Tuesday, June 27, 2023

It's impossible to resist the captivating yearning of Past Lives

One of the most evocative lines from Gonzo's Muppet Movie song "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday" is "There's not a word yet/for old friends who've just met." I was reminded of those words while watching Past Lives for the first time and absorbing the deeply moving imagery writer/director Celine Song has put on the screen. I'd never seen this movie or any other directorial effort from Song for that matter before (this is Song's first time behind the camera on a film after all). Yet the images and emotions in front of me felt so familiar. There was such an immersive melancholy and wistful attitude communicated through the filmmaking and performances. I felt like I knew these human beings and emotions already. Watching Past Lives was like coming home to memories and emotional sensations I'd never actually experienced. In other words, Celine Song has made a movie that is much like "an old friend" you've "just met."

I'm often fascinated by contemplating what I could've done differently in the past. Awkward social moments from 8th grade failed attempts at scoring dates, moments where I accidentally alienated friends...they all rattle in my brain alongside constant hypotheticals on how I could've made things better. It's a phenomenon that can make me feel lonely, even though, ironically, it's something we're all prone to. The universality of that experience is reflected in the protagonists of Past Lives, Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Childhood sweethearts in South Korea, the pair are separated when Na Young's family moves out of the country. 

Decades later, Na Young now goes by the name Nora and has a thriving life as a playwright in New York City with her husband Arthur (John Magaro). Meanwhile, in South Korea, Hae Sung is planning a trip to the big apple, which will involve him seeing Nora for the first time in person in 24 years. It's a momentous moment for both Nora and Hae Sung. Neither one of them will just be a memory in the other one's head for much longer. They will once again be flesh-and-blood people to each other. Their individual lives have become so much bigger than they could've ever imagined back when they were 12 years old...what happens when their existences collide once more?

Life tends to flicker by in the blink of an eye. Song and editor Keith Fraase recreate that phenomenon with the gentle pacing of Past Lives. This is a feature that's laidback in its depiction of realistic ordinary conversations, which just makes the time jumps in its narrative all the more impactful. Small incidents with devastating internal impact are what drive the plot here, with seemingly key events like a move to New York City or a marriage ceremony happening off-screen. This keeps the focus on the incidental parts of existence, like talking to your partner in the bathroom as you both get ready for bed or Hae Sung's initial rain-soaked arrival to New York City. Life isn't defined by its grandest, most explosive moments. It tends to be molded by interactions we may, at the moment, view as disposable. The quiet pacing and narrative focus of Past Lives reflects this aspect of reality beautifully.

The intimacy of Past Lives is enhanced by Song's incredibly assured filmmaking. Despite never helming any type of movie before (not even a short film!), Celine Song comes off like a veteran pro in her work behind the camera. Among the many impressive feats here are seemingly simple details, like how Song always had my eye drawn to key characters like Nora and Hae Sung even in crowded environments. They're not necessarily lingering in the middle of the frame, yet Song and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner always make them discernible to the viewer. This is accomplished without sacrificing the visibility of passersby. On the contrary, Song and Kirchner find inspired ways to block and arrange random tourists and other background players throughout the story, like peppering the backdrop of one of Nora and Hae Sung's first in-person conversations in decades with various lovers holding each other close.

There's also so much to unpack in just the varying amounts of distance between the Past Lives characters and the camera capturing them. When Hae Sung hears over a Skype call that Nora wants to cut off their conversations for now, Song and Kirchner capture his quietly devastated reaction in an intimate fashion. It's a close-up accentuating the little facial tics suggesting his pain, but also one with just enough distance to suggest Hae Sung will be bottling up these emotions. Meanwhile, when Hae Sung first comes to New York during a big thunderstorm, the camera is pulled back from him and often observes him through hotel windows. The suggestion here is that the viewer is as distanced from Hae Sung as he is from the person he's come to America to see.

The visuals of Past Lives are emblematic of how much careful consideration has gone into every aspect of the production. That makes it a remarkable feature to unpack in great detail, but the various artistic intricacies here also make Past Lives an emotionally sweeping motion picture to experience at the moment. Various flourishes in the camerawork, tiny details in the sound design, an outstanding score by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, and ingenious touches in the script, all just blur together to create a story that's impossible not to get wrapped up in. Above all else, what's important in Past Lives is how beautifully it captures the process of encountering the past in the present. That's an incredibly messy operation yet one Past Lives captures so effectively. The pathos on display here is towering and left me sobbing on multiple occasions.

It really can't be understated how much the performances of Past Lives contribute to its emotionally devastating accomplishments. Greta Lee, taking a much more dramatic turn compared to her comedic work in projects like Russian Doll, proves transfixing in the lead role. From the opening scene of the movie, which focuses on a wider shot that eventually zeroes in on her face, she proves more than capable of handling all the weighty material Past Lives hands her with impeccable subtlety and humanity. Playing opposite her for much of the runtime is Teo Yoo, whose on-screen work masterfully combines restrained physicality with palpable yearning. Then there's John Magaro in a deeply vulnerable and moving supporting turn that makes good on his skills for playing aching soulful humans (hi First Cow!)

There isn't a word yet, as Gonzo once observed, for old friends who've just met. Maybe there never can be one. Some emotions and connections are too complicated and momentous to be boiled down to just one word. Past Lives encapsulates that truth and so much more. It's also a movie with such deeply moving and lived-in images that it feels like a long-treasured cinematic memento even as you're digesting it for the first time. Writer/director Celine Song has crafted something truly special with Past Lives that, like fond memories of ancient but important human connections, deserves to be remembered for years and years to come.

Monday, June 26, 2023

It's well worth taking a trip to Asteroid City

If you're not already hooked on Wes Anderson, I can't imagine Asteroid City will suddenly convert you into a believer. That's not a comment on the film's quality, but merely a reflection of its style. Asteroid City is a metatextual work with deeply intricate storytelling approach that also ramps up both the melancholy and dry humor of Anderson's preceding works to eleven. It's bound to leave some baffled, especially those who've never been able to get on this filmmaker's wavelength. That's not me, though. I'm the person who owes Fantastic Mr. Fox a great deal of debt as one of the movies that got me so enamored with cinema. As somebody who always clicked with this director's specific style, Asteroid City was like an all-you-can-eat cinematic buffet so scrumptious that it left me licking my plate.

