‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Review – A New High Point for Hollywood Animation and Superheroes
249Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a cultural watershed moment. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman, and Peter Ramsey from a script by Rothman and Phil Lord, with Lord producing with his creative partner Christopher Miller, not only did Into the Spider-Verse introduce audiences to a Spider-Man never seen in a feature film in Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and break the concept of the cinematic multiverse wide open, but it also marked a shift in Hollywood animation. Its varying frame rates and expressionistic, comic-like style were revolutionary in every way. Opening to a modest box office, on the backs of stellar reviews and fan adoration, the film became a modern classic. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse adopts the sequel playbook of going bigger and bolder. Rather than resulting in an overstuffed mess, Across the Spider-Verse is up to the challenge, making the first movie look like a trial run in comparison.
Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson step into the director’s chairs this time around, working off a script by a returning Phil Lord along with Chris Miller and Dave Callaham. Not that you would know the creative team had a slight tweaking because stepping into the next chapter of the Oscar-winning Spider-Verse saga feels like returning home. Miles Morales has somewhat settled into his role as Brooklyn’s full-time, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, still struggling to balance his home life and superheroics. This becomes even more complicated when a bizarre new threat calling himself “The Spot” (Jason Schwartzman), equipped with the ability to open dimensional holes, reveals himself to be far more than just the average supervillain of the week. A visit from Miles’ old pal/love interest Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), the “Spider-Woman” of her world, only complicates matters further
Gwen leads Miles to another Spider-Man, Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), who leads a team of Spider-People from across the multiverse, dubbed the “Spider Society” in his world. Miguel, otherwise known as Spider-Man 2099, reveals a harsh truth that will force Miles to re-evaluate everything he knows about his very existence. To say more would be a disservice to the wallop of surprises that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has to offer. What’s impossible to be spoiled is the sheer magnificence of the visuals. An increased budget and no shortage of ambition make Across the Spider-Verse an early contender for the best-looking film of the year, animated or otherwise.
The central conceit of Into the Spider-Verse gets heightened, as heroes from each universe move in different frame rates that are much better defined as are their own wholly unique art styles. Somehow, it all still manages to be visually fluid. An early sequence where Gwen fights a Vulture (Jorma Taccone) from a Leonardo Da Vinci-style universe in her more expressionistic, watercolored world is a perfect example. The chaos of two completely separate aesthetics clashing against each other results in something that pops off the screen in every way – as the directors make sure that all the action is clearly viewed, each hit landing with a pronounced splash-page style crunch. Buoyed by an (if you can believe it) improved original score from Daniel Pemberton, along with energizing new music by Metro Boomin, that gets the heart pumping, watching the movement in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is an adrenaline rush.
Audiences will be left gobsmacked by a late-film sequence featuring so many different Spider-People and their respective art styles that it borders on being overwhelming in the best way. Yet, when Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse takes time to slow down, none of that magic is lost. It’s easy to disappear into the watercolor style of Gwen’s universe or the neon cyberpunk eye candy of Miguel O’Hara’s or the vibrant multi-layered streets of Mumbattan (a fusion of Mumbai and Manhattan) wherein Spider-Man India resides. The film even manages to cleverly weave in some live-action footage! Every frame is a testament to the craftsmanship on display.
Naturally, a movie titled Across the Spider-Verse features a mess of lovable Spider-People, as well as those dearest to them. Miles Morales continues to be an endearingly clumsy but compulsively heroic protagonist. Fan-favorite Gwen Stacy is given a lot more to do this time around, sharing the protagonist role with Miles and even opening the film on her own. Spider-Gwen’s relationship with her father George Stacy (Shea Wingham) forms a sturdy emotional backbone for her character. Other returning folks include Miles’ parents Jefferson Davis and Rio Morales, courtesy of Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez doing a ton of dramatic heavy lifting, and Jake Johnson continuing to charm as a (slightly) more put-together Peter B. Parker, who has a daughter now!
Oscar Isaac makes for one hell of a cold authority figure in Miguel O’Hara, while Jason Schwartzman’s voice work as The Spot oscillates from goofy comic relief to genuine adversary in a terrifying way. Issa Rae as the badass mother-to-be Jessica Drew, Karan Soni’s rambunctious Spider-Man India, Daniel Kaluuya as the attitude-ridden Spider-Punk, and Andy Samberg’s edgelord Scarlet Spider will all have their fans as each brings fresh flavors to the story. Though some obviously have more to do in the plot than others, they all feel like their own fully-realized renditions of the characters rather than shoehorned or distracting cameos.
The Spider-People are only as good as the story they’re in, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse tells maybe the strongest Spider-Man story since Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man 2. If the first film was about how anyone can be Spider-Man, this sequel pointedly asks “What makes Spider-Man… Spider-Man?” More broadly, it interrogates the very nature of canon and storytelling, and how repeating the same stories makes us slaves to common narratives. Miles boldly stands against this – his inner journey representing breaking free from what’s expected of every Spider-Man – to be a better hero than those who have come before him by forging his own path. His arc is so interesting, so invigorating, so fully Spider-Man while at times turning the narrative on its head, that it feels almost cruel that the movie ends on a doozy of a cliffhanger that uproots the very foundation of the story so far.
Yes, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is technically one-half of a story, as Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse is set to conclude the story of this thrilling series. Nevertheless, the audience won’t feel one bit cheated. The themes introduced, as well as the eye-popping visuals and bright new faces, make this follow-up a wholly exceptional experience on its own. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a triumph of a sequel, a triumph of a comic-book film, of animation, and so much more. It’s a massive, shockingly subversive take on the wall-crawler that takes every single aspect of the first film, remixes it, and improves upon it. When walking into Across the Spider-Verse, consider what your favorite Spider-Man movie is. Heck, consider what your favorite superhero movie is period, not just Marvel. Because that just might change.
Rating: 5 out of 5.