(Since I published my last newsletter, SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA in a strike against the AMPTP. SAG-AFTRA has asked its members to cease promotion of projects for AMPTP signatories. I'm not a SAG-AFTRA member, and journalism and criticism are not promotional. That said, I am also not strictly a journalist or critic anymore, so going forward, I'm going to write about current releases less. I wrote the following newsletter a couple weeks ago, so I feel comfortable publishing it, but starting next week, I'm going to dip into the back catalog a bit more, do a little more personal essay type stuff, and inevitably write more weird fiction. Let me know what you think in comments or in a reply to this email!)
Spider-man: Across the Spider-verse, the sequel to the groundbreaking 2018 animated film Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, is the hit of the summer, a sensation with audiences and critics, who have thrilled to its story of Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy tripping across the multiverse in an attempt to save all of reality. (While the film is worth celebrating, the circumstances of its creation very much were not, if this report in Vulture is to be believed.)
The film has been visited by a handful of criticisms, with one proving by far the most consistent. In reviews of the film, both in the press and on Letterboxd, the fact that the movie ends on a good, old-fashioned cliffhanger has been greeted with a growing chorus of voices who insist the film is only "half a movie." (As I edit this, Uproxx's Mike Ryan has joined said chorus.)
Now, Across the Spider-verse was released in a summer full of films set up to be part one in chapters that could potentially wrap up their franchises. The 10th Fast & Furious film and the seventh Mission: Impossible film are also part ones of longer stories, and any time there's a trend like this, journalists and critics will write about it as one. So, Spider-verse has been lumped into these arguments about "half-movies."
Here's the thing, though: Across the Spider-verse ends on a cliffhanger, yes. But it is in every way as full of a movie as, say, The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers are. Its characters go on full journeys, which conclude within the film. The plot might extend beyond this film; the story does not.
To explain what I mean, we're going to have to do some spoilers.
Major spoilers for Spider-verse (and very minor ones for Fast X) after the image
Broadly speaking, Across the Spider-verse centers on the stories of protagonist Miles Morales (the Brooklyn teenager who became his universe's one and only Spider-man after the death of Peter Parker in the first film) and deuteragonist Gwen Stacey (her own universe's one and only Spider-woman). Miles and Gwen are from different universes, but their proximity in age and their existence as superpowered spider-beings made them fast friends in Into the Spider-verse. There were also hints of an attraction between the two, not that anything could come of it. They're from different universes! Remember!
Across opens on a lengthy sequence where Gwen battles a version of the supervillain the Vulture who came from a universe inspired by Renaissance Italy. (Aside: Every review of this film – even the negative ones – has pointed out how gorgeous it is to look at, and it is jaw-dropping. Gwen's universe uses bursts of expressionistic color to underscore how the characters are feeling, and it's a superb use of color to tell stories, a thing I am very interested in.) In the process of bringing in Vulture, Gwen comes across some other Spider-people from a Spider Society, and she reveals to her police officer father that she is Spider-woman, whom he believes murdered that universe's Peter Parker. (She hadn't.) He attempts to arrest his daughter, and she disappears into a portal with the other Spider-folx.
Gwen's story forms an emotional backdrop for Miles's story, which takes up the bulk of the film. He knows it's probably time to tell his parents he's Spider-man. He's also dealing with the usual teenage problems of struggling to bring his Spanish grade up and trying to get over the girl he likes who lives in another universe. His stressful life keeps causing him to disappoint his parents, and every time he walks up to the edge of telling them what's really going on, he backs down. Key to this dilemma is that he knows his parents have expectations for him, and well-meaning though they are, their expectations keep running up against the person he is becoming. He wants to go to college in New Jersey; his mom balks at the idea. There are lots of good colleges in the city!
Since Miles and Gwen are the two characters at the film's center, the movie underlines the ways in which their situations are similar – both dealing with parents who don't understand – and similar to the multiverse-threatening dangers they face off against. When everything is a possibility, how do you keep your head and figure out which possibilities you want to apply to you? How do you shut out the noise, when said noise includes your previously supportive parents? How do you chart your own identity when you're not "supposed" to be who you're becoming? (Trans people have glommed onto this movie for some reason.)
The film ends on a massive cliffhanger: Miles, on the run from the Spider Society, which aims to protect an extremely rigid idea of the "right" story, ends up in the wrong universe, the one the spider who gave him superpowers hails from. Gwen, along with a collection of other characters from both films, is in Miles's home universe, vowing to find him. And all the while, the Spider Society is looking for both teens, while brand new supervillain The Spot threatens all of reality.
At first blush, this really does feel like the story is half over. Forget the fact that Miles needs to be reunited with Gwen and return to his universe! He hasn't even completed his character arc of being honest with his parents and figuring out who he's going to be.
Except... he has.