Asteroid City begins by explaining how Asteroid City is the name of a fictional play being performed in 1956. Scenes set firmly in the "real world" are framed in black-and-white and the Academy aspect ratio. Sequences meant to be embellishments of the "performance" are rendered in expansive widescreen, a vivid color palette, and very real-looking locales (the characters are not confined to a limited stage). Within the play, a bevy of colorful characters converges on the mostly empty destination of Asteroid City for a science fair, among them being grieving dad Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Here, the deepest questions related to the cosmos begin to factor into the lives of these lonely souls, though weighty queries related to the possibility of alien life are nothing compared to just trying to connect with other human beings.

The Atomic Age of the 1950s casts an enormous shadow on Asteroid City and informs much of its dark humor. The specter of death lingers over many of these characters, which makes it extra amusing when characters like a motel manager (Steve Carell) become enamored with trivial matters like what juice patrons would prefer when they wake up in the morning. Human beings really are good at getting caught up in superficial details even when world-altering events are happening around them. Anderson's always shown a gift for dark comedy dating back to this directorial debut Bottle Rocket. It's no shock then that, decades into his filmmaker career, he's refined that talent to a tee within the best jokes in Asteroid City. 

Anderson's writing also makes fascinating use of parallel storylines that oscillate between the world within the Asteroid City play and "reality." The latter area is often defined by an intentionally awkward sparseness that accentuates the subdued imperfections of these artistic souls. A moment between director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and recent ex-wife Polly (Hong Chau) is a perfect example of this. The duo doesn't get into a screaming match to reflect their current relationship status. It's as if the two have become so familiar with the idea of no longer being lovers that there's no point in great displays of animosity. Combining this reminder of love lost with narration about Green's work ethic and the sparseness of Asteroid City's "reality" paints a quietly tragic portrait of this director. 

Trying to juggle all this storytelling material and comprehend the relationship between fiction and non-fiction while Asteroid City sometimes made my brain hurt, but that's a testament to just how much exciting material Anderson's filmmaking is offering up to viewers. Plus, there are plenty of surface-level pleasures here to ensure that you don't need to write up a doctoral thesis to enjoy the proceedings. Who isn't going to get a kick out of Jeffrey Wright's bombastic and comically overwrought speech kicking off a youth-oriented science fair or an inexplicable honkey-tonk tune about aliens? There's plenty of pathos here, but also tons of amusing gags and sequences to keep you glued to the screen.

Asteroid City also delivers a treasure trove of finely-tuned performances that leave an impact even if they're only on-screen for a short period of time. Tom Hanks, in his first-ever Wes Anderson performance, is especially fun as a grouchy grandfather. It's neat that he's treated as just one member of a massive ensemble rather than having the story reorient itself entirely around giving America's Dad as much screentime as possible. Having Hanks around in this manner offers up plenty of screentime for newer faces like Maya Hawke, Jake Ryan, and Grace Edwards to shine as some of the younger characters. Wes Anderson veterans like Schwartzman, Swinton, and Brody all deliver superb work while Bryan Cranston is a riot as the film's narrator. That wonderful voice of his is something you love to listen to for long periods of time while the actor's lengthy experience with comedy means he nails his character's one big humorous moment.

On top of providing so many great performances and flashes of dark comedy, Asteroid City is just beautiful to look at thanks to Robert Yeoman's cinematography. The colorized sequences set in the domain of Asteroid City are some of the most immediately striking, especially with the recurring use of light blue in the sets and costumes. However, the monochromatic "reality" scenes provide some of the most memorable imagery of Asteroid City for my money. Especially unforgettable is an extended wide shot in one of the movie's final scenes that just exudes so much potent wistfulness thanks to the use of black-and-white coloring. Wherever Asteroid City goes, it exudes so much creativity and wit. It's a microcosm of the complicated tones, beautiful images, and unforgettable performances that make Wes Anderson movies such unique cinematic delights.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Flash is an unimaginative and tedious disaster that wastes all its potential...and poor Kiersey Clemons (MASSIVE SPOILERS)

This review contains massive spoilers. Also, this is gonna be structured a little more loosely than other "reviews" of mine on my blog, I just wanna vent more about my problems with The Flash than adhere to a standard "intro/plot synopsis/breakdown of feature" structure.

I feel bad for Kiersey Clemons.

First breaking out as a memorable actor in Dope, Clemons has amassed a steady filmography full of indie gems like Hearts Beat Loud and the cult classic Sweetheart. Hollywood has never given her the major lead roles she deserves, but she's still done perfectly well for herself. If you ever wanted a microcosm of how little interest mainstream cinema has in giving women of color substantial roles, gaze upon the minimal screentime Clemons has in The Flash. In this superhero movie, Clemons plays Iris West, the primary love interest of the titular superhero in the comics. In an ideal world, this part could've been a charming equal to the male lead, a way for Clemons to demonstrate her affable screen presence. Instead, Clemons is confined to a trio of brief scenes, including being a "prize" Barry Allen wins in the last scene of the film.

It's unimaginative. It's stupid. Worst of all, it's a waste of Kiersey Clemons. All the compelling qualities she brought to Dope and Hearts Beat Loud are never utilized here, while Iris West never comes close to being viewed as a character. But then again, what else do you expect from The Flash? This is a movie that views deceased artists as Funko Pop! figures to be rearranged at the demands of studio executives. This is also a motion picture that features Kara Zor-El/Supergirl (Sasha Calle) yet never thinks to give her something fun to do. This is also also a film where hideous CGI recreations of live-action performers dominate many scenes and the future nightmares of moviegoers. The Flash is not a good movie. Poor Kiersey Clemons is just one of the many ways it stumbles the ball.

