Focus on a Franchise – The Matrix

You’ve got to hand it to Keanu Reeves.  The man is very good at remaining relevant as a movie star over the course of a nearly 40 year career.  Often derided for not being the most versatile actor in the business, the man is nevertheless a good judge of projects to attach his name to.  Starting off as one half of a goofy duo of dimwitted teenagers in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Reeves successfully made the jump to action movies with the box office hit Speed (1994).  In an era when the action movie star fit a specific mold, mainly muscle bound stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean Claude Van Damme, Keanu Reeves was very different.  His more lean build allowed him to feel like a more natural, everyday hero than the He-Men that normally appeared on screen.  But, even if Hollywood wasn’t satisfied with him yet as an action movie star, Keanu still proved to be a surprisingly forward thinking movie star.  He wisely turned down appearing in the ill-fated sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997), which proved to be one of the biggest box office disasters in history.  Over the years, he’s also developed a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the business; using his stardom to uplift others and creating a generally positive atmosphere on whatever set he works on.  It’s probably why his recent success with the John Wick movies has been so fruitful, because so many of the best in the business wants to work with him.  He may not be a Shakespearean level performer; though he has done that as well, appearing in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) early on in his career.  But, he has shown through his own example how best to exemplify the meaning of movie stardom and, more importantly, earn it as well.  When looking at Keanu Reeves career as a movie star, many highlights come to mind, but the movies that will likely be what defines his place in the annals of movie history are the films in the Matrix series.

It can’t be understated how earth shattering The Matrix proved to be, not just as a film series, but as a cultural touchstone.  The Matrix is one of the most oft quoted and referenced films in cinema history.  It also sparked a revolution in visual effects, as audiences were wowed by new techniques that truly defied the laws of physics in a way thought unimaginable before.  And it also sparked a renewed interest in new age philosophies and sociological theories.  Not bad for an R-rated studio film that was dumped off in the box office wasteland of April.  Initially, Warner Brothers didn’t have much faith in this film connecting with audiences, but afterwards it became a different matter.  Suddenly they had a new IP that could take on the likes of Star Wars, which while The Matrix didn’t overtake the juggernaut at the box office, it ended up sweeping them in the awards season, with The Matrix winning a respectable 4 Oscars and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace going home empty handed.  Of course, this kind of success demanded a sequel, and Warner Brothers called upon the filmmakers, The Wachowskis, to deliver.  Instead of just one sequel, the Wachowskis convinced the studio to make two back to back.  It’s not an uncommon practice, as Back to the Future shot two sequels back to back, and of course The Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot as a whole together.  But the interesting thing about The Matrix was that both films would be released in the same year (2003 to be exact) and only months apart.  It was ambitious to say the least, but Warners was confident that all the hype would deliver them huge results.  While the two films didn’t exactly loose money, they also didn’t deliver as big as the studio hoped it would either.  As a result, The Matrix would also prove to be a text book example of failing to harness lighting in a bottle a second time.  Of course, that didn’t stop Warner Brothers from trying again almost 20 years later, and the result also spoke for itself.  Still, The Matrix series is a fascinating oddity in film history, and examining each film offers some interesting insights into the ups and downs of building a franchise.


The one that started it all.  Before The Matrix came along, The Wachowskis were still fairly new on the filmmaking scene.  They had only made one film prior; the erotic thriller Bound (1996).  But, their pitch for a cyberpunk thriller set in the virtual wonderland existing within the realm of the internet was ambitious to say the least.  It also made the film a hard sell.  What ultimately helped the Wachowskis sell their vision was getting the assistance of illustrators like Steve Skroce and Geoffrey Darrow, who together created nearly 600 storyboards and concept drawings for the filmmakers to show to interested parties.  Eventually Warner Brothers gave them the green light and they were allowed to make their vision a reality, with a surprising amount of free reign.  That amount of creative freedom proved to be useful for the directors, as they used their film to experiment with new filmmaking techniques.  The most noteworthy technique, and the one that is today synonymous with The Matrix itself; bullet time.  This was different from the slow mo we had been accustomed to in the movies.  Here, the Wachowskis could freeze the action on screen and yet still move the camera around in a three dimensional action, creating a hyper-surreal visual on screen.  This was accomplished by having the actors perform an action within a rig of cameras mounted in a circular ring around them.  Each camera would snap a picture all at the same time, each from a different angle, and then the images would be combined together digital creating the illusion of movement around a static image.  Of course, “bullet time” got it’s name from a specific moment in the film when it appears that Keanu Reeve’s Neo is moving so fast that he can literally dodge bullets.  The were many other ground breaking effects, some of which look quaint over 20 years later and others that have held up pretty well.  This stuff alone would’ve made The Matrix noteworthy, but the film was much more than that.

The story itself, about a mild mannered computer programmer named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) suddenly being thrust into a mind-altering adventure where he learns that the life he knew was all a simulated lie blew away many audiences minds when they first saw this film.  The Wachowskis didn’t just make a movie; they started a conversation, about society, the meaning of life, what our identities are, and what responsibility we have over our use of technology.  It helps that the Wachowskis assembled an ideal team to get their vision onto the big screen.  Keanu Reeves was ideal for the role of Neo, the reawakened protagonist that was formally known as Mr. Anderson.  Reeves limitations as a dramatic actor actually proves to be an asset in his performance here as his stilted demeanor gives Neo a more hard edge identity.  But it’s not just Keanu that stands out.  Carrie Anne Moss became an instant star with her scene stealing presence as Trinity, the skilled freedom fighter that recruits Neo.  Laurence Fishburne completely re-invented his already varied career with his personification of the wise and steadfast Morpheus. And not to be overlooked, but Australian rising star Hugo Weaving delivered a truly unforgettable villainous turn as Agent Smith, one of the programs designed to keep order within the Matrix while having a sneaky agenda of his own.  While Warner Brothers liked what they saw with The Matrix, they were also hesitant.  An stylish R-rated, effects heavy film was not not an easy sell in the late 90’s, so they cautiously opened it up in a quiet Spring box office weekend.  That strategy proved to be wise, as the film managed to stand out immediately and gain attention from audiences.  By the end of that summer, even with a new Star Wars in theaters, people were still talking about The Matrix.  It was immediately clear, The Matrix had started something new in Hollywood.  Particularly when it comes to visual effects you could see the Matrix effect, as CGI took over in a much bigger way.  The Matrix would also be parodied relentlessly in the next few years, particularly with variations on the “bullet time” effect.  But, the question remained, what would the Wachowskis do next now that they had a film that changed the face of cinema as we know it.


