It used to be hard being a comic-book nerd. Anyone under the age of about 20 may struggle to believe it but, for a long time, superhero enthusiasts were poorly serviced by Hollywood. Characters would have their idiosyncrasies sanded down for a “mainstream” market; most superhero films could charitably be described as camp schlock. The genre started to open up with the success of Sam Raimi’s dynamic Spider-Man trilogy (particularly the first two entries, in 2002 and 2004) and Christopher Nolan’s gritty, Oscar-winning Batman sequel The Dark Knight, in 2008. Now, we live in a world where comic-book nerds often seem like the only market Hollywood is interested in courting. And everyone ends up poorer for it.
This week, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was released in cinemas. It is a sequel to the acclaimed 2018 animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and follows arachnidian teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) as he meets a panoply of alternative Spider-people from different dimensions. It is the fourth major superhero movie of the year so far (after Ant-man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) and the ninth Spider-Man film since Raimi’s 2002 hit, not counting the several other Marvel films in which the character appears. By any reasonable metric, this is surely excessive.
Call it what you will – the phrase “superhero fatigue” is slung around a lot – but those of us who are not invested full bore in the convolutions of Marvel Comics may find ourselves wanting to sit this one out, despite a swathe of glowing reviews. (The Independent’s critic gave Across the Spider-Verse four stars, describing it as “a lesson taught by the coolest teacher you’ve ever met”.) It’s a bit like the old sitcom trope of a child who has been caught smoking a cigarette being forced by their parent to queasily chain through an entire pack. When it comes to superhero films, we are all now several packs deep into a tar-caked cigarette frenzy; the prospect of going to see Across the Spider-Verse is like someone waving a fine Macanudo cigar in your face. Not now, please God.
Of course, finding a solution for cinema’s superhero gluttony isn’t necessarily so easy. It’s all well and good to look at Spider-Verse and say “That’s a keeper” while glancing at something like Shazam 2 and going: “Nah.” But cinema is an artform; it is mercurial and fallible. Studios never – or seldom, at least – set out to purposefully make a bad film; hits and stinkers look very much the same until it’s all up on the screen. This is especially true of superhero films, which are all typically similar in premise and theme. The vast quality chasm between, say, Suicide Squad (2016) and The Suicide Squad (2021) is hard to explain on paper but, for anyone who’s seen both, it’s impossible to miss.
The hit rate of great superhero films to average-or-worse ones is damning: for every worthwhile effort (last year, The Batman springs to mind), there are 10 throwaway ones. And the ratio is only getting worse. Many fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), cinema’s most lucrative comic-book franchise, regard the previous decade as a bygone golden era, with films like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Black Panther (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) being hailed as some of Marvel’s best. Recent MCU releases, meanwhile, have been met with a slew of negative reviews, from Black Widow to Eternals to the execrable Thor: Love and Thunder. Cutting back the overall number of comic-book adaptations would most likely lead to fewer triumphs like Across the Spider-Verse. But then again, maybe that’s an acceptable price to pay to plug the onslaught of Marvel mediocrity. As is, the high points of the superhero genre are at risk of getting poisoned by association with the rest of it.
Across the Spider-Verse at least has the benefit of being an animation – a crucial formal distinction that sets it apart from the vast majority of its competitors. (The truth is, most superhero films would be better off as animations anyway: usually, any live-action components are swaddled in garish CGI.) The film’s core audience extends beyond the usual comic-book diehards, and into a separate sphere of animation enthusiasts. But for most casual moviegoers, it’s simply yet another Spider-Man film. Our cultural Spidey saturation isn’t limited to the realm of cinema, either: this year will see the release of a high-budget Spider-Man video game on the PS5 – the third such game in five years.
Cinema is a world of trends and vogues; sooner or later, superhero films will become less marketable. As time passes, the worlds of Marvel and DC will increasingly be associated with the fusty proclivities of the middle-aged; teenagers will grow up thinking of Spider-Man as something their dad likes, rather than something that is youthful and new. Older viewers, meanwhile, may start to hunger for something more substantial, more conventionally adult. Maybe that time is already upon us. Across the Spider-Verse will be an interesting barometer, to see just how many people will still get caught in Marvel’s web. Eventually, it’ll just be flies.
‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ is in cinemas
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