June 21, 2023

On Spiderverses and Neoliberal Folly

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It’s pretty difficult for a film to live up to the reputation of being the number one rated film ever on Letterboxd, a title which, however fleeting and however idiotic, indicates at least some profound level of widespread resonance. It happened last year to eventual best picture winner Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, a pretty good film that probably didn’t deserve either its instant canonization or its inevitable toxic backlash. Now it has happened to Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse, the sequel to 2018’s Into the Spiderverse and (importantly) prequel to the impending Beyond the Spiderverse due next year. The already slightly tired avenue of multiverse storytelling seems a key way to inspire extreme reactions, allowing for “justified” maximalism while simultaneously awakening that same pseudoscientific fervor that tends to unite brands of filmbro as disparate as Rick and Morty stan and Christopher Nolanite. Being a multiverse skeptic myself, Across the Spiderverse appeared primed to ignite at least one man’s backlash: my own. So, despite an affection for the original Spiderverse film, I entered my screening with the warring inflated and tempered expectations that can only come with a film that feels too beloved (or perhaps beloved by people who I don’t tend to agree with). 

Across the Spiderverse is quite good, if not the savior of cinema, five-star, Sight and Sound making classic that some have made it out to be. The first 15 or so minutes are jaw dropping: the most audacious visual storytelling in a Hollywood blockbuster this side of Speed Racer. The emotional beats are effective, if a bit trite, and the storytelling is surprisingly intact for a film that not only constantly expands over itself, but also must juggle multiple main characters. The climax significantly underwhelms, with the film operating as a setup to its sequel in frustrating fashion (it can hardly be said to operate independent from the as of yet unseen Beyond), but even that is a forgivable sin when we put it in conversation with other iconic tentpole trilogies of the last fifty years. For what it is: A cliffhanger ending, nearly detrimentally ambitious, blink and you’ll miss it superhero teamup adventure, Across the Spiderverse does about as well as you can ask. 

[Spoilers beyond this point]

Ultimately, the commentary of the film feels narrowly focused on the Spider Man mythos, and examines the perpetual repetition of so-called canon events (the spider bite, the death of Uncle Ben, etc.). Yet, at the same time, as it rejects the narrowness of possibilities for Spider Man, as though there’s some acceptable range of discourse available for comic book and film writers, its scope ultimately broadens to the question of Overton Window creation more generally. The multiverse film, like the time traveling film, inevitably trafficks in a familiar battle between idealism and pragmatism, or some variation thereof. Faced with a plot device that offers seemingly endless possibilities, authors force themselves to limit the options by fear mongering the ideal outcome under threat of universal collapse, impossibility, or some other trope that removes the option of using dimensional travel to fix all problems. The first Spiderverse film did this exactly, using the villain Kingpin to illustrate the folly of trying to bring back a dead family despite the technical possibility of the feat. 

Refreshingly, Across the Spiderverse, reverses the dilemma, putting Miles Morales in the shoes of an idealist against a bureaucratic establishment of Spidermen insistent on policing the canon. After saving an alternate Spiderman’s stock authority figure, Miles is brought before Spider Man 2099 (founder and leader of the Spiderverse association) and told that his good intentions had jeopardized the canon; to be a Spider-Man, one has to lose an authority figure. Miles rejects this, not just for the man he saved, but also for his own father, set to die two days later. Arguments ensue, and soon enough Miles finds himself on the other end of a bureaucratic police state that insists against both his idealistic actions and his literal existence. 

One of the most popular punching bags evoked by neoliberal zealots and libertarians alike would have to be good intentions (and their purported folly). On the neoliberal side, strikers, progressives and potential third-party voters are attacked by establishmentarians as misusing their good intentions for potentially problematic outcomes that allow the so-called greater of two evils win out.  For libertarians, the entire premise that we should pursue good intentions is rejected, as Randian market purists claim that the only way to produce a functioning society is to worship at the altar of greed. Either way you slice it, policymakers and their attack dogs tend not to like the good intentions that often serve as refutations of their entire worldview. Thus, we end with this premise: If we try to make the world a better place, we won’t just fail, we’ll inevitably make everything worse in the process. Complacency becomes a necessary condition for capitalism, and (perhaps inadvertently) for Spider Men. Spider Man 2099, the head of a bureaucratic organization insistent upon the perseverance of the status quo, is hardly different from either the libertarian or neoliberal commentators insistent upon attacking good intentions as being necessarily to bad outcomes. Though perhaps he’s more of a fatalist, and our contemporary political establishment trafficks more in a deluded theory of change, each fundamentally believes that to stray too far from the path is dangerous, even if the path itself is clearly inadequate. In Miles, in progressives, in anyone radical enough to see failures, there exists nothing but a threat. Where the traditional dimensional story finds out of necessity a regressive insistence upon maintaining the status quo, Across the Spiderverse diverges by question whether the status quo is worth maintaining, and whether it has to be this way. The questions remain unanswered as of yet, and skepticism is appropriate that the film won’t eventually land on an incremental theory of change, but there’s a kernel of something really important in this silly, little, coming of age Spiderman movie. Where the first Spiderverse (appropriately) characterized a billionaire’s mad pursuit of a better personal life as a threat to society, the second rejects not the desire for a better life, but the structures that enforce who gets it and how they do it. Across the Spiderverse embraces anarchy, even if it’s in the pursuit of saving a police captain, and gives a little bit of room to think about revolution, even as we’re all being told that actual change is the real villain.