It didn’t take long for a sequel to be assembled for a groundbreaking film like The Matrix, and like mentioned before, Warner Brothers granted the Wachowskis’ wish to film both movies back to back.  Looking at the two movies that released months apart, it’s clear that the two were meant to be a continuous narrative broken into two parts.  The Wachowskis wanted to keep expanding upon what they had built with the first movie, giving the world more definition than what we had seen before.  For the first time, we would be seeing Zion, the stronghold of all the humans who had freed themselves from the Matrix.  The cast would also be expanding, with actors like Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau, Monica Bellucci, and Lambert Wilson taking on new important characters.  By the time the movie was ready to release in theaters, the amount of hype was definitely at the peak for Matrix mania.  The first film, The Matrix Reloaded, broke numerous opening weekend records, especially for an R-rated film, grossing an impressive $91 million.  But even though the movie found financial success, the reception from audiences and critics became a different matter.  It was almost universal that people felt Reloaded lacked the magic of the original film.  While the production values in the action scenes were impressive, now that the Wachowskis were given the full confidence and support of Warner Brothers, people felt that they were too noisy and lacking in gravity.  The whole film felt like a watered down version of the original movie.  It also didn’t help that the movie seemed a little too self aware and up it’s own ass when it came to the philosophical elements of the movie.  The scene where Neo meets the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) particularly drove audiences nuts because they felt it ground the film to a halt in order for the Wachowskis to inject even more sermonizing about the nature of reality, which is not what most people came to these movies for.  Despite The Matrix having the reputation of being a thinking man’s action film, the audiences unfortunately were unforgiving of a movie that was attempting to be too smart for the room.  They just wanted to see Neo kicking more butt on screen.  So, despite strong box office, Reloaded was ultimately greeted as a disappointment among fans.  Which did not bode well for a third film.


It seemed like every problem that plagued Reloaded upon release was carried over into Revolutions and amplified.  To spread their vision across two movies, the Wachowskis likely struggled to figure out an interesting angle to build their character development on.  Ultimately, and possibly pressured by Warner Brothers, they ultimately decided to play things safe.  Neo’s journey to becoming “the One” doesn’t exactly deviate into any new territory that we’ve seen in the heroes journey found in so many other action films.  He, in the end, basically becomes no different than Superman, with a little not too subtle Christ allegory thrown in.  And that becomes a fairly disappointing final destination for this series to head towards as the culmination of this trilogy.  The movie more or less ends not with mankind overcoming the oppressive machines that threaten them.  The war pretty much ends on a truce, with Neo sacrificing himself to the machines in exchange for their promise to leave the Zion settlement alone as a bargain to unify against a common enemy; that being an out of control Agent Smith who has evolved into an apocalyptic computer virus.  While the movie does have an effects heavy show down between humans and machines in the climax, it ultimately feels pretty hollow and cliched.  The movie’s saving grace though is Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith.  Elevated from a standard action film baddie into a near god like threat level villain by the end makes him the only character that got more interesting as the series went along, and Weaving relishes every moment he’s on screen.  He truly makes Agent Smith one of the great movie villains, and the showdown with him and Neo feels epic in the right way, and also eerie with all of the Smith clones standing by to watch the battle to end all battles from the sidelines.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to salvage the film as Matrix mania had fully died down in the wake of Reloaded.  Revolutions opening in November of that year, and was beaten by of all things the Will Farrell Christmas movie Elf (2003).  It was perhaps wise to make both movies back to back so that the downfall of the series would be swift and not dragged out over several years.  As much as cinema changed in the wake of the original Matrix, the industry also changed to where a movie like The Matrix wasn’t going to cut it anymore, especially with franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings beginning to take hold.


A lot happened in the 18 years since the Matrix trilogy came to a close.  Perhaps the most astonishing change came with the Wachowskis themselves.  Originally known as the Wachowski Brothers during the making of the original trilogy, the duo surprised everyone by coming out as transgender over the span of a couple of years.  First Lana made the big step during the making of their epic film production Cloud Atlas (2012), and a couple years later Lilly would make the transition as well.  One thing that the Wachowski sisters revealed during their public announcements was that working on The Matrix was instrumental in helping them grow more comfortable in expressing who they really were and gave them the drive to transition in front of the world and set an example.  They confirmed the theory that their trilogy was a metaphor for transitioning, as Neo and the other humans shed the programmed life they knew before and embraced and fought for the identity that they knew to be true.  Sadly, that theory is one that many in the Matrix fandom rejected outright; a fandom that unfortunately turned toxic in the two decades since the movies released.  This is likely what prompted Lana Wachowski to step forward to make a fourth film on her own.  Too many people had been co-opting The Matrix and all of it’s quotes and iconic scenes for their own toxic ideologies, and Lana wanted to reclaim some of that legacy back.  Working solo without Lilly, Lana Wachowski managed to get the greenlight from Warner Brothers for a fourth film.  What likely helped to move the project forward was Keanu Reeves having a career resurgence thanks to the John Wick films, and having him return to the role of Neo was too good to pass up.  Carrie Anne Moss also thankfully agreed to return, though they were unfortunately without Laurence Fishburne, so Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stepped into the role instead.  The film unfortunately ran into trouble with the Covid-19 pandemic delaying it’s release, and sadly it was one of the films undercut by Warner Brother’s disastrous decision to release all of their 2021 films in both theaters and streaming day and date.

The resulting film is certainly a mess and very much doesn’t re-capture the magic of the first film.  But, it’s also the most fascinating film in the series since the original, and that’s largely due to what Lana Wachowski did with the movie.  The film is less of a continuation of the Matrix trilogy and more of a meta commentary on not just toxic Matrix fandom but also of the corporatization of franchises in general.  Neo finds himself back in the Matrix, after having seemingly dying in the fight with Smith at the end of Revolutions.  Not only that, but he has no memory of before and works as a video game developer.  In this life, he has created a successful trilogy of games called “The Matrix,” and as his boss (played by Jonathan Groff) says to him, “our parent company Warner Brothers is demanding a sequel.”  You could say that Lana is biting the hand that feeds her, and that’s probably the point.  She also takes aim at people who misinterpret the meaning behind The Matrix, getting all of the philosophical questions wrong and using the Matrix as an excuse to justify their own toxic ideas.  There is a story in this film, with newly resurrected Neo trying to bring Trinity back to reality, but it seems like it’s just there to get the movie rolling to what Lana Wachowski really wants to say with this movie.  In the 18 years, she has seen her films be co-opted by bad faith actors who misquote and reference the original films all the time in the online atmosphere.  The utilization of the red pill metaphor as a recruitment message for online right wing agitators must really upset Lana, given that so many in that community are actively hostile to the transgender community.  By calling out the misuse of her movies and in turn deconstructing the legacy of The Matrix as a whole, it’s as if Lana Wachowski is purposely burning down the house she built so that the wrong kind of people cannot make a home in it.  It makes Matrix Resurrections not very good as a continuation of the Matrix series, but in turn it’s also a brave defiant statement against the reality of toxic fandoms, and honestly I respect the hutzpah it took to make a movie like this.