Unfortunately, most of the flaws of The Flash seem to rest at the feet of director Andy Muschietti, a horror filmmaker who did decent work on the 2013 scary film Mama. However, in 2019, he helmed It: Chapter 2, a movie that suffered from bad CGI, difficulty embracing all the zaniest elements of its source material, and especially awkward handling of broad comedy. Those flaws and others return for Muschietti's work on The Flash, which often features filmmaking as inexplicable and haphazard as the "Angel of the Morning" needledrop from It: Chapter 2. Worse, Muschietti's lack of experience on blockbusters hasn't inspired him to follow his own creative impulses but rather lean heavily on the aesthetics of other tentpole filmmakers.

Most egregiously, a scene where a pair of Barry Allen's first encounter Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne is set to Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4", a clear instance of aping the needle drops that populated the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The wacky time travel antics clearly owe a great deal to Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future titles, while the old-school superhero missions in Gotham City in the first act ape the classical blockbuster vibes of the Richard Donnor Superman movies. Muschietti keeps echoing other superhero and blockbuster movies but rarely brings his own personality to the proceedings. Without any bold attempts to establish an idiosyncratic identity, The Flash's stabs at pathos and big time-travel spectacle are utterly hollow. The latter element is especially poorly-realized, with the film's third act just devolving into a mess of CG and copies of Ezra Miller shouting time travel jargon at each other. I love comic book nonsense but even I just wanted to get off this ride by the end.

It's all so tedious, which is just the worst sin of The Flash. Michael Keaton and Sasha Calle try to inject whatever personality they can, but the convoluted narrative in Christina Hodson's screenplay is just impossible to connect with. This is a movie about lore, not characters, which becomes egregiously apparent in the finale when a bunch of CG renderings of Christopher Reeve, Nicolas Cage, and Adam West just stand around lifeless watching the finale of The Flash unfold. This movie has a multiverse of live-action DC titles at its disposal and this is the most it can come up with?!? Insulting the memory of Christopher Reeve and sucking all the life out of Nicolas Cage? If we're going to collide all the DC stuff together, let's get weird! Have the two live-action Constantine's kiss! Have Joaquin Phoenix's Joker start a band with the WB TV show version of Birds of Prey!  There would seem to be endless possibilities for actually fun and unhinged exploitations of a multiverse...but The Flash staunchly refuses to explore any of them.

Instead, the climax turns into two Ezra Miller's just fighting a bunch of CGI goons, poor Supergirl getting repeatedly brutally murdered (one of many weird misogynistic flourishes scattered throughout The Flash), and the umpteenth grey-colored CGI monster villain in the DC Extended Universe. Even the score by Benjamin Wallfisch is utterly lifeless and sometimes feels distractingly incongruous with the on-screen footage. Why does the score feature such propulsive intense music during an opening scene involving old-school superhero antics like saving falling babies? Shouldn't the orchestral tunes have a lighter, zippier touch? Much like Muschietti is just rigidly mimicking the filmmaking of James Gunn and Joss Whedon, Wallfisch too seems content to follow the lead of most other superhero movie scores.

The Flash is not good. It's not totally devoid of any merits (a handful of emotional beats are well-conceived conceptually, Keaton and Calle's super-suits look solid), but its flaws are dizzyingly staggering. Super broad gags like an extended vomiting joke just land with a thud and all the action sequences have too much subpar CG and not enough visual panache. Worst of all, it's a movie that offers no real surprises or imagination. Classic comics dazzled readers because of their seemingly boundless imagination and willingness to go to truly outlandish places. The Flash, meanwhile, just wants to remind people of what they've seen before. It's a film on autopilot that also manages to be incredibly abrasive in its wildly-miscalculated stabs at fan service. I feel bad for Kiersey Clemons, just one of the many talented artists who struggle to convey an ounce of humanity within this dreary slog.  Then again, this is a motion picture that still thinks "haha that woman is fat and has cats" is at all a novel joke in 2023...I shouldn't be surprised that it never unlocked all the creative potential of its premise and titular superhero.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny sends out an adventure movie icon with a whimper

Every Indiana Jones movie opens with a big action set piece already in progress. This in-media res approach ensures that the excitement of these features is there right from the get-go. Why wouldn't new installment Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny also go this tired and true route? Our story begins with Nazis collecting lots of loot in the final days of World War II, with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) being held hostage by these nefarious fascists. As he's plopped down into a chair, a Nazi officer removes the bag concealing the face of this archeologist. The reveal of Jones is meant to be a moment that gets the audience clapping like there's no tomorrow. Instead, I found myself recoiling. The digitally de-aged face of Harrison Ford has consumed the frame, his rubbery and too-perfect features proving incredibly distracting. In attempting to bring back the past, Dial of Destiny has only provided a reminder of the limitations of today's technology. 

Normally, the kick-off action sequences for Indiana Jones titles inspire cheers and excitement for what other thrills the ensuing film will provide. In Dial of Destiny, the awkward reveal of CGI young Harrison Ford is a bad omen of what's to come. Buckle up, folks. You'll be praying for the digital prairie dogs of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull before the credits on this newest installment begin to roll.

After this extensive World War II prologue is finished, we cut to Indy as an elderly man in 1969. On the day of the moon landing, Jones is more aware than ever of his age and irrelevance to the wider world. As he grapples with retirement, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) walks back into his life. Jones's goddaughter, she's determined to find an ancient relic, that titular dial of destiny known here as the Antikythera. Shaw is a morally shady character, but she looks like a clean-cut citizen compared to Dial of Destiny villain J├╝rgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a Nazi whose been searching for the Antikythera for decades. With this object split into multiple pieces across the planet, the race is on to prevent this device from falling into the wrong hands. Jones may feel like the world has passed him by, but he's about to get pulled into an adventure that may just prove that assumption wrong.

Back in 2013, Dial of Destiny director James Mangold (who also penned the script with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and David Koepp) helmed The Wolverine. A prevailing criticism of the feature was that its super conventional finale, relying on the titular superhero duking it out with a CGI robot, was the worst part of the film. Unfortunately, Dial of Destiny is like that finale stretched out into an entire film with an overdose of exposition added in for good measure. Mangold commits to mimicking director Steven Spielberg's retro-adventure style for so much of Dial of Destiny yet never comes across as being comfortable with that aesthetic or having much fun with it. The "fun" sections of this installment are all rigid mimicry of the golden years of the Indiana Jones saga told through shockingly subpar visual means. 

