“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” the sequel to the 2018 reimagining of the arachnid-adolescent superhero, doubles down on the first installment with an inventive and magpie visual style. The result is, at least in part, a crash course in art history (literally so, as characters frequently crash into works of art).
While the film is largely rendered in computer-generated animation that speeds by at a dizzying clip, there are moments of slowed, even stunning beauty: backgrounds dissolving with painterly effect, shifting into emotive abstraction reminiscent of, at turns, the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Hilma af Klint. New York’s cityscape is softened into brushy, Impressionistic swaths. Ben-Day dots stutter across the screen, a nod to the story’s comic book source material, but also calling up Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriations of the same.
Justin K. Thompson, a director of the film, said the collision of techniques and applications was deliberate. “We wanted to emulate dry brush, watercolor, acrylic,” he said. “I looked a lot at the work of Paul Klee, the work of Lyonel Feininger.” The experimental films of John Whitney, a pioneer of computer animation, were another inspiration.
There are also a number of more direct allusions to contemporary art. An early set piece in the Guggenheim Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright building allowed the filmmakers gleeful abandon. A version of the perennial Spider-Man villain Vulture that appears as if lifted from a Leonardo da Vinci parchment drawing tumbles through the museum’s rotunda, wielding weapons inspired by da Vinci’s fanciful and terrifying inventions and causing havoc in what quickly appears to be a Jeff Koons retrospective. The fight scene deploys several of Koons’s sculptures of inflatable toys, like “Lobster” (2003) and “Dolphin” (2002), hurled as projectiles. Naturally, a Koons Balloon Dog, his most readily recognizable work, receives top billing.
“When we talked about the Balloon Dog we said, ‘What could we do with it? What would be special?’” Thompson told me. Koons, he recalled, “was actually the one who said, ‘You know, one thing about the Balloon Dog is it’s this thing that has a lot to do with breath. It’s filled with human breath. But we’ve never actually seen the inside of one. What if we cut one open and we could see what was inside?’ And we just kind of looked at each other, like, ‘But what’s inside?’ And he said, ‘Whatever you want.’”
What’s inside ended up being a sight gag that follows after Vulture lops off the head of a 12-foot-tall Balloon Dog, from which spill countless smaller Balloon Dog sculptures, satisfying the nagging suspicion that Koons’s outsize works are in fact elaborate piñatas. (The scene brought to mind an episode earlier this year, where a collector visiting the Art Wynwood fair in Miami accidentally shattered a 16-inch edition The film was already well through production.)
“It was moving to me,” Koons said on a phone call from Hydra, Greece, “because I always thought of the Balloon Dog as kind of a ritualistic work, something that could have a mythic quality to it, a little bit like a Trojan horse or Venus of Willendorf, where there would be some form of tribal community.” (His own balloon Venus did not seem to make the final cut.) Koons considered the Balloon Dog’s presence in the film as “truly participating in a larger community where people can rally around it.”
The scene, which also features several of Koons’s earlier, stranger and less exposed works, like the polychromed wood sculpture “String of Puppies” (1988), from the “Banality” series, the stainless steel bust “Louis XIV” (1986), and several of his 1980s vacuum cleaner assemblages, is a homage to an artist who served as the original, if indirect, influence for the first “Spider-Verse” film’s direction. In 2014, while still in an early conceptual phase and at an impasse as to how to create a kind of postmodern version of the deathless hero, Phil Lord, a co-writer of the screenplay, and Christopher Miller, a producer, visited the Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Lord has said the exhibition crystallized their thinking.
“You could look at ‘The New,’ ‘Equilibrium,’ ‘Luxury & Degradation,’ ‘Antiquity,’ ‘Hulk Elvis,’ all different bodies of work that possibly seem like this kind of multiverse,” Koons offered. “Where you could have things existing at the same time but in different ways.”
Whether the deep dive into Koons’s oeuvre resonates with casual viewers is another story. As the plot swings between slightly overbearing teen angst and extrapolations into quantum physics — itself an extended metaphor for the angst-inducing, open-ended possibilities of adolescence — the art in-jokes feel like a concession to adult aesthetes. (“I think it’s a Banksy” is a one-liner recycled from the first film, referring to something that looks nothing like a Banksy. Everyone laughed at the joke at the Upper West Side screening I attended, but not at the Koons stuff.)
The idea that, in an alternative universe, Jeff Koons’s career booster took place at the Guggenheim instead of the Whitney is perhaps the most in-joke of them all, something even seasoned art-world insiders might not have fully appreciated. “There was a discussion for many years that I would have my retrospective at the Guggenheim — it never happened,” Koons told me. “So it was wonderful to see.”
For his part, Koons gushed about the result: “I think the film is really astonishing, and I think culturally it’s playing a very important role for a whole generation of young people to inform them about the possibilities of perception.” He went on to say, “I never had seen richer colors — the reds are phenomenal!” Koons was born in ’55 and grew up on Disney. “There was a certain point in the ’70s maybe where we saw animation fall off,” he said, “and then with Pixar we saw this tremendous leap forward. The film uses that technology as a base but brings back a texture, really the texture of the senses. I mean, it’s like the way we perceive a Rembrandt or a Titian.”
Asked if he was at all disturbed by seeing representations of his work obliterated by animated superheroes, Koons responded with Zen Buddhist diplomacy. “I care very much about the world. I care about living. I care about existence,” he said. “Everything turns to dust. The world around us turns to dust, universes turn to dust. What’s important is how we can enjoy the world that we’re in, and be able to have the perception of what our future can be. As an artist, it’s nice to feel in some way that the fine arts are able to participate within culture.”