It's useful to think about these recent blockbuster cliffhangers in terms of the two types of TV cliffhangers. The most common kind of cliffhanger is what I'll call the "binary cliffhanger." It presents a simple set of yes/no questions that don't offer a lot of wiggle room. This tends to take the form of "Is this character dead?" but it might also include "Which character will the protagonist pick to be their love interest?" You can stack these on top of each other – any time a bunch of series regulars are in, like, an avalanche, you'll get a stacked series of binary cliffhangers – but they don't offer a ton of room for nuance. We know the protagonist of the show isn't going to die, and "Will supporting character [J] die?" ultimately isn't a very interesting question, even when the answer is yes. You'll get the resolution almost immediately in the next episode, and the odds of it meaning a lot to the surviving characters are slim.
Fast X uses a stacked series of binary cliffhangers. Its ending puts nearly all of the characters in deathly peril and suggests that at least some of them will die. Okay! Sure! But as soon as the next film begins, we'll know which characters survived and which didn't, and while those deaths will surely weigh heavily on those who survive, it would surprise me if they pushed the story in a radically new direction from what preceded.
There's a different type of cliffhanger that is harder to pull off but incredibly satisfying when done well. This one I'll call the "conclusive cliffhanger." In a conclusive cliffhanger, a chapter of the character's life is over, but the way it ends creates a long series of branching possibilities for what might come next. We have had a vital summing up of who this person is, and we're also getting a tease of who they might become. Cliffhangers like these rarely end the plot, but they do often conclude the story.
(Briefly defined: "Plot" is the series of events that happen in a narrative; "story" is everything the narrative contains, including character arcs, setting, themes, etc. Thus, you can end a story by wrapping up character stuff, thematic arcs, and so on, while still having lots of room for "plot" going forward.)
As an example, consider the most famous conclusive cliffhanger in film history, The Empire Strikes Back. By that film's end, everything you think you know about the story has been completely scrambled, but the ending also provides clear delineation points for Luke, Leia, Han, and Darth Vader, the movie's four most important characters. Luke Skywalker's entire life is shattered into pieces, but he makes the right choice in the face of that. His character arc for the film – which involves him being trained to survive the temptations of the Dark Side – is complete.
Across the Spider-verse has a conclusive cliffhanger. Both Gwen and Miles's character and thematic arcs resolve. Gwen faces up to the consequences of her actions and has a heartfelt conversation with her father, before deciding to do what she knows is right, instead of what's convenient. Miles decides to take his destiny into his own hands, tells his mom he's Spider-man, and proves that he has what it takes to survive overwhelming odds. What's ingenious about this is that the moment that concludes Miles's character arc – telling his mom he's Spider-man – is also the moment that reveals he's in the wrong universe, propelling us into the cliffhanger.
Across features moments like this for nearly every character, with Miles's parents agreeing that they're going to give their son more room to be himself, Gwen's dad quitting the police force because he hates what it drove between him and his daughter, Peter B. Parker choosing to join Gwen in saving Miles, and on and on. Not all of these arcs are incredibly deft storytelling, but they're all there, and they all conclude within the film.
Yes, there are movies with cliffhangers that greatly dissatisfy, but Across the Spider-verse is much more like Empire Strikes Back than I think the ending's detractors will sometimes allow. Should Beyond prove a dud, maybe that will retroactively color the opinions on Across, but I hope not. The film's final 15 minutes are a thrilling example of how to wrap up a story while keeping the plot going.
Like all storytelling devices, the cliffhanger can be brutally effective when used well, and (ahem) as a storyteller, I'd hate not to have that tool in my toolbox just because movies aren't "supposed" to use it. Across the Spider-verse tells a complete, well-rounded story, one that brings its characters to an inflection point and has them make choices that reveal who they are, leaving them on the precipice of a new adventure that will further test them. It's good serialized storytelling, not half a movie.
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Three things: Here's what you should know about this week!
- I was in the dang New York Times again, talking about the importance of libraries as physical spaces that can allow for a sense of who belongs in our community. If non-white and queer voices are pushed out of that space, then... what does that say about the place of those voices in our communities? Here's an excerpt: "I grew up in a very white, very rural world, and the library let me know other lives were possible. There, I encountered books by authors like Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou, which spoke of a world I had yet to encounter. Just reading the back cover of something like Oscar Hijuelos’s 'The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love' served as a reminder that there were other ways to live than my own."
- I liked reading this piece by my former colleague Myles McNutt on the doomsday summer the blockbuster model has had. (And if you are looking for a newsletter to subscribe to, Episodic Medium is trying to recreate the old A.V. Club, more or less. It's great!)
- Did you know the absurdly catchy, truly awful song from Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue was by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken? Well, now you do!
This week's reading music: "Uppercut" by Lou Roy (Gwen's band should cover this)
Next time: Dudes rock.