Dim lighting abounds, with certain sequences like an underwater hunt for a MacGuffin often being difficult to make out thanks to how dark every frame is. There's now little grandeur in the scrapes Indy and his accomplices get stuck in, just muted color palettes and minimal lighting. Terrible CGI is also rampant, particularly with poor work putting live-action actors into digital backdrops. If you loved the digital ants and fake-looking CG jungle from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Dial of Destiny has even more of that visual effects wizardry in store for you! A lengthy chase scene in Morocco especially gets disrupted by this element. Why even put that set piece in the movie if it was going to look so fake? The convoluted plot, meanwhile, stretches an already thin premise well past the breaking point. Way too much screentime is dedicated to characters explaining things flatly in unimaginatively framed shots. Were Mangold and company so self-conscious about all the divisive silly elements in Crystal Skull that they now felt they had to justify every bit of treasure-hunting tomfoolery in this sequel? Or was Mangold trying to bring Indiana Jones to the "grounded" vibes of his other directorial efforts like Logan? The world will never know, but what is clear is that Dial of Destiny needed way fewer explanations and more excitement.

The script also feels like a hodgepodge of storytelling elements cribbed from prior Indiana Jones films, albeit done with far less polish than earlier features. We've got a kid sidekick in the vein of Short Round, Nazi villains (but I repeat myself) are back as the antagonists, the mismatched duo banter between Shaw and Jones harkens back to the central father/son dynamic in Last Crusade, while various reflections on the titular lead aging are reminiscent of certain moments from Crystal Skull. Constantly reminding people of earlier superior Indiana Jones movies just highlights the flaws of this newer installment. Making me think so much about Raiders of the Lost Ark just made me wish I was watching an adventure movie that didn't feature bad digital de-aging.

The strangely stifled atmosphere of the proceedings sucks out a slew of opportunities for good supporting actors like Mads Mikkelsen and Antonio Banderas to make full use of their many talents as performers. Phoebe Waller-Bridge at least has more to do as the co-lead of the movie, though her dialogue deliveries often felt too modern for me. She gets some chuckles (this is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, after all), but the anachronistic qualities of her performance never felt like they coalesced into something cohesive or entertaining. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford seems game for all this treasure-hunting mayhem, but aside from a few wistful monologues about life regrets and growing older, Dial of Destiny doesn't give him much substantive material to work with. 

It's baffling that this feature isn't more interested in utilizing Ford's talents as an actor, but then again, there are lots of bizarre shortcomings to Dial of Destiny. The 1960s setting, for instance, quickly proves superfluous to the proceedings once Indy and Helena begin to travel overseas searching for the pieces of the Antikythera. Meanwhile, returning characters like Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) are awkwardly shoehorned into the story. If you're going to bring vintage staples of older Indiana Jones movies back, give them something fun to do! The less said about the laughable finale, which is brought to life through atrocious green-screen work and incredibly awkward dialogue, the better. At least composer John Williams isn't asleep at the wheel here. Much like with his compositions on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Williams gives a subpar modern blockbuster way better music than it deserves.

We really didn't need a new Indiana Jones movie. Then again, though, we didn't need a new Rocky feature before Creed came along in 2015. Any long-running saga can be livened up with a quality installment. As Indy himself once said, "it ain't the years, honey, it's the mileage!" Alas, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is far from a creatively rejuvenating entry in the Indiana Jones saga. On the contrary, it's a tedious slog lacking even the admirable big swings of previous weaker Indiana Jones yarns like Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Unfortunately for fans of this iconic adventurer, the staggeringly terrible digitally de-aged Harrison Ford at the start of Dial of Destiny is a truly appropriate harbinger of what the rest of the movie offers.

"Anything is possible": On Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and finding allegorical trans representation in a multiversal superhero

 “Alright people, let’s do this one more time…”

I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in December 2018. This was just six months after I met up with a bunch of online queer friends in person for the first time. I was still so new to navigating the LGBTQIA+ community, I couldn’t say the word “bisexual” out loud, let alone comprehend my gender identity. However, getting to be around so many vibrant queer personalities who actually understood the specifics of experiences I’d gone through resonated deeply with me. It was magical. It opened up new horizons for what I thought was possible in everyday existence. It impacted me so deeply that it skewed my interpretation of Into the Spider-Verse.

For me, this feature and its saga about Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) discovering solitude in other Spider-people is a beautiful allegory for found families within queer communities. “And when I feel alone, like no one understands what I'm going through, I remember my friends who get it,” Morales says in the final scene of that animated masterpiece. It’s a terrific piece of dialogue that struck a chord with me and my own experiences in 2018. It was lonely to go back to Texas after that New York City trip and have to return to working behind a cash register at Walgreens. I had to be fully closeted and nervous about ever exhibiting any queer-coded traits that could set off homophobic customers. But I found comfort in reminiscing about spending so much time with my queer friends, much like Morales clung to his own memories with other Spider-heroes. Neither one of us was truly alone with those recollections of the past.

A lot has changed since both Into the Spider-Verse opened in theaters and my first in-person exposure to the wider queer community. Advancements in technology and increasing creative ambitions have led to the animation of Across the Spider-Verse breaking exciting new visual ground. Meanwhile, the scrappy Texas native who would quietly murmur about desires to wear a skirt has turned out to be a trans woman whose now out to the public as Lisa Laman. With these changes and my own previous deeply personal queer interpretation of Into the Spider-Verse, it was inevitable that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse would also inspire queer readings in my mind.

This time, though, I’m not alone. The internet has widely attached itself to the concept of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) being an allegory for trans experiences. Watching this gorgeous production for the first time at an advanced press screening, I got allegorically trans vibes from Gwen Stacy as well as allegorically queer interpretations from other characters and plot points. However, a second viewing was needed to fully comprehend what was going on with Gwen Stacy. It was time to dive right into every potential nuance of this fictional figure and how she could reflect the trans community.

“And he’s not the only one.”