So, it may not be the perfect series that many had wished for with the promise of the original movie, but there is no denying that The Matrix is one of the most monumental cinematic statements we’ve ever seen committed to celluloid.  The Wachowski Sisters had a bold vision that could not be easily categorized, and yet it found it’s audience and forced a change within the industry as a result.  Even to this day one can’t think of a more iconic image in cinema than that of Keanu Reeves in the black trench coat and shades bending over backwards to dodge the bullets in slow motion.  What really helped to define The Matrix the most was it’s bold experimentation.  It dared to be different in every way, both in visuals and in it’s story-telling. It was also a big budget action film that also dared to ask bold philosophical questions.  For the Wachowskis, it was also a bold expression of the challenges they were facing in finding their true selves, and thankfully they have remained powerful voices in the transgender community.  The two sequels from 2003 may be a perfect example of how the pressure to build a franchise out of something that defied conventional wisdom in the first place often leads to disappointing results.  Reloaded and Revolutions are by no means the worst sequels ever made, and often they have moments that really shine; but they are also rudderless and conventional in ways that the original was not, and that’s likely the thing that led them to be disappointments in the end.  On the surface, The Matrix Resurrections seems to be a shameless cash grab, and it is for the most part, but Lana Wachowski utilizes her moment with the film to air our her frustrations at all of the pseudo-intellectuals who misquote her film all the time online, and it kind of gives Resurrections  this hidden subversive element to it that I kinda love.  Lana probably saw too many “red pill” tweets from Elon Musk and wrote this movie as a cinematic middle finger to faux “geniuses” like him who proclaim to know the “truth” of the Matrix. There’s a lot to say about the Matrix  movies, and there will likely be debates that will happen for as long as there is discourse about cinema, but it’s a series that for the most part helped to push the movies in the right direction.  Having an action film that made you think was definitely something desperately needed going into the new millennium, and while many may have taken the wrong message from the movies, another large part of the fandom has picked up from it’s example and strived to make better action movies that were more than mindless entertainment.  We certainly wouldn’t have gotten to John Wick had Neo never worked on the big screen.  The Matrix is a lot of things, and all of it is enough to make you go, “Whoa.”

The Flash – Review

The Flash as a character in the comic books has had quite a long and storied history.  First introduced in 1940, the character was an immediate hit with comic book readers thanks to his colorful appearance and affable personality.  During the Silver Age of comic books, DC elected to make The Flash one of the founding members of the elite Justice League, the super team made up of all of their top tier characters, putting Flash in the same company as Superman and Batman.  Over the years, the mantle of the Flash has carried over to a number of different people, from Jay Garrick, to Barry Allen, to Wally West and several more.  But it’s the Barry Allen years that defined the character the most, mainly because it’s with him that most of the iconic elements of the character’s story emerged, including the famous Red and Yellow suit.  Being a Speedster type super hero, Flash is defined by his ability to run super fast, to the point where he can even out run the speed of light.  This ability in particular has led to a certain set of problems for the character, as going faster than the speed of light has led him to be able to travel through time, and of course messing with time carries it’s own consequences.  This was the dilemma the character faced in what many consider to be the greatest Flash storyline, Flashpoint, published in 2011.  Though Flash has enjoyed consistent popularity on the comics page, his screen presence up to now has been minimal compared to other DC icons.  He has been the star of two television series, one short lived one from the 90’s and another in the 2010’s that was part of CW’s Arrowverse which just ended it’s run after 9 successful seasons.  Flash has also been featured a lot in DC animated projects.  But it wasn’t until Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) that we got our first true big screen debut for The Flash.  Played by Ezra Miller, Flash was to be a key player in DC’s Extended Universe plans, playing a part in the Justice League (2017) film as well as getting his own standalone film.  A bright future for the character indeed, or at least that’s what DC thought.

Problems began to rise almost immediately in the rollout of projects featuring The Flash.  Despite being announced at San Diego Comic Con as the director, Rick Famuyiwa left the project soon after citing creative differences, eventually leading him towards his eventual work on The Mandalorian series on Disney+.  Other directors came and went through the years and eventually the project was given over to horror film director Andy Muschietti, who was just coming off his successful duo of adaptations of Stephen King’s IT.  Several re-writes occurred as well, with DC making a lot of course correction in the wake of the disappointing returns for Justice League.    But, towards the end of 2019, it looked like the cameras would finally be rolling on the feature.  Then, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic happen, putting a freeze on The Flash yet again.  Eventually, production did resume, but it had been a long time ever since the film was first announced.  But, Muschietti and his team did get the production across the goal line, with the hope that it would be ready once the theatrical business was running smoothly again.  Unfortunately bad luck struck again, this time from the lead actor.  Ezra Miller had been something of a loose cannon before, but in 2022, without going too much into detail about what happened, they became what is referred to in the entertainment business as a PR nightmare.  The brushes with the law were also coming at a volatile time for DC’s parent company Warner Brothers, which was about to form a merger with Discovery Entertainment, leading towards a huge disruption in DC’s plans.  The newly formed company of Warner Brothers Discovery began to restructure heavily, with many projects getting outright cancelled while still in production.  With the cancellation of projects across all parts of the company, including DC, and Ezra Miller’s public meltdown, some were wondering if The Flash  would even be seen at all.  If Batgirl didn’t survive, what hope would Flash have?  Despite all this, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslev still spared The Flash and let it remain on the release calendar.  That being said, they made it clear that Ezra Miller’s future involvement with the character was over and that this movie was not going to be one of the last of the old DCEU line-up of movies, with a re-boot in the works as the DCU, shepparded by new creative head James Gunn. So, that’s the atmosphere in which The Flash movie finally releases into theaters, and the only question remains is if it’s worth all that wait and can it stand out amidst all that off-screen drama.

Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is struggling to manage his new life as a member of the Justice League.  He remains on-call with the other members, basically being relegated to clean-up duty while Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) do the more exciting work.  The hectic schedule runs into conflict with his day job working in a forensics lab, where he ironically always ends up being late.  Part of his drive to work in forensics is because he is hoping to exonerate his father Henry (Ron Livingston), who has been in prison for the murder of his wife Nora (Maribel Verdu), though Barry is convinced of his innocence.  On a particularly difficult night dealing with his grief, Barry learns that if he runs fast enough, he can actually turn back the flow of time.  He shares the discovery with Batman/Bruce Wayne, but Bruce warns him that time travel carries dire consequences.  Barry still believes that if he’s careful enough, he might be able to save his mother.  He, travels back far enough in time to prevent the moment that would have left his mother vulnerable and begins to head back to his time, only to be knocked off his pace by a dark stranger in the realm between time.  He visits his home again to find his mother alive and well, and his father out of prison.  But, there is another problem; another Barry also lives in this timeline.  He intercepts his younger self, tries to fill him in on what happened, but soon learns that his altering of the flow of time had a dire significant consequence.  In this timeline, there is no Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Aquaman.  However, he does learn that there is indeed a Batman in this universe, and he takes the other Barry along with him to find this Batman.  At a dilapidated Wayne Manor, they run into a very different Batman than who Barry knows.  This Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is much older and mostly retired.  Still, the older Bruce Wayne has all the gadget and gear stowed in his Batcave, and he agrees to help out Barry find who they believe to be this universe’s Superman.  Hidden in a secret Siberian prison, they discover that it’s not Kal-El that landed on Earth, but instead his cousin Kara (Sasha Calle).  Though Barry has the help he needs to return to his own time, another problem arises that could complicate things, the arrival of General Zod (Michael Shannon), with no Superman on Earth to fight against him.

