The passive impersonality of modern animation tends to be overlooked. Contemporary animated films are smooth and lifeless, looking good in the same fashion as Apple accessories. The hyper-clarity of “Toy Story” was a marvel in 1995. Now, nearly 30 years on, I’d kill for visible smudges in the frame of an animated cell; the thumbprints evident on the dolls in Wes Anderson’s defiantly analogue stop-motion production “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was something like nirvana for these eyes tired of bright, unmysterious soullessness sold as perfection.
Watch the Walt Disney movies from the 1930s and ‘40s—even the bad ones have a hypnotic power. Beyond the ripe, feverish Technicolor, there’s the subliminal knowledge that artists pored over these mythologies with their hands, and with pencils and paintbrushes and other utensils that, next to a computer, suggest primeval instruments. Why do we so badly yearn to lose our humanity?
Though they are presumably created entirely by computers, the Sony “Spider-Man” films, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and now “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” tap into something weird and personal about vintage comic books, children’s films, fairy tales, and the legendary pop films from the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s that now serve as the manna for a desperate corporate nostalgia machine. The images in these films are gorgeous and unpredictable, shifting to reflect emotions that the filmmakers take with a degree of seriousness that’s mostly verboten in the modern pop movie.
When characters are seen against light impressionist pastels, it isn’t just a cool effect; we’re allowed to understand that we’re seeing them in vulnerable states, such as when a boy breaks his father’s heart or moons over the girl of his dreams. The dimension-hopping of the villain, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), is more than just pyrotechnical frittering around, as he is trying to fill a hole in his soul with power. A Rorschach figure constantly tripping into his “spots,” which are portals to other realms, The Spot has an ability and a dilemma that neatly parallels the efforts of Spider-Man to master his own powers and responsibilities, merging his personal and professional realms. The elegant metaphors in these films seem to arise naturally from their adventurous aesthetic.
These “Spider-Verse” films are quick and extravagantly soulful, with a biting wit that talks straight to children rather than down to them. They are also the only current films dealing with “multiverses” that are watchable let alone great, and I’m including the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” in that assertion. Marvel proper, as in the series of Disney-owned canon movies that have glutted theaters for the last 15 years (has it only been that long?) now use the multiverse concept to ensure that stakes for their stories remain even lower than previously thought to be conceivable. Endless possibilities for this company mean endless vertical and horizontal integration, endless callbacks to other shows and movies, and now no one can die because who knows which characters might retrospectively be revealed to be a fan favorite. The studio saw “Into the Spider-Verse” in 2018, a movie that should’ve shamed its own output, and took from it just another way to supersize business.
The concept of the “Spider-Verse” films is that there are many Spider-people across countless planes of existence. Peter Parker is among them, but there are also Spider-people who resemble Blaxploitation heroes, Bollywood stars, and British punk rockers. They are spider Porky Pigs and spider T-Rexes and spider Lego people and Spider cowboys, and, quite memorably in “Across the Spider-Verse,” spider vampires. This concept suggests the invention of children mixing multiple kinds of toys together on their bedroom floors, improvising stories, as well as the multiple selves we each juggle in our own lives. Sometimes we’re empathetic, sometimes we’re assholes; sometimes we’re adventurous, sometimes we’re schnooks.
This wild kind of democratic conception also frees these films from the modern cut-and-paste notion of the comic book movie in several ways: Namely, it refutes the boring fascistic fantasy of “the one” who must master his powers so as to bring peace. It also offers an excuse for the animators to spin a collision of visual styles, allowing, say, a flip-book 1950s’ era-like sketch to do battle with a contemporary Sony computer graphic.
In “Across the Spider-Verse,” characters can hop dimensions as one might skip over a puddle on the street, zipping in and out of different comic book aesthetics with a subliminal ease that’s mind-bending. These movies communicate the simultaneousness of multiple dimensions in a fashion that live-action movies simply cannot or will not commit to. Watching “Across the Spider-verse,” I actually thought of the trippy, multi-stock, head-movie style that Oliver Stone adopted in his work for a spell, from “JFK” through “U-Turn” or so, as well as a museum set piece from Joe Dante’s underrated “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” You never know what you’re going to see or hear in these films—one scene might resemble an expressionist painting or the cover of an acid rock album, the next might be in live action or stop motion—and this unpredictability mirrors, among of other things, the chaos of teenage life on the brink of adulthood.
With this style, style for its own sake would be enough, but the richness of these films’ aural-visual textures serves an implicit moral purpose. These films don’t have to preach about diversity—they are diverse, and they do not expect a Nobel Prize in return for this achievement. Here, an archenemy animated in the style of Da Vinci’s sketches exists side by side with a heroine of color who’s animated in CGI to suggest Foxy Brown on a flying motorcycle. Our central Spider-Man, a teenage boy named Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is Black, and his coming of age as a superhero is utilized as a double metaphor for his puberty and dawning awareness of the political facts of life.