The internet has already fixated on some of the clearer signals of Gwen’s relevance to trans people, like the colors of her dimension being the same as the trans pride flag or the “protect trans kids” banner in her room. However, the trans joys of Gwen Stacy’s plotline in Across the Spider-Verse go deeper than just those visual traits. Keeping trans allegories at the forefront of my mind during my second Across the Spider-Verse viewing, it wasn’t long before my eyes welled up with tears.

The very first scene of Across the Spider-Verse fixates on a noisy and passionate drum solo played by Stacy by set to a montage exploring her friend with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s a gangbusters way of kicking off a movie that immediately establishes the unique visual sensibilities of what’s to come. It’s also a gloriously maximalist way to get insight into Stacy’s psyche and her frustrations with her identity, past, and home life. The latter element involves her father, police Captain George Stacy (Shea Whigham), who is out to hunt down Spider-Woman, a vigilante he doesn’t realize is his daughter.

This vibrant kick-off to the whole movie immediately features complicated emotions and colors that evoke the trans community through delightfully over-the-top methods. This tactic allows Across the Spider-Verse to subvert the norms of trans representation in cinematic storytelling. So much of the history of trans folks in cinema has been…let’s be gentle and say bad. Often portrayed by cis-gendered actors and relegated to supporting roles where they either teach straight people life lessons or an object of ridicule, typical Hollywood trans characters have been defined by tragedy, treated like garbage, and often killed off without much thought. Their interior lives are never even glimpsed, the idea of trans people being human is such a foreign idea to the individuals making movies like Dallas Buyers Club.

As a stark contrast, here comes Gwen Stacy, who enter Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse loudly playing her drums and accompanied by imagery that vividly encapsulates her wants, pain, and emotional turmoil. Stacy is in the center of the scene, her feelings impossible to miss and her drumming (the only way she can get her frustrations out) dominating the soundtrack. Other movies minimize trans lives, but because of Across the Spider-Verse’s innate visual sensibilities, the movie makes Stacy’s trans-allegorical emotions as big as any comic book splash page. All those bright colors, all that noise, all that prominence in the frame, it’s something tragically missing from so many on-screen depictions of trans people in cinema.

Plus, Stacy isn’t defined solely by her tragedy or struggles with getting a loved one to accept her identity. Though she navigates intimate exchanges that will resonate as deeply relatable for many trans people of various genders, Stacy also gets to fight costumed super-villains, throw out quippy one-liners, and save people. She gets to an exhilarating idealistic hero without sacrificing the ways she resonates specifically with trans folks. The default “passive” trans character in mainstream cinema is a distant memory when one is watching the allegorically trans Gwen Stacy beating up evildoers and rollicking through multiple dimensions. 

“Can you stop being a cop for just one minute and be my dad?”

Across the Spider-Verse’s version of Gwen Stacy resonating as relevant to trans audiences continues even when the feature slows down its pacing for a quieter, more devastating scene. That sequence taps into very real emotions of existing as a closeted trans person (albeit in an allegorical fashion) and concerns Gwen being forced at gunpoint to “come out” as Spider-Woman to her father.

So many of us in the trans community don’t get a choice in how we come out. Circumstances far beyond our control force us to reveal our identity before we’re ready. That was my experience with my mom, who stumbled on me wearing femme clothes when I was coming home from a date. I suddenly had to spill my guts about my gender in a scenario that was torn out of my nightmares. A core part of my identity was suddenly ripped out of my hands, at least in this one social context, which is utterly terrifying. A part of me that I was having such joy exploring was now connected to sorrow over an impromptu coming out experience. I’m sure Gwen Stacy could relate to that horror.

Her “coming out” moment to her dad is also the stuff of queer people's nightmare, especially once Captain Stacy reacts with horror to his daughter’s revelation (he incorrectly believes Spider-Woman killed that universe’s Peter Parker). “How long have you been lying to me?” the elder Stacy quietly asks his daughter in this intense moment. It’s a question that many LGBTQIA+ people are terrified of hearing the moment they open up to a loved one about their identity. Taking the time to feel prepared to be vulnerable can be misconstrued as “lying,” which just adds a layer of unnecessary shame to the coming out process. It isn’t lying to come out on your own timetable. Stacy also taking an important moment for his daughter and turning it into something that revolves around him (“how could you lie to ME?”) will also resonate as deeply realistic for so many queer and trans viewers from their own coming out experiences.

What really got me emotional here in terms of trans allegories is Gwen Stacy’s pained begging for her father to look at her. Stacy doesn’t want her superhero identity to drive a wedge between herself and her father. She loves her dad and just wants support. Captain Stacy, though, doesn’t see it that way. He sees his daughter as a liar, a murderer, a total stranger. The stand-in for a trans person here only wants affection, but the representation of a cis-relative refuses to accept that meager request. It’s a familial dynamic that will be familiar to many trans viewers, which is an impressive feat considering this exchange comes just a few minutes after a trio of Spider-heroes fought a Renaissance-era version of The Vulture. A glorious balance between heightened comic book mayhem and such raw discernible trans-relevant emotion is something Across the Spider-Verse executes with impressive finesse.

“It doesn’t end well for her.”

Stacy’s storyline didn’t just personally resonate with me as relevant to trans experiences in her interactions with stand-ins for cis-people, though. The moment that felt most evocative of trans existence in Across the Spider-Verse emerged during her first conversations with Morales in months. Another Spider-hero whose struggles with his identity evoke LGBTQIA+ experiences (just look at a fantasy sequence where Morales imagines an ideal version of “coming out” as Spider-Man to his parents), it’s no wonder Stacy finds so much comfort in just shooting the breeze and spinning webs with Morales.

During a talk held upside down and high in the sky, Gwen Stacy notes that one thing underlying her dynamic with Moralres is that “every version of Gwen Stacy falls in love with Spider-Man…and it doesn’t end well for her.” This is in reference to the famous 1970s comic book issue entitled “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” which depicted Stacy’s demise at the hands of the Green Goblin and cemented that Stacy would be primarily known for her grisly death above all else. It would take until the introduction of Spider-Gwen in the 2010s for this character to finally gather extra dimensions beyond how her demise influenced Peter Parker.

Stacy’s lasting legacy of being just a dead body is clearly lingering in the mind of Across the Spider-Verse’s version of Stacy. It’s also an entity that parallels how normalized misery is for trans folks in pop culture. As a trans lady, I’m well aware of how way it so often feels like grisly ends are a predetermined fate for people in my community, especially for trans people of color. Our corpses line up the plotlines of countless crime shows. Our deaths are played for amusement and mockery on right-wing podcasts and in comedies. Our bodies are spectacles to be either fetishized or demeaned by cis-people. Aggressive transphobia is just something that seems to come as part and parcel of daily life, with the onus often put on trans folks to just tolerate all the cruelty.

With all this dehumanization swirling around in mainstream society, it can feel overwhelming to even try and exist as a trans person. Just as Stacy feels restricted by how other versions of Gwen Stacy are “supposed” to function, so I’ve often been paralyzed with fear over society’s perception of what trans people look like, sound like, or even are “worth.” Some days, when news about transphobic legislation is rampant and I’ve had to deal with another Uber driver who feels free to challenge me about my gender, I feel like I wanna be like Gwen Stacy: sullen, aloof, detached from everything. Societally ingrained homophobia and the normalization of transphobia have made transphobia so rampant that it impacts my mind whenever I leave my apartment.

I’ve often told my therapist that if there weren’t systemically informed manifestations of transphobia everywhere, so many of my concerns and anxieties related to being trans would vanish. Being trans isn’t the problem, it’s how other people and institutions respond to it. Similarly, Gwen Stacy loves being a Spider-hero, it’s how her dad responds to it and the larger legacy of other Gwen Stacy’s that casts a dark shadow over her identity. The complexities of carving out an idiosyncratic identity while dealing with societal norms that incorrectly say you’re destined for just misery…that’s what Stacy’s grappling with. It’s also a scenario trans viewers can relate to on a profound level. Through referencing a famous comic book event, Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse delivered its most emotionally potent example of Gwen Stacy functioning as an allegorically trans character.

“Anything is possible.”

On Friday, June 16, 2023, I went to a gay club for the first time. Now, I’ve been to a few gay bars (including Sue Ellen’s, the biggest lesbian bar in Dallas, TX), but not a proper club, with loud music that makes your muscles vibrate. I didn’t go alone, though. I went with a bunch of autistic queer friends, all of whom were also trans. Five years ago, I had to travel all the way to New York City to bound with other queers in person. Cut to 2023 and I now have several queer pals in my own backyard. I went out in a bright pink dress (two different people said I had a “Barbie vibe” going on, which I was honored to hear), the kind of outfit I couldn't have even comprehended trying on, let alone wearing for hours on end, in 2018. The same woman who was too nervous to say "bisexual" aloud in 2018 was now writhing around on the dance floor with friends, bellowing out lyrics messily, and even just hootin’ and hollerin’ in joy.

Afterward, I told a dear pal of mine that, sometimes, I’ve thought that the world would be better without me in it. My thoughts would be dominated by the idea that I’m not worthy of being seen or that I'm exclusively a burden on other people. I’ve often felt alone and drastically self-critical in my life and for many years I never had the language to crystallize why. Naturally, I would turn to movies to find not only escapism but especially a sense of connection. Seeing art about other isolated outcasts from society reminded me that, even as my brain said that I was all alone, there were others out there who understood what was happening to me. Even as I’ve embraced my gender identity and come to terms with larger psychological conditions that I deal with on a daily basis (namely depression), I haven’t eschewed all those self-critical or catastrophizing thoughts from my mind. However, I now have the resources to be myself and at least access moments where I feel truly happy and connected with other people. 

I felt that way on the dance floor of that club with all my friends that felt Friday night. 

I felt that way just a few days ago, when my mom, two years after she found out about my gender identity, was able to nonchalantly chit-chat with me while I was wearing a dress. 

And I certainly felt that sensation during my Across the Spider-Verse revisit realizing just how many of my trans experiences were reflected so vividly in Gwen Stacy’s storyline.

When you’re able to be seen and connect with others, well, anything’s possible.

That’s a sentiment Gwen Stacy clings to in the cliffhanger ending of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. In this conclusion, Stacy and her father reconcile (he quits his police captain job to protect his daughter) and she makes a promise to the parents of Miles Morales that she’ll find their son. As she leaves for this rescue mission, Stacy tells Rio and Jefferson Morales that Miles taught her something important: “anything is possible.” With Across the Spider-Verse cutting to black on a shot of Stacy charging into battle alongside other Spider-heroes, we don’t know where she’ll go next…but she’s confronting the future with hope and other people. The Gwen we saw at the start of the story, all bottled up and alone, is not the one that closes out Across the Spider-Verse.

I never thought I’d be able to go to a club. I never thought I’d wear pink dresses in public. Gwen Stacy never thought she’d be able to “come out” to her father. She also never thought she’d be able to break the rules Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 established for her. But she can.

As pointed out by Willow Catelyn Maclay in her own excellent essay on Gwen Stacy as a trans allegory, there haven’t been a lot of mainstream escapist movies like Across the Spider-Verse that have featured characters who seem so relevant to trans experiences. The scarcity of similar big-budget features (exempting ones directed by the Wachowski Sisters, of course) with such representation is one key reason why Gwen Stacy’s resonated so much with trans folks. But this ending makes me think the biggest factor of all that makes Gwen Stacy so relevant to trans viewers is that she epitomizes the phrase “anything is possible.” There’s hope there for connection, for autonomy, for visibility. So many trans people are deprived of those things through a variety of factors, like larger systemic forces or the living circumstances they were born into.

Through Gwen Stacy in Across the Spider-Verse, though, trans viewers can witness a character who experiences turmoil relevant to our lives but also demonstrates a form of hopefulness we can strive for. An early scene of Stacy and Morales reuniting for the first time in months and just swinging through the streets of New York City is filled with all the exhilaration of finding like-minded souls to be comfortable around. I could see on the screen the kind of joy that filled my veins on my New York City trip years ago or motivated my feet to keep dancing in that club on that fateful June night. That upbeat atmosphere tied into trans experiences is no anomaly in the runtime of Across the Spider-Verse.

