With ‘Across the Spider-Verse,’ Phil Lord and Chris Miller ‘Blow the Doors Open’ 

This image released by Sony Pictures Animation shows Miles Morales as Spider-Man, voiced by Shameik Moore, left, and and Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, in a scene from Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse." (Sony Pictures Animation via AP)
This image released by Sony Pictures Animation shows Miles Morales as Spider-Man, voiced by Shameik Moore, left, and and Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, in a scene from Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse." (Sony Pictures Animation via AP)
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With ‘Across the Spider-Verse,’ Phil Lord and Chris Miller ‘Blow the Doors Open’ 

This image released by Sony Pictures Animation shows Miles Morales as Spider-Man, voiced by Shameik Moore, left, and and Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, in a scene from Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse." (Sony Pictures Animation via AP)
This image released by Sony Pictures Animation shows Miles Morales as Spider-Man, voiced by Shameik Moore, left, and and Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, in a scene from Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse." (Sony Pictures Animation via AP)

Aside from the inverted skyline, the only giveaway that something is off in one of the most striking images of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is the ponytail that’s sticking straight up in the air.

Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) and Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) have just reunited in the “Into the Spider-Verse” sequel. After giddily swinging through New York skyscrapers, they perch themselves on the underside of a clocktower ledge. Their view is ours: An upside-down city, shimmering in the distance.

“Everything is the wrong way, but if feels right,” says Phil Lord, who wrote and produced “Across the Spider-Verse” with Christopher Miller.

In the movies of Lord and Miller, a filmmaking duo since they met in college at Dartmouth, down is frequently up, and up is often down. They’ve turned seemingly terrible ideas — a Lego movie, a “21 Jump Street” movie — into original works of antic, innovative comedy. One of their crowning achievements, the Oscar-winning “Into the Spider-Verse,” took a hatchet to superhero movie conventions. Spider-Man, for the first time, was a biracial kid from Brooklyn. He was also, thanks to a mosh pit of multiverses, just about anyone, or anything, you could think of.

“With that mask that covers an entire body and face, you can imagine yourself in that suit,” says Miller. “The whole goal of this trilogy was to let everybody feel like it could be me, and show as many different types of people — and animals — being Spider-Man as possible.”

It took nearly five years, a crew of a thousand and a cavalcade of Spider-People, but the second chapter of Miller and Lord’s “Spider-Verse” series has arrived. It might be their masterpiece. In “Across the Spider-Verse” — an eyeball-delighting, electrically animated whirligig of color and sound — Lord and Miller set out not just to surpass the high bar of their 2018 original but upend big-studio animation and the more-of-the-same expectations of sequel-making.

“It was an opportunity to show the limitless possibilities of animation in a studio film,” says Miller. “For too long, the studios were mandating that these films all look the same. And we wanted to blow the doors open on that.”

“Across the Spider-Verse” certainly blasted expectations on opening weekend. It debuted with $120.5 million, way above tracking estimates and more than triple what “Into the Spider-Verse” launched with. What was once a quirky minor player in the hulking world of superhero movies has turned into not just a blockbuster but a genuine pop-culture sensation and, maybe, a new high point in comic-book movies.

“When you have the confidence of the audience like I hope we have from the first movie, you sort of want to use it as a springboard to take more chances,” says Lord. “We couldn’t justify doing this with any other story or any other point in our careers. We were like: Let’s swing the biggest bat we can.”

“Across the Spider-Verse,” directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, continues the story of Miles, now a veteran crime-fighter but also a teenager with an increasingly strained relationship with his parents. They remain unaware of his secret identity.

But much isn’t straightforward in “Across the Spider-Verse,” which Lord and Miller penned with David Callaham. There are countless other parallel Earths, each with their own Spider-Person. One is Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man’s traditional love interest who’s now a potent force, herself. Worlds collide, many times over.

There’s also a Spidey collective that keep these universes in balance by making sure certain canonical moments happen for each hero. There may be wide latitude in who can be Spider-Man, but a foundation of formula must be obeyed.

