A sequel to the 2018 animated hit, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse points a finger at the entire concept of superhero mythmaking.
It’s about time comic-book movies got serious about examining their own self-indulgent story tropes. You know, without being jerks about it. In 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wowed audiences with a stunning, uniquely animated story brimming with reality-bending potential. Now, almost five years later, its sequel Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has all the same nerdy overload that has quickly become familiar for Spider-Man movies. Complicated multiverses. Fan service that ties in previous Hollywood franchise iterations. And even the concept of “retconning,” or resetting canon to make sure whatever comes next is newcomer-friendly. Only in the case of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, you get the sense that the filmmakers both love and deeply resent this ubiquitous, corporate-approved approach to not just Spider-Man movies, but superhero movies in general. So they just made a whole film about that very conflict, and the result makes Spider-Man: No Way Home look like a cute science fair project.
Those filmmakers include first-time feature film directors Joaquim Dos Santos (who directed episodes of Justice League Unlimited and Avatar: The Last Airbender), Kemp Powers (writer for Star Trek: Discovery and Pixar’s Soul), and Justin K. Thompson (production designer for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). But make no mistake, Across the Spider-Verse drips with the influence of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as co-screenwriters along with David Callaham. Lord and Miller have pretty much perfected the formula for making cynical box office cash grabs into actual works of art for years now with The Lego Movie, the 21 Jumpstreet movies, and obviously Into the Spider-Verse, which they co-produced. With Across the Spider-Verse coming out just two years after their triumphant Mitchells vs. the Machines, it’s probably safe to say that Lord and Miller are the new kings of animated storytelling, a moniker they would surely reject publicly.
“Make sure he never forgets where he came from.”
Across the Spider-Verse mostly takes place about 16 months after the conclusion of Into the Spider-Verse, with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) fitting nicely into his new, slick Spider-Man suit and great responsibilities with a well-earned confidence despite his young age. This isn’t a Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie, where the constant theme is one of balancing personal desires with superheroic duties. No, Miles’ main issue is wanting to grow up too fast, escape the nest, and maybe find a way to reconnect with Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld). The problem is that Gwen lives in an entirely different universe, making her the one who literally got away. Like far, far away.
Speaking of Gwen, the movie actually gives us a far more in-depth and emotional exploration for where she comes from. As well as what drives her as a Spider-Woman who’s been isolated from everyone she cares about. It’s no wonder she jumps at the chance to join a secret “Spidey Society” that promises her an escape from the problems in her own turf, so she can pal around with Spider-People in every other dimension. In the same way that Everything Everywhere All at Once utilized the concept of a multiverse to tell a gripping, focused story about one woman’s dissatisfaction with her life choices, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse uses that same plot vehicle to illustrate the shortcomings of trying to find purpose and belonging in frivolous excess. And if that sounds a bit too layered for an animated Spider-Man movie geared toward young adults, then you are not ready for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
Every Spider-Man everywhere, all at once.
Eventually, Miles and Gwen do find their way back to each other, but the awkwardness is real. Part of the problem is that Miles isn’t the kind of Spider-Man that Gwen’s new Spider-friends are willing to accept, for reasons that exasperate Miles’ eagerness to be accepted as an adult. The leader of this society is Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), a surly Spider-Man from a century in the future who invented a way to travel the multiverse — which even includes video games? — using a nifty wrist device.
But Gwen claims Miguel is selective about who can join his crusade to round up anomalies, and it doesn’t help that a new villain of the week who calls himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) has set out to break the entire multiverse in an attempt to prove himself a worthy nemesis to Miles.
A multiverse of madness, for real this time.
For a good chunk of this movie, it’s actually nerve-wracking to see how close to the edge of awful things might’ve gone for this narrative. The audience has to endure waves of Spider-People and easter eggs, constant detours from the main plot, and a screenplay structure that would make film school professors quit their jobs in protest. Yet somehow the filmmakers have made every component of this overwhelming movie into something thoughtful and considered and worth paying attention to. Yes, even the T-Rex dressed like Spider-Man.
It’s uncanny, amazing, spectacular, take your pick of whatever other superlative. There isn’t just one that fully fits the bill. This is mostly because the entire movie is in a true sync of visual and audio flair. Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack absolutely delivers victorious highs and crushing lows. The 3D-animated comic style looks better than ever, and it’s been edited and tweaked to constantly keep the viewer engaged and appraised of little details and pro-tips for people who have no idea what a hammerspace is. And that’s not even getting into how distinctly designed these universes are, from Gwen’s pastel punk atmosphere to a sprawling Indian monolith city that fills the entire movie screen and then some. If ever a movie was such a visual feast that it could give someone a stomachache, this is the one.
“We are supposed to be the good guys.”
All these details are in service to a beating, rhythmic heart that centers, miraculously, around the relationship between superheroes and their families. The choices that have to be made by Miles in this story are genuinely hard-fought and undercut the entire concept of what people normally accept in any given Spider-Man movie. It’s the kind of storytelling that begs tireless debate between nerds and casual movie fans alike for what it implies and investigates about what it means to be a nerd or a casual movie fan, or whatever else in between.
It’s also something else to see Puerto Ricans in a superhero movie like this, where our culture and mannerisms and yes, clumsy Spanglish, aren’t relegated to Wikipedia entries (looking at you, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness). Bryan Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez return as Miles’ parents, Jefferson and Rio, and they are undoubtedly the stealth hearts of Across the Spider-Verse. Particularly in how Rio receives special attention this time around with a speech about the little boy in every man that will likely evoke waves of tears across the Spider-Movie-Theater-Verse.
Across the Spider-Verse is the rare movie miracle. The kind of blockbuster summer movie that changes the game for every other blockbuster summer movie moving forward. It’s too easy and obvious to call it one of the best comic book movies ever made, which it is. It joins the ranks of Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Star Wars. It has the ability to bombard you with countless movie magic in the form of hilarious, endless streams of Spider-Man lore and still make you think you didn’t pay enough for the movie ticket.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens in theaters on June 2. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation.
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE - 9.5/10