A rich and rewarding sequel that’s more meditative than audiences may expect
A year and change have passed since Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore) radical transformation into the Spider-Man of his dimension, Earth-1610. With the destruction of Alchemax’s multiverse-opening collider, the other Spider-folk who helped Miles save the world are lost to him entirely–and while he’s futilely balancing the life of a hero and student like any good Spider-Man, Miles can’t shake the budding connection he felt with Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld). When tensions run high between Miles and his family, threatening to expose his identity once and for all to the people he loves, Gwen reappears in Miles’ life. Their skyscraper-bounding reunion is cut short with the appearance of The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a mysterious, black-and-white figure whose hilarious and haphazard random portals create an ominous threat to Miles and his universe. In tow, Gwen reluctantly introduces Miles to a reality-bending society of fellow Spider-people, organized by Spider-Man 2099’s Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac). Having tragically faced the chaos of the multiverse head-on, Miguel is driven to protect the “canon” of each Spider-Man’s universe at all costs–but Miles soon learns how pivotal of a role he must play in Miguel’s mission to save reality.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse skillfully employs pioneering animation tech and its own audience’s patience to create a visually stunning sequel whose webs of ambition are shot at even more lofty thematic heights than its predecessor. Across the Spider-Verse may not provide a cure to the multiverse fatigue it arguably created back in 2018; however, directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson and writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham use their sprawling, imaginative canvas to directly interrogate the possibilities–and wrenching conundrums–such limitless paths create for us, driving both Miles and us into thrilling new emotional territory.
Building upon the immersive visual splendor of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Across the Spider-Verse seizes upon four years’ worth of animation development to thrust viewers into beautifully rendered universes that its alternate Spider-people call home. There’s the opening watercolor-stricken world of Gwen Stacy, evoking a tender emotional turmoil, and a chaotic ransom note of a world for Daniel Kaluuya’s gleefully anarchic Punk Spider-Man. A standout, however, is Mumbattan, a kaleidoscopic crash of color that introduces us to endlessly optimistic Pavitr Prabhakar, who still faces the canon gauntlets his fellow Spider-People must begrudgingly pass. For as temporally overwhelming as the Spider-Verse may get, the film’s design team recognizes how crucial Across the Spider-Verse’s visual elements are in providing an emotional anchor for the audience. Some sources claim that, similar to other down-to-the-wire animated films, production on Spider-Verse was only completed on May 20th, ten days ago from the writing of this review, and only four days from the film’s first press screenings. This collective, time-intensive ambition pays off with how each world feels so wonderfully distinct from one another. If Spider-Verse fans reveled in how much hidden detail was in the first film, there are enough split-second gags and tributes here to fill multiple subreddits. However, many of these details don’t feel like obligations or random IP-grabbing set dressing; rather, it speaks to how much these universes feel wholly lived in. Each universe isn’t just beautiful–you understand what makes each of them worth saving to the Spider-Man they give rise to.
This attention to narrative balance initially sparked my own fears about Across the Spider-Verse; it’s a film, according to its creators, that boasts 280 characters across six universes–and has broken Incredibles II’s record as the longest animated studio film of all time. With the obligatory hunger to push this story to an even bigger scale than its predecessor, would the sprawling nature of the Spider-Verse become an albatross around this film’s neck? The love of detail praised above is both a blessing and a curse in Across the Spider-Verse’s latter sections, as we’re treated to an overwhelming Keatonesque barrage of individually-distinct Spider-People in pursuit of Miles across Miguel’s vast Spider-Society. As wish-fulfilling and visually gonzo as it can get–it feels distractingly opposed to what makes Across the Spider-Verse such a compelling and thematically mature film compared to its previous incarnation.
In a narrative move that may catch some more excitable audiences off guard, Across the Spider-Verse has a methodical thematic patience that feels like it should be antithetical to its frenetic comic book appeal. However, this pacing allows Across the Spider-Verse fertile opportunity to explore its rich themes. Even with its gargantuan scale, Across the Spider-Verse remains laser-focused on the emotional stakes connecting Miles and Gwen (Steinfeld is excellent here), with appearances by returning favorite Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), as well as new faces like Isaac’s Miguel and his conflicted right-hand, Jessica Drew (Issa Rae). Each share their own approach to their universe’s bestowed emotional baggage–and all have their own unique perspective on how the tragedies and sacrifices that unite them were required to shape them into who they are today. With such a measured approach, the film’s creative team indulges Spider-Verse’s imaginative flights of meta-fancy yet grounds it in potent emotional, self-reflexive territory for what’s vocally a middle chapter in the shadow of The Empire Strikes Back and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
If Into the Spider-Verse was about figuring out one’s place in the world, Across is interested in exploring who decides that place, and if there’s anything one can really do to change that. Through each of the film’s central characters, this emotional engine has plenty to reflect on when it comes not just to Spider-Man’s ubiquitous origin tropes, but also the unrelenting zealotry by which fandoms, studios, and other forces guard aspects of beloved IP. Like Into the Spider-Verse before it, Across the Spider-Verse recognizes just how creatively liberating it can be to explore the wide worlds and perspectives beyond our comfort zones–and hopefully sets up next March’s Beyond the Spider-Verse to push Miles and his legion of Spider-Friends into even more daring avenues.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse hits theaters on June 2nd courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation.