With the promise of expert animation offered by the first Spider-Verse movie, the sheer degree to which “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” surpassed expectations for cinematography and visual storytelling — the dedication put into each individual frame of the film — is unfathomable. The recent digital release calls attention to the film’s visuals more intricately than before. The directors’ — Peter Ramsey (“Rise of the Guardians”), Bob Persichetti (debut) and Rodney Rothman (debut) — dedication to breathtaking visuals not only catch the audience’s attention but contribute to the saga’s overarching story. The film stretches the possibilities of visual storytelling beyond its great expectations to depict the complicated emotions and brilliant color symbolism found in the Spider-Verse narrative.
Similar to the first movies, the trilogy’s second installment involves a team of new Spider-Heroes from different dimensions who come together, their unique animation styles indicating their respective universes. When Spider-Punk’s (Daniel Kaluuya, “Nope”) character is on screen, the frame rate consistently changes, and the character changes colors throughout the movie. This makes his presence more collaged than continuous, alluding to the DIY aesthetics of his moniker. By ensuring that every character had a different style, the mix of multiverses is more obvious throughout the movie, allowing each character to shine independently through their unique designs.
When introduced to Mumbattan, Pavitr Prabhakar’s (Karan Soni, “Deadpool”) home, the vibrancy in the misaligned colors of the city is reminiscent of Indian comics like Amar Chitra Katha, the Devanagari sound splashing along with Pavitr’s slick and calculated bangle-braiding animation style. Other universes are also shown a lot of love, from the intricacies found in the neon-noir green and purple scheme of Earth-42 to the simplicity found in the pristine blue cityscape of Nueva York. The homage to the urban beauty found in the landscapes and people of Mumbai, Manhattan and Brooklyn are portrayed through the animated lens (ba-dum-tss) of our Spider-Heroes, showing the nature of each place and the significance of symbolism in the scenery.
The spectacular introduction of Spidey-HQ generated an information overload with the sheer amount of spiders present; you never quite get a grip on everyone who roams the grounds of Earth-928B, regardless of how many times you watch the movie. I imagine that’s also how Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, “Dope”) felt. A scene I fervently need to read as a comic spread, laid in bed with legs kicking the air behind me, is when the camera pans over a sea of spiders as a wave of comic text tags wash over them, describing their personas. Knowing about the infinite possibilities for Spider-Heroes is one thing, but getting to see a massive sample of heroes, names, costumes and backstories attached is something else entirely. I immediately felt excitement for the upcoming digital release that would allow me to itch a completionist scratch, followed closely by a deep thankfulness to the crew who so carefully spun this majestic web. There are several more fun instances of style mixes, from hiring a teen fan to create the Lego Spider-Man scene to Donald Glover’s live-action cameo. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” does nothing but improve on the first movie’s dynamic nature.
This nature is epitomized in the use of color in Gwen’s (Hailee Steinfeld, “Dickinson”) universe. Like her life, Gwen’s world is transient. She starts the movie with a sudden departure from a newly formed band and proceeds to never stays still. Consequently, neither do her surroundings. The disconnect Gwen feels with her father is shown in the way the warm colors in her apartment clash with her own isolated cool tones. The angry, wine-colored splotches (dipping more toward icy blues than warming reds) during their argument feel like punctuation as strong as the drum solo with which she reintroduced herself. We see that Gwen, who Miles always saw as the epitome of cool and collected, feels entirely surrounded by her emotions, leaving her with a biting cold others cannot see. As palette colors swap from action sequences to deeply emotional scenes, Spider-Gwen’s watercolor-esque animation paints incredible scenes where the world melts away into pure emotion.
Another character has emotions that go from being easily dismissable to impossible to ignore: Spot (Jason Schwartzman, “Asteroid City”). Spot was never supposed to be a villain, just like Miles was never supposed to be Spider-Man. Had the multiverse played out the way it was supposed to, the original Spider-Man in Earth-1610 would still be alive, Miles would be living a relatively normal life and Spot would still be a scientist somewhere working on particle collision. However, the bagel to multiverse-destruction pipeline got to him, as a blink-and-you-miss-it event ended up defining his resentment for Spider-Man and solidifying his feelings of irrelevance and insecurity in the universe. And because this is the Spider-Verse trilogy, this is communicated through his animation style. The audience is introduced to Spot as a goofy character with a failed robbery attempt that perfectly depicts his lack of seriousness. From his awkward, gangly movements to his faceless character and basic black-and-white color scheme, Spot is a simple guy through and through. His limited dark spots signify the limited number of portals (and power) he has. As the movie progresses, he becomes warped by his newfound abilities; as his threat potential evolves, so does his being, shifting to a black base with white spots — the remaining parts of “self” that haven’t been corrupted by hatred of what he’s become. The audience sees Spot go from a Villain of the Week to one of the most harrowing antagonists the Spider-Man universe has seen through a ceaseless flash-forwarding sequence: Beautifully executed scratchy animation creates a scene full of panic and suddenness, messy strokes indicating the anxiety and terror that waits in their final confrontation.
This movie has animation so crisp you keep doing double takes to make sure characters haven’t been swapped out for live-action actors mid-shot. Colors tell stories in ways we have never seen. The animated medium allows for accompanying backgrounds to shift as the events in the foreground unfold. Movement communicates authorial intention past what words and expressions can manage. How else can you show the layers of internal strife Gwen experiences during every interaction with her father? The magnitude of Spot’s newfound power? The subtle, unspoken differences we carry with us, shown through the differentiation of strokes, colors and dimensions? Spider-Byte’s (Amandla Stenberg, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”) VR-like model and Spider-Punk’s turning pages and relative flatness reflect their characters’ backgrounds without ever saying a word. Unlike traditional costuming, makeup and setting, these visually communicated details seem to have a life of their own.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is a phenomenal movie. It brings a spotlight to an underappreciated genre. It is a stellar work of animation. And it’s not the only one — it is our earnest hope that, through its success, both socially and commercially, the wider public will once again set its eyes on animation so that more and more movies of this kind can come forth and succeed. Digital animation is an ever-evolving medium with artists who push it to (and past) its limits. To encourage the art form in such a way means a multi-verse of possibilities for the craft’s future. By supporting the film and advocating for its artists’ working conditions rather than defending billion-dollar corporations, everyone can do their part to bring this future closer. Anyone can wear the mask.
Daily Arts Writers Cecilia Ledezma and Adaeze Uzoije can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.