To say that this movie is arriving into theaters with a lot of baggage is saying the least of it.  One thing that seemed to keep this movie afloat within the halls of DC and Warner Brothers was the strong word of mouth from all the executives at the company.  Even the ones who were going to be tasked with re-booting the DCU, James Gunn and Peter Safran, had high praise for what Andy Muschietti did with The Flash.  They felt so confident in the movie’s ability to perform even despite all of the controversy that they gave an exclusive first look screening to visitors at this year’s CinemaCon.  Many came out of the screening very happy by what they saw, and Warner Brothers Discovery CEO even began to feel confident in the film’s release.  The movie was even shown to an A-lister like Tom Cruise, who also sung it’s praises.  In a short amount of time, they were able to turn around the bad buzz surrounding this movie, helping to generate excitement around it that it otherwise would’ve not had.  But, what would the average audience think.  One thing that still loomed over this film even up to it’s release date was whether the Ezra Miller factor would make any difference.  It’s hard to sell a movie when your lead star isn’t even able to participate in it’s promotion.  Plus, the movie has to get over the cloud of controversy that they carry.  I’m one who in most cases can separate the art from the artist.  One of my favorite films is still Braveheart (1995) even with all the Mel Gibson baggage that that film carries.  So, is DC right to feel confident in this Flash movie.  For me, it’s complicated.  For one thing, the movie does manage to deal with the whole Ezra Miller situation pretty well, as I never was thinking much about their offscreen problems while watching the movie.  One the other hand, I do feel much of the hype that DC  and Warner Brothers were trying to drum up in the last few months weren’t warranted either.  It’s neither the worst things I’ve seen from the DCEU, nor is it in the league of their best either.  It’s a very average movie in the end.

There certainly is ambition behind this movie, much more so that quite a few other recent comic book movies, but the film doesn’t gel together as effectively as one would hope.  I think the issue boils down to there never being a grounded point to where we feel the gravity of the events in this movie.  It’s a lot of spectacle without the human factor to make it resonate.  The character of Barry Allen just haphazardly trips his way through a bunch of situations and that essentially is the story.  In some regards, it is refreshing to see a comic book film that doesn’t have to devote so much of it’s run time to backstory.  We are essentially picking up Barry’s story from where we left off after Justice League, and flashbacks are integrated sparingly with the context of them having meaning to Barry in his journey through time.  There isn’t even really an antagonist in this movie, with Barry proving to be his own worst enemy, and that’s an interesting way to go with a stand-alone super hero film.  Still, it seems that even with a run time of 2 hours and 20 minutes that a lot of stuff still ended up on the cutting room floor, so there are gaps in logic a plenty throughout the film.  Ironically, the thing that does manage to hold the film together from becoming an incoherent mess is Ezra Miller.  Muschietti wisely molded Miller’s performance closer to what Zack Snyder had the actor do in his Snyder Cut, which is far more full of depth than the obnoxious turn he had in the theatrical cut of Justice League.  Miller, particularly in the older Barry role, is giving a measured and compelling performance.  One moment toward the end of the film in particular, where Barry has to say one final goodbye to someone, is actually the best acting I’ve seen from them in all of the DCEU movies he’s appeared in.  Their performance as the younger Barry is more of a mixed bag, where they can deliver some of the movie’s biggest laughs but at other times can be a little grating.  But for all the movie’s faults, Ezra Miller is definitely not the one who drags the film down, and at some moments they are the one who actually delivers the best parts of the movie.

But, even though this is The Flash’s movie, the best part of the film is unequivocally the return of Michael Keaton to the role of Batman.  For many people, particularly those of my age who grew up with the Tim Burton directed films, Keaton is the reason why we are excited for this movie, and boy he did not disappoint.  Despite being 71 years old at the time of this release, Keaton slips effortlessly back into the cape and cowl like he never left, and it’s been a whopping 30 years on now.  Even with my misgivings about the movie in most of the first half, I indeed got a chill up my spine when we see him appear on screen again in the Batsuit and saying the line, “Yeah, I’m Batman.”  This was definitely the big applause moment in the movie for the audience that I saw the film with.  And while a lot of the Batman moves are enhanced this time around with CGI, there are a couple moments where you do see Keaton’s Batman do some hand to hand fighting.  Just the fact that he still looks good in that big rubber batsuit, and was willing to put it back on in the first place is really impressive, but Keaton also gives a nuanced performance as well, showing the years that have passed him by as he’s put Batman aside while still maintaining some of the spark.  Though she has less to do in the movie, Sasha Calle does make the most of her screen time as Kara, or Supergirl.  It’s a performance that allows her to say a lot purely through her expressions.  It’s a shame that with the upcoming reboot of the DCU that we are likely not going to get any more of her version of Supergirl on the big screen.  So, given that this is a one and done performance, it’s good to see her make the most of it.  Some of the returning faces are also welcome here, particularly Ben Affleck as the Batman from the DCEU timeline.  It’s definitely apparent that Affleck is having a better time playing the character here than he did during his difficult experience on Justice League.

One thing that I think most people are going to pick apart about this movie are the visual effects.  I do have to agree that most of the effects in this film look rushed and incomplete.  And in some moments of the movie, this actually undermines the film.  Not every effect looks bad, but there are definitely some moments where the characters suddenly lack detail and depth and instead feel like Polar Express quality digital puppets.  The subpar CGI especially sabotages a moment late in the movie that should have been one of the most epic moments in comic book movie history; an Easter egg filled extravaganza that sadly comes across as looking fake and filled with a bunch of unnecessary visual noise.  I don’t know what led to the visual effects looking so mediocre here, but it honestly becomes a distraction the heavier they are relied upon deep into the movie.  That being said, I do give Muschietti credit for at least attempting some interesting visual moments in this movie.  The man definitely had a vision, and I bet the pre-visualization of these effects scenes showed a lot of promise.  Some of the highlights include the visualization of the hyper-speed cross country trip that Barry makes in the film’s opening scene to get to Gotham City across hundreds of miles.  The design behind Barry’s perception of time travel is also unique and creative, and you really wish that with better executed CGI that it would have looked even better.  I don’t know if the post-production budget got slashed midway due to the upheaval at Warner Brothers, but I feel like Muschietti is not the one to blame for the visual effects looking as bad as they do.  He had some good visual ideas that you can see on screen in the bare bones of the image, and unfortunately to get them up to the standard he wanted was too much for a studio uncertain about the film’s future to risk ballooning the budget even further.