By the end of this movie, Stacy is staking out a new existence far removed from the traditional lives of Gwen Stacy’s of other universes. “Anything is possible” for this character just like “anything is possible” within the trans community in terms of the activism we can accomplish, the ways we express our genders, the joys we can experience, and so much more. I am always so astonished by the resilience, perseverance, and glorious compassion expressed by members of a community I’m proud to belong to. These qualities of a fictional character like Gwen Stacy don’t make the systemically ingrained challenges facing trans folks immaterial. However, they do remind trans moviegoers that we’re not alone. That’s a powerful sentiment, as seen by that fateful final line from Into the Spider-Verse:

“And when I feel alone, like no one understands what I'm going through, I remember my friends who get it.”

There are countless joys to be uncovered in the cinematic gift that is Across the Spider-Verse. Given the queer allegories of its predecessor, it’s no surprise that one of its many virtues is also resonating as an LGBTQIA+-relevant text. However, nothing could prepare me for how profoundly this movie’s handling of Gwen Stacy would resonate with me. It’s always a transcendent experience to see a movie that captures parts of your reality that you previously never even realized you wanted to see in a movie. That’s an artistic feat worthy of all the synonyms (Spectacular, Amazing, Superior, etc.) that Spider-Man has taken on in the titles of his comics. Come to think of it, those same words would be apt to describe the glories of the trans communities and all the wonders that unfold when day-to-day lives in this population are reflected in art.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Elemental has one of Pixar's best scores...and one of the studios worst scripts

In the book The Art of Up, one of the artists involved in that 2009 Pixar movie revealed that the design aesthetic of the entire movie was built on a classic quote from Walt Disney that basically emphasized the importance of getting people emotionally invested in your stylized characters right from the get-go. With that investment, your story can go anywhere and your visuals can look like anything. Classic titles from the various directors at Pixar Animation Studios have often done a great job of following this advice. Just look at Finding Nemo, which opens with a depiction of parental trauma that immediately gets you engrossed in the plight of a clownfish. Ditto the earliest scenes of WALL-E, which emphasize the everyday routine and quiet loneliness of that film's titular robot. Even as late as last year's Turning Red, one can see the clever ways (like depicting childhood memories through faded Polaroid photographs) this studio's works immediately get audiences to see animated figures as real people worth watching for two hours.

Unfortunately, Elemental fails to live up to this element and other notable aspects of earlier Pixar motion pictures. Even worse, the flaws of Elemental aren't around solely when one compares it to Coco or Ratatouille. If there were no other Pixar features in existence, Elemental would still resonate as a strangely unimaginative and clumsily-written exercise. 

In the fictional world of Element City, where Elemental takes place, personifications of elements like air, Earth, water, and fire all live out their days. In this domain, fire appears to be the most marginalized of the city's communities, which explains why individuals in this population mostly reside in Fire Town. Among those fire souls just trying to exist is Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis), who runs a shop in Fire Town with her immigrant parents Bernie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi). Ember is preparing to take over the shop from her father, though her extreme temper is making the prospect of her inheriting this location a daunting one. 

Further problems emerge when water being Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) enters her life. A sensitive guy prone to crying, Wade, whose a city inspector conscious of structural flaws in Bernie's store, initially seems like just another obstacle in Ember's life. However, sparks begin to fly between these two mismatched elements, which is bound to create further issues for the film's fiery protagonist. 

Elemental has many grand ambitions. Chiefly, it wants to be a romantic comedy that would make Nora Ephron proud. It also wants to function as an exploration of the experiences of being the child of first-generation immigrants. Other parts of the movie evoke everything from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? to classic disaster films. There's totally a way to make all those disparate creative influences work in harmony together. However, director Peter Sohn and screenwriters John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh never thread these wildly varying aspirations into a cohesive whole. The problem here is less that Elemental's script comes off as tonally erratic and more that its various pieces feel strangely half-hearted. Too much of the movie goes through the motions, content to settle for obvious puns and dialogue in lieu of using familiar cinema as a springboard to something new.

For instance, it's never a good thing when your movie's clever "element" puns (i.e. "get off your ash") evoke similarly unfunny gags from the Cars movies. That's not the kind of comedic legacy you want to remind viewers of. Meanwhile, the big romantic sequences rarely show much ingenuity or sweetness that doesn't feel cribbed from other features. There are some cute idiosyncratic flourishes in these lovey-dovey stretches, like Ember joyfully changing colors as she jumps on various crystals, but mostly, the banter and evolving relationship between our two leads isn't very unique. Elemental rarely offends in the material it offers up, but it's shocking how a movie that wants to be so many different things typically settles for rote narrative choices.

The lack of imagination is especially apparent in the most egregious flaw of Elemental: its animation. Too often, Sohn and company seem too self-conscious to embrace the possibilities of animation as a visual medium. The big scenes involving Ember traveling outside of Fire Town concern a sport that functions as a cloud equivalent to basketball and Wade taking her to a bureaucrat's office. These are scenes that could've been filmed in live-action with human performers quite easily! They don't gain much from being either animated or involving living embodiments of elements. Elemental clearly wants to be taken "seriously", to be seen as something with weighty ideas on its mind. However, its buttoned-up nature leads to an uninspired visual palette. Just as you've seen its story beats before, so too have audiences seen Elemental's juxtaposition of realistic backgrounds with cartoony characters in tons of other Pixar titles. 

Even with these shortcomings, though, Elemental is far from a waste of a movie. If there's any major saving grace to the proceedings, it's Thomas Newman's score. While so many gags and plot elements in Elemental feel dreadfully familiar, Newman's compositions come off as totally unique in the world of Western animated cinema scores. An early largely dialogue-free chase scene involving Ember and Wade that leans heavily on Newman's propulsive score is a standout sequence here simply because it allows you to appreciate all the finer musical intricacies this musician is delivering. Even with three other Pixar scores under his belt, Newman's Elemental works stand totally on their own as something impressive.

