Filmmaker and Letterboxd member So Yun Um joins hosts Slim and Gemma for a chat about her new Tribeca sell-out documentary Liquor Store Dreams, and her four Letterboxd faves: Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love; Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow; Federico Fellini’s 8½ and the Wachowski Sisters’ The Matrix. Plus: throwing caution to the wind and becoming a filmmaker, the fleeting moments that give us life, getting around Netflix’s screenshot ban, sexy noodles, who we would date from the Better Luck Tomorrow cast, So’s Johnny Tran prequel pitch, making dads proud, neo-realism vs French New Wave, all our fave Keanu movies, neighborhoods, high grades, parents who just want you married off, how The Matrix broke down barriers at high school and the Danny-from-Liquor Store Dreams spinoff we want to see.Read transcript
Kambole Campbell is caught in the web of excitement at Sony’s 2022 Annecy International Animation Film Festival preview of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
Annecy, France. An impromptu drumroll from the Annecy 2022 audience builds towards a reveal of the main villain of the upcoming Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The feverish anticipation of a crowd hoping to see how the team of animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks plans to top the success of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse diffuses into bemused laughter, and then excitement again, as they announce their choice… The Spot?
It’s just one way in which the playfulness of the upcoming Spider-Verse sequel asserts itself. Rather than trying to one-up Kingpin, the filmmakers instead take a deep cut from Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery, a character often thought of as a joke villain—one with the power of having a bunch of portals within his body—who here becomes an opportunity, an outlet for how the team will take the first film’s “spirit of experimentation to the next level”, according to producer Kevin Noelle.
The Spot is a choice of villain that feels hilariously, ingeniously small, compared with the promise of unimaginable scale with regards to the rest of the film—both its expanded team of animators and the scope of their ambition.
But there’s a lot of fun to be had in their visual approach to the character, here voiced by Jason Schwartzman. His body is “living ink”, intentionally taking on the look of “an artist’s unfinished rough drawing” shambling off the page, with new animation tools created to make the moving inkblot portals that make up The Spot’s body—and more exciting still, a later incarnation looking more like a monstrous, walking inkwell.
Spearheading these fresh takes on familiar characters are the triumvirate of Joaquim Dos Santos (The Legend of Korra), Kemp Powers (writer and co-director of Soul) and Justin K. Thompson (a production designer on Into the Spider-Verse), taking over from the first film’s directing trio, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman.
Into the Spider-Verse was an eye-popping blend of styles, taking in the nuances of the visual languages of comic books and animation, through approaches like its mimicry of the Ben Day process and “Kirby Krackle”, use of comic-book onomatopoeia (my favorite instance being the “bagel!” sound effect appearing on screen), and the playing up of 2D animation techniques like motion smears and animating “on twos”. The new film has a lot to live up to, but based on footage shown at Annecy (much of it shown earlier at CinemaCon), the new directors more than have it in hand.
As well as the additions behind the camera, Across the Spider-Verse (now without the ‘Part 1’ suffix, the third film is now called Beyond the Spider-Verse) adds Spider-persons Miguel O’Hara AKA Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac, reprising his cameo role at the end of the first film) and Jessica Drew, AKA Spider-Woman (Issa Rae). A clip from the film’s opening makes clear that Isaac’s portrayal of Miguel is, in the directors’ words, “a more feral, intimidating Spider-Man”. With claws replacing sticky powers, his very presence is destructive—the crew’s other name for Miguel is “Property Damage Spider-Man” if that makes it clearer.
Jessica Drew (who to my great excitement has been imagined as a sort of ’70s Pam Grier spin on the character, as imagined in Dennis “Hopeless” Hallum’s comic run) also makes a big entrance, by crashing into the scene riding a motorcycle directly into an airborne Vulture, all while noticeably five months pregnant. Of course, new Spider-people means new artistic styles, and the Annecy presentation put these new opportunities front and center. “If the first film was about Spider-men, women and pigs coming to Miles’s world, this is about Miles going on an adventure with Gwen across the multiverse.”
Thanks to the influx of multiversal motion pictures in the past year or so, this sounds a little bit less novel than when Into the Spider-Verse was released, but it’s still no less exciting due to the directors’ visual approach: each dimension comes with a wholly different look, defined by new tools developed during the production process. One such example is that of Gwen’s world, which takes cues from her comic-book source material and adapts it to 3D imagery through the use of a watercolor simulation tool. This is applied to everything in Gwen’s dimension (“Earth 65”), buildings and all, the colors reflecting Gwen’s state of mind in what the directors called “a three-dimensional mood ring”.
The new footage we saw at the Bonlieu Scène Nationale begins in this dimension, with a quick introduction to the terse relationship between Gwen (a returning Hailee Steinfeld) and her father George (Shea Whigham), a cop who has sworn a vengeful mission against Spider-Woman, believing that she murdered that world’s Peter Parker. After an extremely Italian version of The Vulture attacks the Guggenheim, the two square off—though this is quickly interrupted by Miguel and Jessica, who whisk Gwen away at the clip’s end.
Aside from some fun little references like an Ultimate Fallout poster in Gwen’s room, the film continues its predecessor’s love letter to comic books through its adoption of even the smallest visual tics of that medium. The presentation highlighted how “the hand of the original artist is infused in the film”, the first example being the work of Spider-Man 2099 artist Rick Leonardi. The co-creator of the Miguel O’Hara character worked with the visual-development team to show them the tricks of the trade so as to better use them in the film, such as how to mimic his specific inking techniques when drawing the character.
Working on the look of Jessica Drew—sporting motorcycle gear and an afro as well as a pregnancy bump—was Black Panther artist Brian Stelfreeze, who shared his penciling techniques with the team during the development of the character.
Of course, Miles Morales himself was also a highlight, with the second clip showing his taller and more athletic build, his new suit and a new symbol that maintains the DIY artist’s touch of the first film’s costume. Having successfully filled Spider-Man’s shoes, Miles (Shameik Moore) is now dealing with the classic Spidey burden of a double life, the footage showing him swinging to a parent-teacher meeting, Rakim’s ‘Guess Who’s Back’ booming as he tries to make up for his lateness, his own parents awkwardly stalling and talking up Miles’s merits.
The chemistry between Miles, his father Jeff and mother Rio is incredibly charming, especially as they briefly pause from arguing to question the teacher’s insistence on their family “coming from struggle”. It’s all to show that as big as the new film gets, the new directors haven’t lost sight of Miles and his family as the heart of its narrative, and their visual innovation as the soul of what appealed so strongly to audiences in the first place.
In a similar sense, the reintroduction of… The Spot… is a perfect summation of why Across the Spider-Verse looks like a worthy follow-up to the most popular American animated film in recent memory (and indeed Letterboxd’s highest-rated film of 2018). As Rodo writes from Annecy: “I wouldn’t complain if the movie is just a bunch of incomplete scenes, layouts and storyboards. It would [still be] perfect.” It’s in the attention to detail and excitement about the deep history of comic books, and more importantly the potential for visual experimentation, that these characters bring with them.
Though the market is busy with multiverse movies, guess who’s back (in 2023) to show everyone how it’s done.
‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ is due for release in 2023.