I can’t in the end say that the movie failed to live up to the hype.  The movie was always going to be a problem for DC.  The fact that it got released at all in theaters is in itself a triumph of perseverance.  I do like quite a bit about the movie; especially Michael Keaton’s return to the Dark Knight which absolutely lived up to my expectations.  Ezra Miller, for all their off-screen issues, successfully managed to make me forget about all that while watching this movie and allowed me to appreciate his character work as The Flash in this film.  But, after seeing this movie, I don’t exactly care any more about the Flash than I did before going into this movie.  The film is just another super hero movie, adding little but at the same time not insulting the genre either.  I don’t know what the future holds for the Flash in the DCU reboot.  Thankfully, James Gunn recognizes the strong contribution that Andy Muschietti brought to the film with his direction, and he’s already offered him the assignment of directing the next Batman movie; The Brave and the Bold.  Ezra Miller has certainly burned any chance of returning as the Flash, and though it’s hard to excuse the things that they did, one hopes that they’ll get the help they need in order to set their life back in order and make things right with the ones they wronged.  It’s likely that the DCEU is going to go out with a whimper, with not much hype being felt around it’s closer, the Aquaman sequel releasing this holiday season.  And hopefully something worthwhile comes out of those ashes as Gunn and Safran launch the DCU in the years ahead; maybe with an even better take on the Flash character.  I really wanted to like this movie more, and there are indeed things to like, but in the end, it’s just a confused mess.  I enjoyed the pair of Shazam movies much more, mainly because they had a consistency of tone to them that helped to make them work.  Flash, much like the character in the film, is trying to do too much in a short amount of time, and ultimately just runs out of energy as a result.  Despite “flashes” of greatness, this Flash is stuck in the middle of the pack.

Rating: 7/10

Out and Animated – Why Queer Representation in Cartoons Matter and What It Means For The Future

It’s once again Pride Month, where members of the LGBTQ community and their allies take part in celebrating the freedom of expressing ones self the world and honoring the hardship it has taken to bring a better world for those brave enough to show the world who they are.  It’s a relatively new phenomenon, the widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community, which had long been forced to remain unseen in the public eye.  But, with landmark accomplishments like the overturning of sodomy laws and repealing the ban on same-sex marriage that had long made life dangerous and difficult for the queer community here in America, the stigma of being gay, lesbian, bi or trans has lifted and not only are members of the community now granted rights they should have always had but society at large are now finding ways to show they are more accepting of this once oppressed community.  At least, that what most people want to see.  Most polls show that a majority of Americans today are in favor of rights and protections for the LGBTQ community, but there are those who still are strongly opposed to equality.  A very vocal minority more recently has started a fierce, and sadly in many cases, violent backlash to the gaining representation of the Queer community in all aspects of society; most especially in pop culture.  This backlash is most commonly known as the Culture War, a ridiculous campaign against cultural representations of not just the Queer community, but of people of color too in areas where they had not been represented before.  Before, it was called a fight against “Political Correctness,” now it’s called a fight against “Wokeism,” but it’s still they same disingenuous game of holding back progress as a way of preserving the status quo, which favors a power structure that is decidedly self interested in holding up a hierarchy that places straight white men on the top.  And sadly, it’s a group that despite being fewer in numbers now is still potent in their ability to make their own hateful words heard.

At the moment right now, the trans community is receiving much of harshest backlash.  Any sudden acknowledgment of the rights of the trans community to exist within the pop culture are immediately met with often violent rhetoric, that includes several people making symbolic gestures that includes destroying any product associated with a company that expressed support for the trans community.  It’s often a ridiculous spectacle (destroying a product from a company doesn’t hurt them in the least, because you’ve already bought what they are selling and thereby have already given them your money), but the viral nature of people showing their hatred online adds to the unfortunate effect of amplifying their hateful voices.  And sadly that in the long run can hurt the LGBTQ community, because if companies feel that it is in their best interest to stay out of the conversation, then they are giving these hateful clowns a victory, and the LGBTQ community as a result has less protection in the larger conversation.  And it’s clear what the hateful “anti-woke” forces are aiming at with their relentless attacks on the trans community.  They want to roll the clock back on rights for the whole LGBTQ community, and the tactic is to attack the one part of that community that is still the least understood.  The term “groomer” has been misappropriated by the anti-LGBTQ forces, using it to slander trans people as sexual deviants who are preying on children and trying to convert them over by making them, as they put it, confused about their gender identity.  No proof is ever given how a person going through gender transition publicly is in any way a pedophile predator, nor of transgender representation having a corrupting influence on children, but the same claims are still relentlessly made and amplified.  And the goal in the end is to turn support for the trans community toxic, which will of course spill over into the rest of the Queer community, thereby undoing years of hard won fights to gain fair representation in the culture.  Overall, the most aggressive and potent argument made against the LGBTQ community is that they are “going after the children,” which is a gross mischaracterization of what the fight for Queer rights has been.  And the aim of the “culture warrior’s” attacks particularly has sought to shake the resolve of the part of culture that has the furthest reach with younger audiences; animation.

Queer representation has been a particularly long gestating progression in the pop culture.  Because queer identity has in the past carried this “sexual deviant” stain on it for most of the history of animation, animators have been reluctant to showcase queer identity in their work, even if they themselves are either a part of that community or are supporters of it.  Animation has been a medium primarily for young audiences, and for the longest time, things like homosexuality or gender dysphoria were just too taboo of subjects to take on.  Earlier animation could only go as far as to have a cartoon character dress in drag on occasion, which Bugs Bunny often did in many of his cartoons, but it had to be played off as a joke.  Any express support of anything that went against the heteronormative status quo was strictly forbidden in animation; at least from the mainstream.  That, however, didn’t stop the queer community for declaring icons of their own in their favorite animated films.  You’ll find that animation has a particularly large fanbase across the LGBTQ spectrum, and despite not getting the initial public support from the animation studios in return, the queer community still found some places where they felt represented if not explicitly at least in subtext.  These included characters such as the aforementioned Bugs Bunny, or Velma Dinkley from the Scooby-Doo cartoons, or Peppermint Patty from the Charlie Brown shorts, and of course so many of the Disney Villains.  Though Disney Villains were not exactly ideal role models, the Queer community still adored the flamboyant nature of these characters and valued them for the campiness they represented.  As time progressed, Disney would even throw a little nod to the LGBTQ community in this aspect, as when The Little Mermaid (1989) was made and the film’s Villain, Ursula, had her appearance based on famed drag queen Divine.

Despite the little bits of things that the LGBTQ community had clung onto in all their favorite cartoons growing up, once the fight for equal rights had intensified as they grew older and more open about their identity, the desire grew to have that subtext in so many of their favorite cartoons become text.  Now that things have become more acceptable over time and queer representation is more commonplace in the large society, it was now time for that same progress to be reflected in the culture at large.  Like most other things, cinema takes it’s time to actually catch up with progressive cultural movements, as most mainstream studios are reluctant to antagonize any social group in fear of losing out on certain audiences.  But, as more and more of the LGBTQ community is found represented in most areas of the culture at large, it becomes ridiculous trying to ignore them any longer.  Animation of course is an even harder area to shake the status quo, because of the conception that it’s meant just for kids.  Still, as more and more people see that the queer community is not a threat to young people, that too helps the animated market to change.  One big difference now is that there are a lot of families today that have children raised by two parents of the same sex, and many more children will probably be aware of a family member who is gay or transgender.  Most of these modern day children don’t see the queer community today as an oddity like past generations, but rather as a normal thing that they grow up around, and nothing at all a threat to them.  But, that’s a change that is largely just representative of our own culture.  Animation is still a multi-national artform, and what may be fine here will not be accepted in other parts of the world.  This is an issue that affects animation a bit more compared to live action filmmaking, because of the high costs of producing animation involved.  So, to get animation closer towards fully embracing queer representation is a bit of a harder sell in general.

