Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is one of the most gorgeous films you’ll ever see. That’s a surface-level observation, one the movie makes (quickly) apparent and then never lets you forget it. Not one to settle into one mode of expression, Across the Spider-Verse has its cake and eats it by having a litany of animation styles collide with one another, constantly and all at once. 3D animation layered onto 2D, fused with pastel paintings, seasoned with comic book panels, and garnished with sketch art. The filmmakers demonstrate their awareness of these conflicting yet complimentary forms, showcasing a huge battle sequence (expertly executed) in an art museum of all places. The colors are relentlessly vibrant, popping with an intensity not often seen in Western animation (or anywhere really), but did we expect anything less from this sequel? The only suspense is if the movie has the narrative heft to elevate its groundbreaking visuals to true art.
We know Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore) story thus far, but we don’t know where he’s heading. The lone Spider-Man in his universe, he has his life focused on fighting crime and setting goals for his future career in science. However, he does wonder how all of his Spider friends are doing in their universes and why they haven’t come to visit him. This includes Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), who steps up here as something of a co-protagonist. We delve deeper into her world and her family dynamic, and she feels strikingly at home as a central hero. Her longing for Miles is complicated when she encounters a society of Spider-People, led by Miguel O’Hara a.k.a Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). Miguel has a unique and rigid agenda, one that looks to subvert the optimism we’ve become accustomed to with Spider-Man. His worldview eventually collides with Miles, as the latter believes so deeply in what he’s capable of, that he won’t stand for an order that tries to convince him that there’s only one right path in the universe.
Other than extraordinary animation, what makes this such a sweeping blockbuster is its blistering pace. For a movie packed with so many references and callbacks, it manages to take longtime fans and new viewers on a ride at a frequency that rivals the pacing of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). With so many characters, so much information flying at you, combined with a rapid speed, it may sound overwhelming. Going into the film, my biggest worry was that the movie would be less interesting than its predecessor by doubling down on the number of Spider variants we would see. That couldn’t be further from the truth in practice, as the filmmakers do an exceptional job of showcasing each Spider-Man and demonstrating quickly how every single character is a unique beast of fascination. It’s really building off the formula of the original while killing concerns of diminishing returns due to a larger cast. With every hero, you’re left thinking – I’d like to see a movie with her, oh let us see more of him, etc, etc.
Perhaps my favorite variant is Spider-Man India/Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni). This dude comes out of nowhere and just threatens to steal the movie, a delightful human with the exuberance of a Shonen superhero. The Mumbattan setting adds to this electric part of the movie, a beautiful canvas for a jaw-dropping section of the film. At one point, Pavitr brags that Mumbatten is the coolest and most aesthetically pleasing place to be Spider-Man – I don’t disagree with him. He swings not just with the architecture but also the people, somehow flying through the tight crevices of this densely packed metropolis with uncompromising grace. Webslinging has never inspired this much FOMO; how many would kill to have this as a destination vacation?
The movie’s visual paradise sits atop a bedrock of personal choices and angst between Miles and Gwen Stacy. Both are somewhat alienated by their own universes, failing to foster bonds with their peers. The movie even gets very on the nose about this, as Gwen is a loner in a band where she plays to the beat of her own drum. Miles’ family life is more stable than Gwen’s, but that doesn’t mean he’s understood any better. That is partially his own fault, thanks to his secret identity. But Miles has hit that critical point of one’s life where he’s smart enough to know what choices he wants to make in his future, but he doesn’t have any actual authority, so the people who make the decisions for him still doubt his competency. Imagine being Spider-Man, but you still have to argue for the right to choose where you want to go to college.
Granted, none of this is reinventing the wheel in terms of storytelling, and a lot of it is just table setting for a 3rd chapter (more on that later). But the film shares a lot of themes in common with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), as, once again, a dilemma about college is the protagonist’s hurdle, and the overarching theme is very much about what it means to be Spider-Man. Like sure, all the web-slinging and corny one-liners are nice fun and games, but eventually, these pubescent meta-humans have to make huge decisions that not only dictate their lives but affect an entire civilization of people. I forward that is why it’s important that Miles, Gwen, Peter Parker, and all their equivalents are good people. If Spider-Man were a terrible human, the consequences would be astronomical. I’m certain Uncle Ben once stated something that put this idea into summation, but for the life of me, I can’t recall right now.
Yet, this familiar tale isn’t without faults despite how well-practiced it is. Once we start to peel the onion on this plot, the conflict that is presented is more than a little silly. Yes, I understand what they’re going for, but it’s a bit much that certain characters are being this anal about the predestination of events. It gets to the point where death sentences are being stamped on characters just because of their job title. The Bible isn’t even as strict and literal as the Spider Society apparently are. As for Spider-Man 2099, he gets his fair share of awesome action moments. But I did want more in terms of character development, as his presentation and his backstory were a little shallow and one-note. This will likely be rectified as this story continues, but it’s still a flaw of the movie in this moment. It doesn’t help that his screen time is heavily truncated, and, in general, the film has a few issues with pacing. By the time we get to the conclusion, what’s being revealed is very revelatory, but the movie drags it out like it has to hit some mandatory runtime, or as if it’s an episode of Stranger Things, instead of giving the movie the exclamation point it deserves.
These quibbles, however, are mere blemishes on a Mona Lisa. Across the Spider-Verse is a wholly immersive experience, one that floors you, picks you back up, and knocks your ass back down again. I don’t think it’s currently possible to make a live-action film this frequently breathtaking; it demands the power of computers and animation. What Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and the directing trio of Joakim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, & Justin K. Thompson have accomplished here is to help redefine the aspirations of a comic book movie. The level of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail, the rapid editing, the ever-evolving animation style, and the superb soundtrack make this a sensory onslaught. It stands head and shoulders above its predecessor because it dreams bigger, then goes and executes those dreams.
As a result, it beams as a shining achievement in the medium, one that stands parallel with the best works of Pixar, Miyazaki, and Satoshi Kon. Kudos to the voice cast as well, many of whom return and give even stronger performances than the last film. Chief among them is Luna Lauren Vélez as Rio Morales, now afforded a bigger role as her relationship with Miles carries the family dynamic here, a change from the father-son tale in Into the Spider-Verse. However, Miles’ story isn’t ever about one relationship but the Rubik’s Cube of his entire familial network. That means his bond with his dad, his late uncle, and with Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) are still being written – or spray-painted.
One of the film’s touching moments is a conversation between Miles and Gwen, suspended upside down as they look upon Brooklyn, New York. So here are these two teenage superheroes, each from different universes, having a chat amongst skyscrapers as they contemplate the anxiety that comes with making decisions that will determine the entire outlook of their lives. The (literal) gravity is brilliantly captured, as Gwen’s upright hair makes you feel like you’re near the top of that building with them. That delicate artistry is so uplifting that it can be forgiven that we still need to wait to see this story have its proper conclusion. Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse may come along and retroactively improve this middle chapter even further, if that’s even possible. But, until then: