, by Ramin Zahed. New York: Abrams, 2023. 224 pp. ISBN: 9781419763991. U.S. $40. https://www.abramsbooks.com/product/spider-man-across-the-spider-verse-the-art-of-the-movie_9781419763991/
Reviewed by Michael Kobre
At a moment when the cultural and box office behemoth that is the superhero movie seems, at last, to be faltering (as evidenced, for example, by the disappointing returns for Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania and the historic box office failure of The Flash); when even the director of the upcoming 33rd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Marvels, concedes that “superhero fatigue is absolutely real” (qtd. in Sharf), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a notable exception. With rapturous reviews, as good or better than those for its 2018 Academy-Award-winning predecessor Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which Zahed also did a book for), Across the Spider-Verse was a critical success that was almost universally acclaimed. Even the august New Yorker devoted not one, but two articles to comment on Across the Spider-Verse’s “comic book aesthetic” and “post-racial vision.” At the box office, Across the Spider-Verse overtook the first film’s total returns in two weeks and went on to earn over $600 million in ticket sales around the world in a single month. Moreover, the film, even more so than its predecessor, was seen as triumph of representation. NPR reported that “In North America, exit tracking found that the audience was about one-third Latino another third Black and Asian, diversity percentages far higher than for most superhero films” (Restrepo). As Jay Caspian Kang wrote in The New Yorker, “If there were an award for ‘the most universally enjoyable and palatable vision of race in a blockbuster film,’ ‘Across the Spider-Verse’ would win going away.”
So the book Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie offers fans of the movie—and, to be honest, count me as one too—an opportunity to immerse themselves in the film’s lavish, comics-inflected aesthetic and its many densely imagined worlds. Like the film, the book is a visual feast, filled with character and set designs and other production art. Details we glimpse in passing on the screen as the plot and action hurtle forward are displayed here on page after page, giving the film’s multiple worlds and legion of Spider-Men and Women even more texture and variety. A two-page image by Jesus Alonso Iglesias, for instance, features designs of ordinary bystanders in crowd scenes (at least that’s what I think we’re looking at), who are each beautifully differentiated and diverse, with clothes, body types, postures, and expressions that suggest distinct lives and personalities. A section on Pravitr Prabhakar’s Mumbattan on Earth 50101 opens with a double-page image by Felicia Chen of a densely cramped cityscape of skyscrapers decorated with stone carvings of Indian temples, towering over layer upon layer of roads that crisscross between them in a crazy mosaic of underpasses and overpasses. Turn the page too and we see image after image of the taxis, trams, maps, and signs that fill this city. Indeed, throughout the book, as we wander through all its worlds, we see detailed images of stores, bedrooms, offices, even stairwells, filled with props and objects that evoke depth and character.
And, of course, we also see lots and lots of Spider-Men and Women. A section on “Other Spider Characters” features four pages of artist Kris Anka’s designs for some of the other Spider-beings moving through the background in the Spider Society’s headquarters in the film’s third act, including a robot, a zombie, the Spider-analyst we see briefly onscreen before the film’s main characters crash through the wall of his office, and various other men and women in multi-colored costumes with radically different body types, including the kind of ordinary body types we see everyday in our world too. As Anka explains in the book’s text, “While I was able to add forty-plus pre-existing characters into the movie, there’s always a need for more, so I ended up creating almost an additional one hundred completely original Spiders. These are supposed to be Spiders from all over the multiverse, which allowed me to experiment wildly with both the costume designs and the render style” (120).
But the book not only details the people, places, and things that fill the film’s many worlds; it also illuminates the different visual choices and techniques used to depict these worlds—choices which ground the film’s comic book aesthetic. “We were inspired by the look of those early comics which were made with the more limited printing processes of their times,” art director Dean Gordon says in describing the visual style of Miles Morales’ world, Earth 1610. “They used two or three colors, and frequently misregistered color, floating inside and outside the lines that define figures and environments” (138). Miles’ world, like much of the rest of the film, also feels like a comic book in its use of half-tones and Ben-Day dots, a signature of color printing in old comics, to create texture, along with what look like hand-drawn lines over the tops of CG figures. Other visual influences that the book details include 1970s Indian Indrajal Comics on Earth 50101’s Mumbattan and the work of futurist Syd Mead, whose film designs include the Dystopian cityscapes of Blade Runner, on the look of Nueva York on Earth-928 where Miguel O’Hara, Spider-Man 2099, has built the headquarters of the Spider Society. Among the most interesting choices for me was the influence of comics artist Robbi Rodriguez’s covers for a 2015 Spider-Gwen series on Gwen Stacy’s world, Earth-65. Rodriguez’s silhouetted figures are combined in the film with abstracted backgrounds that are rendered in a way that looks like watercolor to evoke Spider-Gwen’s state of mind. “The look of Gwen’s world combines the graphic styling of her comics with watercolor,” visual effects supervisor Mike Lasker explains, “and the relationship between the two is driven by Gwen’s emotions and focus. Far distances are painted with washy brushes to push back and simplify detail. Inversely, the foreground uses linework and sharper brushes to bring the details forward” (132).