Like most other big movements in the culture, it takes one first big step forward to get the ball rolling.  Surprisingly, it’s wasn’t one of the big names in animation that made the first step in presenting an openly gay character in the movies.  Laika Animation, the Portland, OR based stop motion animation studio that put themselves on the map with the beloved Coraline (2008) delivered a rather surprising twist in their second film Paranorman (2012).  In the film, the older brother of the main character’s best friend is this goofy, thick-headed jock named Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck).  Throughout the movie, the main character Norman’s sister has been lusting after Mitch, so in the film’s finale she finally makes her move only for Mitch to reveal that he has had a boyfriend this whole time.  Sure, the moment is meant to be a punchline, but it’s also significant because it’s the first ever acknowledgment in a mainstream animated movie that one of it’s characters is openly gay.  Now Laika is a smaller studio with more progressive social views and far less to lose than the bigger studios, but the example they made showed that a queer character could exist openly in an animated movie and that it wouldn’t be a very big deal in the end.  It was still difficult for a while for the bigger studios to jump on board still, given that international market.  Where you did see more progress made in animation, surprisingly, was in cartoons made for television.  Animated shows, even ones made for young kids, like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Arthur and many more have gone out of their way to show same sex relationships and gender transition as perfectly normal things that shouldn’t be condemned but rather celebrated.  This is where a lot of the hatred coming from the Culture War is aimed, attacking these shows as attempts to indoctrinate children.  Watching any of these shows shows that they don’t center at all on any of these issues, but rather treat them as common sense lessons on tolerance and understanding; something that children of all kinds can take with them to become more accepting of people who are different from them.  While a lot of attacks have come at the makers of these shows, they nevertheless have shown a lot of backbone in remaining supportive of queer representation in their cartoon worlds.

Strangely enough, a lot of the attacks against queer representation in animation have been leveled at a studio that for the longest time has remained pretty silent when it came to LGBTQ issues.  Disney right now is in a firestorm of attacks from the anti-woke mob, primarily due to their vocal condemnation of the State of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.  If you listen to the hateful rhetoric from that side, you would think that Disney is Enemy #1 and the biggest propagator of what they consider the “gay agenda.”  In reality, Disney has been reluctant to step into the “culture war.”  To be fair, they have been supportive of LGBTQ staff that work for their company in all departments; granting equal benefits decades ago to same-sex partners long before most of the corporate world did.  But, when it came to queer representation on screen, Disney has often been accused of merely paying lip service.  One thing that they had been consistently mocked for in the past is their habit of making a big deal that an upcoming movie was going to have Disney’s first openly gay character in it, only for that character to be a blink and you’ll miss them background character that doesn’t matter a whole lot.  Eventually Disney did introduce an openly gay main character in their latest animated film, Strange World (2022), but sadly a lackluster ad campaign caused the film to flounder at the box office.  This gave the false impression that the anti-woke mob had gained a victory over the LGBTQ community since the movie was a box office bomb, ignoring all the other factors that led up to the result, and that the movie failed because it leaned into queer representation.  The aim of the Culture War is to deter big corporations from embracing the LGBTQ community by saying that doing so will lose them business.  But, that only happens if the corporations see it as so.  Disney saw the failure of Strange World not as a result of their embrace of the queer community, but rather as mismanagement that occurred under their past regime headed by former CEO Bob Chapek.  Bob Iger, on the other hand, is far more embracing of the queer community as part of the Disney fan base, and this is evidenced with the way he’s handled the fall out from the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.  Instead of reversing course, Iger has punched back at the homophobic leaders who passed the bill, mainly because they were attacking Disney’s economic interests in the state.  In response, Iger has cancelled a nearly billion dollar investment in corporate offices in Florida.  In the state of Florida, they are realizing their homophobic backlash is backfiring on them, and that in general it’s a big loss for them instead, because they’ve only emboldened Disney’s commitment to the LGBTQ community.  And when you lose Disney, the largest media giant of all, you lose a major chunk of the cultural collective as a whole.

So, what does that mean for the future of queer representation in animation?  If anything, I think that there will be a lot more representation in the years ahead thanks to the shift made at a big studio like Disney.  The company has gone through bigger losses before than what they went through with Strange World, and they’ve bounced back stronger.  Thankfully, they are not blaming their struggles on the LGBTQ community like the anti-woke crowd wants them to.  One hopes that they try again to bring more upfront queer representation into their upcoming movies.  One thing that would really silence the critics is if that representation came in one of their already successful properties; with Frozen being the most likely place for that to happen.  One of the things that frustrated LGBTQ Disney fans was that there was some strong hints about the sexuality of the character Elsa sprinkled in to the first two Frozen movies, but it was never fully fleshed out.  This was especially frustrating in Frozen II (2019) as the movie gave some strong hints that this is where they were going with the character, only for the plot point to be dropped towards the end with nothing getting resolved.  The recent announcement of a Frozen III gives LGBTQ Disney fans the hope that Elsa will finally get that girlfriend that we’ve been teased with and that the subtext about the character will finally become text, in a franchise that is honestly too big to be ignored.  At the same time, if Disney can prove that they can achieve success with an openly gay primary character in their animated film, then all the other studios like Dreamworks and Illumination will follow suit.  Hey, some may even jump ahead and try to beat Disney to it, like Sony Animation which had a lesbian main character in The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) and all of the pro-LGBTQ messaging sprinkled throughout the Spider-Verse movies.  Overall, the signs are encouraging that none of the backlash is deterring the animation studios from embracing the idea of queer representation in cartoons.

It’s just difficult sometimes to see how queer representation can take hold in media when the voices opposed to it are so loud and even worse amplified by powerful people.  Sadly, social media values negativity because it causes the most discourse online and as a result generates more traffic.  You would think with all of the anti-woke think pieces that clutter the internet atmosphere that the backlash towards the LGBTQ community is strong, but in reality, the progress towards representation is still what remains strong.  The thing is, the anti-LGBTQ forces represent an ever shrinking demographic that is growing older and dying out, while younger audiences, the consumers of tomorrow, are far more accepting of the LGBTQ community and that is what the corporations are recognizing more now.  Sure, we would love to see them do more than just post a rainbow flag across their social media pages during pride month (like, I don’t know, stop donating to the campaigns of homophobic politicians), but big business rightly recognizes that antagonizing a generation that is more embracing of diversity and inclusion is not good for their long term success.  So, as fierce as the bullying from the anti-LGBTQ crowd may be, they can not stop the arc of progress.  And one of the most useful places for ensuring that future generations will be open minded about their LGBTQ brothers and sisters is through representation in the cartoons that they view when they are kids.  There is no sexualization of children if they see two members of the same sex either holding hands or giving a small loving kiss in their cartoons.  It’s something that they likely see as normal from their parents or another family member who never is a threat to them at all, and watching it in a cartoon will be both affirming of the reality that they themselves know.  Even better, if that child then grows up realizing that they are part of the LGBTQ community, they’ll have the added benefit of affirmation from the cartoons that helped them to see it as a perfectly normal human condition.  We in the LGBTQ community have always adored the cartoons that we grew up with.  It’s just now heartening to see that those same cartoons are starting to love us back.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Review

The comic book super hero genre has dominated the box office for the last decade and a half, but for the most part, the dominance has been represented in live action.  What we haven’t seen too much of are super hero films in the realm of animation; at least on the big screen.  Both DC and Marvel have produced a number of animated features through their respective animation arms, as well as a number of series, but those films have been relegated to either direct to video releases or straight to streaming.  But there have been some animated comic book films that have managed to make it to the big screen.  In 1994, DC released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm briefly into theaters; a film spun off from their popular Batman: The Animated Series.  Surprisingly, despite being owned by a company founded on art of animation since 2009, Marvel didn’t have an animated feature based on their comics until 2014, and it was based on one of their more obscure titles; Big Hero 6.   Despite there not being a lot of familiarity with the Big Hero 6 comic series in the general audience, the Disney animated film still managed to be a box office success and even won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, which just shows how strong the Marvel brand had become up to that point.  But, what a lot of comic book fans were wondering was if there would be any animated representation on the big screen from one of the marquee characters within the pantheon of super heroes in their library.  Though Disney has a legendary animation department at their disposal, they have mostly decided to use their Marvel brand in live action on the big screen, with the streaming arm of Disney+ being the place where they are more comfortable bringing Marvel into animated form; most notably with the What If? series.  However, a different studio which still maintains their license over one of Marvel’s premier characters is not afraid to take Marvel super heroes more into the realm of animation on the big screen.

Sony, which has it’s own animation department, sought to make the most of their legacy license over the character of Spider-Man and do so both in live action and animation.  Though their live action films have been pretty hit (Venom) or miss (Morbius), a very different result occurred with their animated attempt.  Produced by the creative team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the same mad geniuses behind The Lego Movie (2014), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) not only managed to hit well with audiences as a comic book movie; it significantly changed the market of animated films in general as well.  While computer animation has for nearly the last 30 years been following the lead of Pixar and Disney Animation, with soft edged character models and detailed environmental design, Sony Animation decided to take their film in a whole different direction.  While still computer animated, Spider-Verse’s design was far more stylized, utilizing an aesthetic that felt more hand drawn while still three-dimensional.  Every character and environment looked like they had leapt right off of the comic book page.  Not only that, but their movement on screen was very stylized, utilizing a slower frame rate that made the characters’ animation feel even more hand drawn.  Combine this with the hilarious comedic sensibilities of Lord & Miller, and Into the Spider-Verse was not just a great comic book movie, but arguably one of the greatest animated movies of all time.  It solidified it’s hit status by additionally winning the Oscar for Animated Feature; breaking a monopoly on the award by Disney and Pixar.  The graphic art style has even influenced all animation in general, as more animation studios are ditching the traditional Pixar look for something more like Spider-verse; as seen in Dreamworks’ recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Nickelodeon’s upcoming Ninja Turtles reboot.  Even Disney’s upcoming Wish (2023) is adopting a more hand painted aesthetic to it’s animation.  But of course, Sony is also keen to continue building on this franchise as well, especially since it gives them a successful Spider-Man franchise that they don’t have to share with the Disney owned Marvel Studios, like they do with the Tom Holland Spider-Man films.  And this year, we are finally seeing the next phase of their Spider-verse plans with the highly anticipated sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

The film picks up the story a year after the events of Into the Spider-Verse.  Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is trying to balance his new life as the new Spider-Man protecting the citizens of New York City.  His mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) are concerned that he is shirking his responsibilities at both school and home, unaware of his double life as a super hero.  Things become more complicated when a strange new super villain named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) has shown up on the scene.  The Spot, who gained his inter-dimensional portal opening abilities from the super collider incident that Miles thwarted in the last film, has a personal vendetta against Miles and is seeking revenge, which Miles initially ignores.  Things, however, get more complicated when one of Miles’ old Spider Friends, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) aka Spider Gwen, shows up.  She has in the past year been recruited by a team of interdimensional Spider heroes to help set things into order within the multiverse.  The team is led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), known as Spider-Man 2099, who takes the protection of the multiverse very seriously.  His second in command is Spider-Woman, aka Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), and another member of the elite squad is Miles’ old mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who now has a baby daughter named Mayday.  There are also some outsider assistance provided by Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) Pavitr Pradhakar whose fairly new to the job, as well as Hobie Brown, aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), whose rebellious instincts conflict with most of Miguel’s plans.  Miles sneakily follows after Gwen, who has been on the trail of The Spot, who’s seeking to enhance his powers.  The mayhem as The Spot leaves behind prevents what Miguel O’Hara calls a Canon Event from happening, which he tells Miles is essential to holding up the framework of the multiverse.  When Miles learns that a canon event is meant for his future, he seeks to be sent home in order to stop it, which Miguel refuses.  Miles determination puts him at odds with the team, and soon a whole city’s worth of Spider Heroes is chasing after him.  Is Miles right to determine his own fate, or is he making a selfish decision that could threaten the stability of the multiverse.

It definitely has to be said that when the original Spider-Verse movie came out in 2018, it was a breath of fresh air in an animation market that felt very homogenized.  Animation really lacked variety in the later part of the 2010’s.  Because of the dominance of Disney and Pixar, all animated movies throughout the world market just copied their same style to a degree; even rivals like Dreamworks and Illumination.  Animated movies to that point were not so much judged on the quality of the animation since it was all so interchangeable, but more on the strength of their stories, which of course helped to put Pixar up at the top with their excellently written films.  Into the Spider-Verse however was not just excellent in it’s storytelling, but it equally wowed audiences with it’s wild animation style.  The movie was wall to wall creativity, with surprising details in every frame.  Not since Toy Story (1995) had an animated film challenged the established order of things in the world of animation, and it did so with a story that also tugged just as hard at the heartstrings as any Pixar film.  Suffice to say, it’s a tough act to follow, but of course anybody who knows the super hero genre well will tell you that a sequel is inevitable.  So, five years after the fact, Sony Pictures Animation has finally released a sequel to their ground-breaking hit film.  Surprisingly, the team behind the movie not only had enough story for one film; they had an idea that was big enough for two.  Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the first of a two-part arc, which will conclude next year with Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse (2024).  The question is, did Sony manage to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.  For the most part I would say yes, but I did find a couple issues with this sequel that I will point out.  On the whole, this movie does deliver exactly what you would want from a continuation of the Spider-Verse storyline.  It builds upon what we’ve already seen and even ups the ante in terms of creativity in the art style.  But, as I was watching the movie, and generally having a good time with it, I couldn’t get over this sense of maybe it was all too much of a good thing.

