Film

Can Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse save us from multiverse fatigue?

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is that rare comic book film that feels like a comic book. And an unusual example of filmmakers realising the true potential of the multiverse

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Shameik Moore voices Spider-Man/ Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Image: Sony Pictures

Ever been in a lift where all the wall panels are mirrored, so you can see recursive clones of yourself stretching out seemingly forever? That’s when I feel compelled to do a theatrical window-cleaning wave to all those other Graemes and exclaim (in a Dracula voice, for some reason): “Velcome, my friends … to zee multiverse!” Great fun, and if it bothers the other people in the lift they usually keep pretty quiet about it.

That’s the key thing when it comes to the concept of a multiverse: it should be a blast. An endless domino rally of parallel dimensions where the familiar is remixed or upended in some profound or dizzying way. But so far super-powered cinematic universes seem to be playing it safe. Instead of opening up a fireworks display of new storytelling options, the multiverse is mostly being used as a mechanism to repackage greatest hits from the past.

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Sure, it was a thrill to witness a team-up between three generations of cinematic web-slingers in Spider-Man: No Way Home but in the end it was more of a group hug than an actual story. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness introduced alternate versions of familiar heroes (including the return of a beloved baldie mutant) and then promptly eviscerated all of them. But that’s OK, right? Because the beauty of a multiverse is that you can grab a spare from another dimension, as in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. But subbing in a replacement Gamora – albeit an entertainingly aggrieved one – diminished the original character’s sacrifice back in Avengers: Infinity War. Turns out playing in a cosmic sandpit of infinite options can sand down the dramatic stakes.

Judging by the busy post-credits scene for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Marvel is going all in on the concept. And their great comic rivals DC, whose superhero films have long been marshalled by Warner Bros, are about to make their own belated visit to the multiverse buffet. This month’s much-delayed blockbuster The Flash somehow heralds the return of Michael Keaton as the Tim Burton-era Batman. When Ezra Miller’s cosmically nimble Flash uses their super-speed to wear down the barriers between different DC dimensions, the studio are hoping it will remind audiences of cool heroes past while also preparing the ground for a new pic’n’mix era. From this Flash point on, the DC movie universe could feasibly showcase any old Batman, a brand-new Superman, probably the same Harley Quinn and maybe even a financially viable Green Lantern. This is where we find ourselves in 2023. In superhero cinema, everything is going to get ’verse before it gets better.

There is one shining light in a world of endlessly reflected Dark Knights. This week sees the release of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the follow-up to 2018’s Spider- Man: Into the Spider-Verse. That fun, frantically animated adventure saw novice web-slinger Miles Morales tutored by weird and wonderful Spider-Men – and Spider-Women, and even a Spider-Pig – beamed in from other dimensions. With its vibrant, graffiti-influenced visual style, it was that rare comic book-inspired movie that looked like an actual comic book, and it deservedly won the Oscar for best animated feature. 

The sequel sends young Miles out into those dimensions beyond his own, wisely drawing on the franchise’s fizzy animated strengths: each of these alternate worlds can look and feel completely different, a kaleidoscopic mélange near-impossible to replicate in live-action. Hopscotching through a multiverse should be a real head trip, and Across the Spider-Verse looks set to deliver that in crashy, splashy abundance.

It also helps that the focus is on a fresh story highlighting a relatively new character instead of wrapping up or pruning back threads from previous Spider-Man movies. (Admittedly, the Spider-Verse project is leaning on over six decades of existing characters and continuity from the comics: if we ever find ourselves trapped in a mirrored lift, I will bore you with every little detail about Spider-Man 2099, the moody futuristic web-slinger created for some extremely 1990s comics now voiced by Oscar Isaac in Across the Spider-Verse.) But this animated Spider-Man saga still feels like it is barrelling forward when most of the competition is looking back. Maybe we have found ourselves in the right universe after all.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in cinemas from 2 June; The Flash is in cinemas from 15 June

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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