This battle with Canon is in many ways Lord and Miller’s fight, too. They’ve spent their careers deconstructing convention and inverting tropes. They have sometimes pushed right up against Hollywood’s limits. In mid-production on “Solo,” the Han Solo standalone “Star Wars” film, they were famously replaced after a clash over the film’s tone.

“Across the Spider-Verse,” a part two ending in an abrupt cliffhanger, plunges directly into the question: So what is gospel for Lord and Miller? Is anything?

“Who seeks to become an artist in order to be a column that upholds the temple?” says Lord, laughing. “That’s no fun.”

The “Solo” kerfuffle might have been their “Network” moment. (“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale.”) Instead, Lord and Miller have, if anything, doubled down on their devotion to tearing up Hollywood playbooks.

“We have a natural aversion to the dangers of nostalgia. It can be a calcifying effect on people,” says Miller. “There’s a lot of anger and hate coming out of wanting to preserve things the way they’ve always been. That’s not how society works. We need to keep evolving and making things new and growing. We can’t just perfectly preserve the past.”

“The movies you love were all daring in their time,” adds Lord. “The idea isn’t to copy them. It’s to be as equally daring as ‘Snow White’ or ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Jaws.’”

Their collage-like films, like Michael Rianda’s family road trip “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” are often in some way contemplating humanity in increasingly digital worlds. Lord and Miller were behind the meme-turned-movie “Cocaine Bear” earlier this year.

Set to a modern hip-hop beat and chock-full of ever-changing shocks of color that channel the 2-D art of comic books, “Across the Spider-Verse” summons multiverses with the ease of a keystroke. But it does so far more playfully, disorderly and distinctly un-algorithm-like. Striving for originality, they say, is “how to keep the robots guessing.”

“The AI isn’t going to generate something new and original,” says Miller, who along with Lord, is an outspoken Writers Guild member in the current strike where artificial intelligence is a top issue. “It’s going to just do an imitation of the things that came before it. It’s our job as humans to keep making things new.”

But as dizzying as “Across the Spider-Verse” can be visually, the imagery is ultimately in service of its central characters’ inner lives. To the 28-year-old Moore, Miles’ appeal isn’t that he’s exceptional. It’s that he’s recognizably ordinary.

“There are young Black kids that are just like Miles. Regular, cool, kinda nerdy, weird, loveable kids. Same thing on the Hispanic side,” says Moore. “People want to meet him. My lines at Comic-Con are insane.”

Moore never received a script for either film, just a sense of major plot points. Three times a month, for four years, he would go into a recording booth for six-hour sessions with Lord, Miller and the directors.

“They’ll play with it for hours. We’ll do another session where they lock in on whatever they like the most and then they’ll play with it again. It’s really like they’re having fun, more than anything,” says Moore. “The whole project is being treated like a passion project. It doesn’t feel like someone is watching over them.”

At the same time, “Across the Spider-Verse” grapples with not just the responsibilities of Spider-Man (Miles) but of his anxious, doubting parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez) and Gwen’s disapproving father (Shea Whigham). It’s a coming-of age-story, but as Miller says, “the parents have to come of age, too.”

“And what makes someone legitimate?” says Lord. “Do you seek that outside of yourself? Or can you simply seek your own approval? Miles is like all of us hoping for validation outside. But it can never really satisfy you. You have to take it on yourself. Even though the movie ends in a cliffhanger, I think that’s what he achieves. It’s an epic action movie where the story is really internal. He’s the MacGuffin.”

Some of the same questions exist for Lord and Miller, both 47 and increasingly prominent power players with a long pipeline of projects in development. Later this summer they have the R-rated dog comedy “Strays” in theaters. Even a live-action movie for Miles is in the mix.

“You always feel like an outsider even if you’re working inside these big companies,” says Miller. “Otherwise, you become the Empire.”

