignificant, and the consequences of the harm caused to him is something to laugh at despite the devastating seriousness of it. For Johnathan, becoming The Spot was a devastating occurrence that altered his very existence on every level even sub-atomically. He, just like Miles, Gwen, and even Miguel, worries about what these new changes to his life mean for him as a person in the universe. I think this commonality is quite possibly the most important element of the story because it underlines everything about the main issues on the surface.

The Spot is an anomaly. So too are Miles, and Miguel. Being the only Spider-Man to be aggressive both in manner and fight style, and openly carries the weight of his great responsibility like the heaviest burden in the world, rather than cover it with quippy remarks and a positive outlook, Miguel is unlike any we’ve seen. Not to mention him having fangs and talons more suited to Dracula, which Miles exclaims over in surprise during an intense fight sequence. But when you really think about it, ALL of the Spider People are anomalies, and that’s what makes them special and relatable, because what person who’s been looked at as being different isn’t made to feel like an anomaly? A mistake in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Previously I mentioned the ways in which the characters create a diverse palette in this film, in a way we haven’t seen with animated films before, and I’d like to point out two additional ways this happens and is connected to the themes of people being anomalies, and facing challenges head-on. I’d like to highlight Pavitar. Being from Mumbattan, Pavitar is a proud young, Brown-skinned Indian who happily shows off aspects of his culture people from the outside would look down on, and refer to with cultural ignorance, like the extreme traffic congestion, and the food. In a hilarious but brilliantly not subtle scene, Pavitr calls out how Westerners see South Asia as an escape from their responsibilities and purport to love the culture while exhibiting just how ignorant they are of said culture. Having this happen not just with Miles but also with The Spot who is literally a white man, is just the icing on the cake. Another aspect of Pavitr that highlights just how much attention to detail the creative team paid to accurately capture cultural nuances was Pavitr’s use of Kalaripayattu, a traditional Indian martial arts fight style that originated in the state of Kerala. Practitioners of Kalaripayattu were recorded to record their movements which can be seen in the way Pavitr moves when he’s swinging from his webs and fight poses and posturing.
This attention to detail was given to the dozens of Spider-People found throughout the film. Truly there are literally layers of them shown throughout the film, and they all move differently and have diverse body shapes, gender identities, and physical abilities. Spider People like Charlotte Webber also known as Sun-Spider a disabled Spider Woman who smoothly moves from her mechanized wheelchair to her canes to web-swing through the rafters of Spider Society making smart commentary about the Spiders using their humor as an emotional crutch when communicating with others. I genuinely hope we get more of her in the future films.

There’s so much more I can say about Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, but as I need to wrap this up, I’ll leave you with this. It’s very rare that we get films, or even shows with casts and creative teams and crews as diverse as this, with narratives as layered, nuanced, and relatable as this. To see Miles fight Miguel, and claim his destiny for himself. Manifesting his mother’s wish for him to claim his own space and power for himself, was amazing to see. Watching Gwen create her women’s band, her own family with people who believe in and understand her, and Miles is empowering because out of everything, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is about learning that family and identity are what we make it, no matter what universe we exist in.

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