Certain voice actors also fare decently at giving lively performances, with Pixar veteran Ronnie del Carmen (previously a co-director on Inside Out) providing especially notable work in imbuing Bernie's line deliveries with a complicated live-in aura. Unfortunately, many of the voice actors would be better served by a much livelier screenplay. Mamoudou Athie's work as Wade is especially undercut by the writing, with this talented actor never getting much to do beyond sobbing loudly and doing a Jack McBrayer impression in his vocals. Wade, like so much of the world of Elemental, just never fully comes alive. It's a pity, because the best Pixar movies, including ones that Sohn worked on, lived up to that quote from The Art of Up that stressed the importance of making ludicrous characters seem real. Unfortunately, Elemental is too subdued and generic to bring palpable life to its sizzling and moist creations.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is, like its predecessor, a dazzling triumph

They pulled it off. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a worthy sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an incredible feat that sounds like it would be impossible to pull off. Instead, Across the Spider-Verse makes such artistic accomplishments seem effortless. The only fatal drawback to all the artistry filling up each frame is how it now makes going back to the default norms of Western computer animation such a frustrating prospect. Pixar's penchant for stylized characters interacting with ultra-realistic backdrops or the unimaginative animal designs in your average Illumination feature seems criminally lazy after seeing what Across the Spider-Verse delivers. Animation can do anything. It's a medium with limitless potential. It's a miracle to get movies like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse that spend 144 glorious moments reminding viewers of that fact.

As this sequel begins, Brooklyn native Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has spent 14 months being the one and only Spider-Man in his dimension. He's having trouble juggling his secret identity with family and school responsibilities, but more urgently, Morales is also feeling lonely as a super-powered being. He misses other crime fighters like Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) who understood his internal struggles. He gets his chance for a reunion with Stacy, but this, unfortunately, leads to Morales encountering new problems. A goofball baddie from his dimension, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), is causing chaos across the multiverse. To help save existence as we know it, our hero will now have to travel to other universes (each with their own distinctive visual aesthetic) and encounter countless other versions of Spider-Man, one of which is the extremely stern Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac).

Plenty of Easter Eggs, in-jokes referencing various forms of Spider-Man media, and fast-paced action sequences ensue in this expansive adventure. Amazingly, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse lives up to previous scripts penned by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (David Callaham is also credited as a writer here) by never letting good characters and strong storytelling sensibilities get lost in the middle of all the hyperactive mayhem. This is always the story of Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy, their emotionally tangible experiences are at the constant forefront of the proceedings. That's what makes all the stylized imagery so transfixing, each frame is populated by human beings we can relate to.

In fact, something that stuck out to me about Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was its willingness to pause the plot for intimate dialogue exchanges between its characters. In Western animated cinema aimed at family audiences, such moments are often brushed aside or punctuated with endless extraneous jokes, all in an effort to make sure things never get "boring." In the process, the dramatic heft of these yarns never reaches their full potential. Here, though, the writing lets things like the complicated exchanges between Morales and his parents breathe. Emotionally fractured conversations between Stacy and her father George Stacy (Shea Whigham) are especially well-realized in this regard. Their interactions just ooze with so many emotional intricacies while the animators do incredible work incorporating the tiniest pieces of body language that make both father and daughter seem like real people.

Attention to detail in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse isn't just reserved for throwing every version of Spider-Man into the background you can think of. That quality is also apparent in the intimate, pathos-driven sequences that offer plenty of reasons for one to get dramatically invested in this movie. Of course, even with so many great character beats and poignant moments throughout the script, the real star of Across the Spider-Verse is its animation. A prologue centering on Gwen duking it out with a Renaissance-era version of The Vulture establishes incredibly audacious visual tendencies that never lets up. There's always a wonderful new surprise lurking around the corner in terms of how characters or individual worlds can be rendered on-screen. 

New character Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), realized as though he's made up of jaggedly assembled scraps from cut-up magazines and newspapers, is an especially astonishing creation unlike any other figure I've seen in a movie before. Meanwhile, the watercolor backdrops of Gwen's home world are also an incredible sight that had me wondering how on Earth they were realized in the confines of computer animation. Crisp camerawork and editing make sure the groundbreaking feats of the animation team are always perfectly visible on-screen. There's no shaky cam here to undercut the beautiful sights of Across the Spider-Verse. It's just one of the many traits here encapsulating how directors Justin K. Thompson, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Kemp Powers deftly juggle so many bold visual concepts without having the entire movie descend into chaos.

Even the celebrity voice-overs are much better than what you hear in your average American animated movie, though it helps that Across the Spider-Verse has opted for a truly eclectic bunch of dramatic performers and character actors for these roles. The cast, in other words, is not just a bunch of random A-list celebrities tossed together into a 2023 equivalent of Shark Tale. Returning leads Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld work wonders with the extra emotional depths they're asked to plunge into, with Steinfeld especially excelling with the scenes portraying Stacy's tormented dynamic with her father. As for newcomers to the cast, Jason Schwartzman's enjoyably breezy yet quietly intimidating Spot is a delight while Daniel Kaluuya adds another unforgettable turn to his stacked filmography with his lively Spider-Punk performance. There's nothing Kaluuya can't do, apparently. 

It's a good thing Kaluuya ended up in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which is also incredibly versatile artistically. One could endlessly compliment any department or specific performance in Across the Spider-Verse, but the whole feature is a miracle, there's no other word for it. How else to describe something that moves so quickly yet so innately understands the necessity of small dialogue exchanges? Or all the visual marvels (no pun intended) that its various action set pieces provide? Or the fact that composer Daniel Pemberton, whose other movie scores are often so forgettable, once again (after scoring the first film) delivers a barrage of unforgettable orchestral compositions as vividly imaginative as the animation? Every time I left a screening of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I felt like I was on cloud nine. My soul had been rejuvenated by being reminded of all the limitless possibilities of film as a medium of storytelling. I'm happy to report that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse left me with the exact same wondrous emotions and plenty of brand-new sensations. It's a cavalcade of stunning sights, sounds, and pathos that functions as an organic extension of its predecessor rather than just a hollow rehash of that 2018 masterpiece. The creativity on display here is what more sequels, superhero films, and American animated features should strive for.

They pulled it off. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is another dazzling cinematic accomplishment. Bring on that second part that this film's cliffhanger ending teases oh so nicely...