Comic books abound in such metaphors, though the movies have become white bread celebrations of corporate power that expect a cookie for indulging superficial diversity optics. In “Across the Spider-Verse,” diversity optics are parodied, especially when Miles is advised to workshop his story for college admissions. The heart of these films, though, resides in how well-written and acted Miles’ parents are: Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Valez) are palpably human, struggling to understand their gifted son who is clearly straying out on his own, while they try to keep the bills paid and the home tidy. Rio’s urging of Miles not to “lose himself” here is heartbreaking, reflective of the terror parents feel as their hold of their children eases, and it sets up the film’s surprisingly nasty cliffhanger, which suggests of all things the existential erasure in the finale of “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
The stop-and-start rhythms of most summer blockbusters, a mixture of pointless action scenes and TV-style banter, don’t exist in the “Spider-Verse” films. Movement here is character development, as well as opportunity for breakneck set pieces and emotional poetry. The directors here, Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson, and the screenwriters, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and David Callaham, have learned the right lessons from Sam Raimi’s heartfelt but awkward “Spider-Man” movies and improved on them. Miles and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who is a Spider-person herself in a particular timeline, swing through NYC bonding, drunk on their chemistry and on being young and on the freedom of being these beings who can soar through the air with effortless guile. The scene is poignant, pays homage to the “can you read my mind” scene from Richard Donner’s “Superman,” and serves as a kicking action stanza.
Before these movies, when’s the last time an adventure film communicated awe? I have no idea how these movies exist in this era. I want to give the damn things a hug.
Is the erotic thriller going to return to style? There are, forgive me, stirrings. Last year, people wanted so badly for Adrian Lyne’s comeback film “Deep Water” to be good; after a promising start, it wasn’t, and we moved on. Sam Levinson is trying to bring sleazy sex back into the mainstream with his shows “Euphoria” and “The Idol,” the latter of which tips its cap explicitly to the king of all erotic thrillers, “Basic Instinct.” Later this year, a sharp corporate thriller called “Fair Play” will be dropping on Netflix, which tries to imagine what an erotic thriller looks like after MeToo. Earlier this year, there was an openly nostalgic yet cautious erotic thriller program on the Criterion Channel as well.
The genre is politically incorrect, hinging on sex fantasies that we’re not allowed to admit still turn us on. Fantasies of power between the genders wielded without mercy, fantasies of domination and subjugation. Often, it’s the men being subjugated in these films, and every fella I know loves it. Who walks away from “Body Heat” or “Basic Instinct” talking about William Hurt or Michael Douglas? Gimme a break. The women have all the power in these films, but it’s a power given to them by predominantly male filmmakers that’s psychologically reductive, painting them as hot, calculating black widows. It’s a power women might not want, or feel they can admit they want. Just as men, pressured to be macho, might not be able to admit that submission is really hot.
These are but a few of the risks of mounting an erotic thriller in ultra self-conscious 2023, though here’s another sign of life: Zachary Wigon’s “Sanctuary,” which explicitly concerns the power dynamics I’ve just described. Hal (Christopher Abbott) is a trust fund something-or-other who stands to inherit a big corporation, and Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) is interviewing him about his fitness for the throne. Her questions grow increasingly strange until it’s revealed that she’s a dominatrix who’s been in Hal’s employ for some time. Playing out in something like real time in Hal’s lux penthouse, a game continually mutates, blurring the lines of reality.
Rebecca has all the power by Hal’s design — an irony of which Wigon and screenwriter Micah Bloomberg are almost too aware. You know this film is on the right side of gender awareness and equality, which takes some of the fun out of it. Like the douche of the upcoming “Fair Play,” all the points here are scored on Hal. Rebecca can’t be evil in a modern movie, she’s just misunderstood, and empathy is becoming, for the woman in the modern movie, the new form of condescension to replace sexualization. Regardless, Qualley is ferocious in this role, as she was in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Her timing is astonishingly unpredictable, refuting some of the pat characterizations that her guilty male filmmakers try to box her into. Abbott is just as vivid, though “Sanctuary” is a pedestal erected for Qualley, who would already be a huge star if Hollywood was still interested in stars.
Where does “Sanctuary” leave us with the ascendancy of the erotic thriller? This isn’t the wild game-changer the genre needs to swing back into fashion. What we have here is more of an early David Mamet chamber piece, with the warts removed. It’s watchable and made with a high degree of skill. This is among the more fluid one location-movies that I’ve seen in some time, but it doesn’t quite sting you. It isn’t scandalous, though it’s fun to pretend that “Sanctuary” is about how Roman, the sexually neurotic daddy’s boy of HBO’s “Succession,” spends his weekends.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is playing in theaters everywhere, while “Sanctuary” is playing at Movieland at Boulevard Square.