The text of the book is written by Ramin Zahed, but its cover only features the corporate logos of Marvel and Sony Pictures Animation below the book’s title, which is fitting for a book that feels more like a corporate product—one of many that will be rolled out to accompany a successful franchise, of course—than the product of an individual author’s vision. Consequently, for all of the valuable information that the book offers, the prose itself is bland and serviceable and given to self-congratulatory paeans to the filmmakers’ and the studio’s vision. We’re told many times in the opening pages, for instance, about how much bigger and more ambitious the new film must be. The filmmakers’ “common goal,” Zahed writes, “was to make Miles Morales’s second cinematic adventure even more mind-blowingly cool and engrossing than the original” (8). And there are many attestations, in particular, to the genius and leadership of writer-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. In the words of Joaquim Dos Santos, one of the film’s three directors (along with Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers), “One of the greatest assets of being in a Lord and Miller production is that everybody has a voice in the room. If an idea is working or playing, it doesn’t matter where it comes from” (18). But this self-congratulatory tone also glosses over a more complicated reality of the movie’s production that was revealed in multiple news stories after the film’s release, about the crushing work conditions for the movie’s animators, which caused more than 100 of them to quit the film during production. In contrast to the book’s description of Lord and Miller’s collaborative spirit, many of these animators complained that they were “forced to constantly revise their work due to Lord's nonstop tinkering. Insiders said Lord wanted final approval on every shot in the film, overshadowing the project's directors” (Price). In the book though, whatever difficulties the animators faced are simply waved away. As art director Dean Gordon says, “Our mission is to create the art and then hand it over to the technical departments” (27).
There are a few frustrating omissions in the book’s text too. While the artists for every image are carefully identified, we’re never given any sustained discussion of how the art department was organized and functioned. How were the characters and worlds parceled out among the different artists? The images in the book suggest answers to some of these questions—as, for example, when we see the work of Ami Thompson, which consistently focuses on facial expressions and body language in sequences of small close-up drawings for many of the major characters—but the breakdown of responsibilities among all the artists is never clearly explained. It would help too if the book included at least some captions to accompany the images and comment on what we’re seeing. What, for instance, was the purpose of that two-page image by Iglesias of ordinary people that I mentioned earlier? Where they, in fact, designed to be bystanders in crowd scenes? When did they appear in the film, or was this just preparatory work in the early stages of imagining the film’s worlds? Other pages show what look like painted storyboards of key scenes, such as the confrontation between Gwen and her father early in the film. But how exactly were these images used? When were they created in the production sequence? Some discussion of what we’re seeing would make the book even more informative.
Because, at bottom, the book does offer a deeper look at what seems now like a classic of animation and a late masterpiece in the overwrought genre of superhero movies. Yes, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie, with its clunky but functional title, is a corporate product created as part of an entertainment franchise, but it’s an informative book (though not as much as it could be) and, best of all, it’s beautiful to look at. The work of these artists across these pages is consistently vibrant and kinetic, colorful and expressive, and vividly detailed and imagined. However difficult the movie’s production may have been, Across the Spider-Verse is the best realization so far of that comic book aesthetic on the screen. This book helps us understand why.
Burt, Stephanie. “The Comic-Book Aesthetic Comes of Age in “Across the Spider-Verse”” The New Yorker, June 14, 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-comic-book-aesthetic-comes-of-age-in-across-the-spider-verse
Kang, Jay Caspian. “The Post-Racial Vision of ‘Across the Spider-Verse.’” The New Yorker, June 16, 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-post-racial-vision-of-across-the-spider-verse.
Price, Joe. “Over 100 Artists Quit ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Due to Working Conditions: ‘They Couldn’t Take It Anymore.’” Complex, June 26, 2023, https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/a/backwoodsaltar/artists-quit-spider-verse-working-conditions
Restrepo, Manuela Lopez. “The new Spider-Man film shows that Representation is a winning strategy.” NPR, June 6, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/06/06/1180502629/spider-man-spider-verse-miles-morales-reviews-box-office-representation.
Sharf, Zack. “’The Marvels’ Director Says Superhero Fatigue ‘Absolutely Exists,’ New MCU Film is “Really Whacky and Silly’ Compared to Others.” Variety, August 11, 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/news/the-marvels-director-superhero-fatigue-exists-wacky-silly-1235694441/
Zahed, Ramin. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -The Art of the Movie. Titan Books, 2018