“Beyond the Spider-Verse,” the third film in the trilogy is due out in less than a year, on March 29. It will bring to a conclusion Miles’ looming battle with Spider-Man Canon. Just how far Miles — and Lord and Miller — are able to stretch the Marvel webslinger will be put to a final test.

Given who’s behind these films, don’t put a lot of money on Canon emerging victorious.



Movie Review: ‘Tuesday,’ with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Is Strange, Emotional and Fiercely Original

 This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)
This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)
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Movie Review: ‘Tuesday,’ with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Is Strange, Emotional and Fiercely Original

 This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)
This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)

Death has taken many forms in cinema. It’s been Bengt Ekerot. Ian McKellen. John Cleese. Even Brad Pitt with blonde highlights. But in “Tuesday,” filmmaker Daina O. Pusić's bold, fantastical and affecting debut, death looks like a lot like a macaw that's seen better days.

Covered in a thick layer of grime and oil with patches of feathers missing, “Tuesday’s” Death can be as big as a room or as small as an ear canal. Its booming, gravelly voice (that of actor Arinzé Kene) sounds ancient and otherworldly. And it all adds up to something profoundly unsettling. Not exactly a comforting welcome into the afterlife, or whatever comes next.

“Tuesday,” expanding nationwide Friday, is about death, and acceptance, between a mother and her dying daughter. But this is no Hallmark affair fitting for a sympathy card. It is prickly, wry, somewhat unsentimental, a bit gritty and awfully painful at times. Or maybe it’s just uniquely British. And you may just find yourself in a puddle of your own tears as a result.

Now, in terms of cinematic emotional blackmail, a parent coming to terms with a child’s imminent death is pretty much in the red zone. That sort of setup could produce involuntary tears from an audience regardless of the level of talent involved. Thankfully for us, there is immense creativity and vision both in front of and behind the camera, including not just the writer-director but the special effects experts responsible for Death as well as the haunting and innovative sound design.

Lola Petticrew plays the titular Tuesday, a teen with a “Breathless” pixie cut, a love of jokes and rap music and a terminal illness that has bound her to an oxygen tank and the use of a wheelchair. Her mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), has entirely disconnected from the situation. She tiptoes around the house waiting for the nurse, Billie (a lovely Leah Harvey), to do the caretaking. She stays out all day, pawning household items for cash to pay for the care, ignoring Tuesday’s calls and occasionally falling asleep on park benches. At home, she doesn’t want to talk to Tuesday about anything real — the death, her job, their precarious financial position — it’s all been deeply repressed and compartmentalized and is making everyone crazy.

The day we meet Zora and Tuesday is the day Death arrives. Billie has left Tuesday on the patio for just a minute to start a bath. All of a sudden, the girl who was just joking around is having an episode, gasping for air, when the macaw lands by her side. Death is actually the first character introduced, in an unnerving series of deaths setting an ominous tone that will loom throughout. Some are ready to go, begging for relief. Some are just scared. And all have the same outcome once he’s put his wing around them.

Tuesday, however, decides to tell a joke. This disarms Death (who bursts out laughing) and suddenly they’re in conversation together. She gives him a bath, puts on some music and asks a favor: She’d like to say goodbye to her mom first. Death obliges.

Of course, the story both is and isn’t that simple. “Tuesday” becomes some strange combination of body horror, fairy tale, domestic drama and apocalypse thriller. It is weird and transfixing — never predictable and never boring. Louis-Dreyfus is both chilling and deeply empathetic as this woman who has been paralyzed by grief even before it’s happened. She seems to be preparing for her own death in a way, unable and unwilling to process a life without her daughter who, at this point, doesn’t even realize that her mother still loves her. Petticrew holds her own, going head-to-head with Louis-Dreyfus at her cruelest, exhibiting a wisdom beyond her years and fitting of a person who’s had to grow up and face death far too early.

“Tuesday” is ultimately a cathartic affair, whether death is top of mind at the moment or not. And it announces the arrival of a daring filmmaker worth following.