Here’s where I have my issues with the film.  At 140 minutes, this film breaks the record for the longest animated film ever produced by a Western animation studio.  Even Disney has never gone far beyond the 2 hour mark, with Fantasia (1940) being their longest film at 125 minutes.  Most animated films fall within the 90-120 minute mark, so Across the Spider-Verse really has shattered the record.  On one hand, this is a typical length for a standard live action super hero movie.  The longest Spider-Man movie on record is the 148 minute Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which felt appropriately lengthed.  It’s possible that the time needed to tell a story in animation isn’t as much to tell it in live action, as movement plays by different rules in each medium.  In any case, I really felt the length of this movie, particularly in the slow build first half, and it kind of robbed the movie of some momentum in the story.  While there is still a lot of moments to love in the opening half, you do feel a bit of the bloat in order to get this movie up to the epic length.  Some character moments feel like they would have been better trimmed down without loosing the essentials.  Thankfully, the movie picks up steam in the second half, and culminates in a heart-pounding cliffhanger finale, but I do wish it had kept up that level of energy throughout the film.  The original Spider-Verse was a taut 117 minutes, and it used every moment wisely.  The one other thing I feel worked against the sequel was the fact that it no longer had the novelty of the first film.  Into The Spider-Verse felt like such a discovery when we first saw it; like we were witnessing the beginning of something new in cinema.  Across the Spider-Verse gives us more of the same, which is still amazing to look at and incredibly creative, but it just isn’t the groundbreaking achievement that the original film was.  These issues still don’t ruin the movie as a whole, but I do feel like they hold the film back from truly achieving iconic status in the same way that the original did.

Still there is a lot to praise about the movie.  One of course is the animation.  The Sony Pictures Animation team clearly wanted to build upon what they already achieved in the last film.  One of the most interesting ideas that they executed for this movie was giving each new dimension of the Multiverse it’s own distinct art style.  In the original movie, the art style remained mostly the same when it came to the environments, with much of the diversity of styles saved for the character designs.  This made sense, as we were seeing the world through the prism of Miles Morales’ reality.  Here, the characters jump into multiple universes, and each one is stylized to match the characters that inhabit it.  Spider-Man India’s home world, which is cleverly named Mumbattan, is designed to resemble Indian poster art, including a change in the onomonopia text to reflect Indian lettering.  The various Spider-Man are also creatively animated in their own styles.  One of the visually creative ones is Spider-Punk, who is animated in a way to make it look like he’s made out of a collage of newspaper clippings; making him a clever nod to British punk rock artwork of the 70’s and 80’s.  The movie integrates so many different animation styles together, including having versions of the Spider-Man characters from the animated television series sharing the screen, as well as the ones from the video games.  There are even live action characters integrated in seamlessly.  All the while, the artwork is kinetic, but still services the story effectively.  There is an especially beautiful scene late in the movie with Spider Gwen where the backgrounds change in every single shot, reflecting the change in mood, and each one could be put on the wall and framed as a work of art on it’s own.  The fact that this animation team still is able to pull off a visually creative scene like that, one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream studio animated film before, this late in the game is a real testament to their commitment towards driving the capabilities of animation even further.

I also want to spotlight the talented voice cast of this movie, who again bring so much life into these characters.  Hailee Steinfeld is given much more to do here as Gwen Stacy, with the character becoming something of a co-lead alongside Miles Morales this time.  She really brings a sense of gravitas to the character that helps to build her journey across the multiverse.  Of course Shameik Moore once again does a brilliant job of voicing Miles Morales.  His performance definitely reflects the growth the character has gone through between films; finding him in a far more confident place.  Once Miles Morales makes his live action debut eventually, it will be a hard act to follow, as Shameik has done such a good job capturing the infectious exuberance of Miles so far in this animated version.  Though his role is smaller this time around, it’s also good to see a welcome return of Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker.  This time around he has traded in the dad bod to become an actual dad, and Johnson hilariously plays up this Spider-Man’s new domestic situation.  Of the many new characters, the one who stands out the most is Oscar Isaac as Miguel O’Hara.  While Isaac did make a first appearance in the post credits scene of the first Spider-Verse movie, that cameo was played mostly for laughs, poking fun at the “Pointing Spider-Man” meme.  Here Oscar Isaac really gets to chew into this character, and you really feel the weight of his tragic paste playing out in the portrayal of the character.  Miguel O’Hara isn’t exactly cast as the villain of this movie, but his contrasting worldview clashes in a harrowing way with Miles Morales, and Oscar Isaac carries those scenes with ferocious power.  I also liked Daniel Kaluuya’s heavily accented Spider-Punk, which matched the art style that he’s personified with.  As far as the villain goes, Jason Schwartzman does an interesting thing with The Spot, where he’s played off as a bumbling joke of a bad guy in the beginning, but as he builds his power over time, Schwartzman begins to voice him in a much more menacing way, and it’s effectively done.  It’s good to see that in terms of the art style and the voice acting, Across the Spider-Verse is continuing to keep the standards high and giving us the things we really want the most out of this series.

It certainly looks like Sony Animation is pulling out all the stops when it comes to creating these Spider-Verse films.  I definitely love the collection of art styles used throughout the film.  I feel like I’m going to need a few more watches in order to catch every little detail found on screen.  My issue, however, is that I feel like the movie was a good twenty minutes too long.  It takes almost an hour just to get to the actual multiverse jumping that the movie promises.  Once we finally get there, the film definitely gets rolling, but I wish that it had that same kind of energy throughout the film.  A tighter paced first act might have helped with giving me a more satisfactory experience, but at the same time, there are quite a few things to love in that first half of the movie.  The cast of characters namely helps to make the movie an engaging experience.  The film still makes us fall in love with Miles Morales and his journey, and it also helps to flesh out returning characters like Miles’ mother and father, as well as Gwen Stacy, who gets the most additional character development in this film.  I also loved the new characters introduced here, with Spider-Punk being an easy new favorite.  Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara is also a fascinating new addition to the series, and I’m very interested in seeing where the series takes his arc in the next film.  One thing that I wonder if it had a possible impact on my viewing experience is that this film is the middle chapter in a planned trilogy.  There are certainly many great examples of brilliant middle chapters on the big screen like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), but I wonder if I may like this movie better once I have the full context of it’s story which will conclude with Beyond the Spider-Verse next year.  I do think I may like this movie better once the trilogy is complete, but for now my first impression is one of admiration, but with a reservation for some uneven pacing.  For now, I would put it under the original film slightly, though there are some individual scenes that I do think exceed the brilliance of the first movie too.  I hope that once the trilogy is complete that the full scope will be seen in all of it’s brilliance.  The thing I appreciate the most is that Sony Animation with this series is really shaking up the animation world and holding it up to a higher standard.  Especially coming off of the stale storytelling of The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023), this kind of film with it’s bold brushstrokes in both art and storytelling is so refreshing to see, and my hope is that the other animation studios, including Disney and Pixar, continue to up their game in order to compete.  You got to appreciate a game-changer like the Spider-Verse series, and it’s definitely the hero we deserve right now.

Rating: 8/10