Once in an occasional blue moon, there’s always one film that strives to redefine the art form, without thinking about it. Nobody would’ve thought an effort like 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse would be that film in that moment. But those audiences somehow knew by the end of their experience, this was a momentous change making the smallest ripple. And in developing a fresh template for bold, visually rewarding storytelling, leaving the biggest splash. Not just in animation, but certainly in any cinematic facet. A sequel to such an impactful cultural checkpoint, one that outpaced its competition in many races, was all but inevitable. I knew Sony’s brain trust wouldn’t steer us wrong with the long-awaited Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse. But at no time could I have imagined my brain going through the wringer, my eyes misty and placid, and my lungs low-key gasping for air. For a film, any film, to leave such a visceral response by the moment the lights go up, exhausted and yet desperate for more? There’s genius to spare.
And it’s the kind shared between two mindful protagonists. Whereas diving Into amounted to the origin of Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore) arc in discovering the joy and charm of being a web-slinging do-gooder, bouncing Across equates to sharing the role of leader with his crush from another dimension, Gwen aka Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld). Back in her variant of Earth, she’s dealing with her own form of social ostracizing, her alter-ego blamed for the murder of his Peter Parker, keeping her police chief dad (Shea Whigham) on high alert. Invited by fellow dimensional heroes with arachno-attributes, such as the brooding Miguel O’Hara aka Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), she’s slowly gaining a sense of calling, attempting to keep balance in the multiverse.
Miles, on the other hand, lacks any. He’s struggling to keep his head above water, juggling high grades, college prospects, and distancing the alias from his family as new enemies come a-calling, and his police officer dad (Brian Tyree Henry) celebrates his promotion to captain. Entering the scene is The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a black hole-manifesting dimensional mischief maker once a pupil of Kingpin’s, who gains strength and power with every verse or timeline he overthrows. And that includes Miles’s Earth, where this new baddie enacts retaliation for destroying his life’s work, making it personal as this adventure traipses about between dimensions. Of which there are many. Many realms, many emotional layers to unpeel. And certainly a few fresh faces appearing for good. Namely a more successful Spider-Woman (a charming Issa Rae), a punk-era Spidey (Daniel Kaluuya), and a friendly Bollywood-type Spidey (Karan Soni).
And that is the strongest idea that directors Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami…), Joaquim Dos Santos and Justin K. Thompson, and writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (22 Jump Street) & Dave Callaham (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), all occupy in both heart and mind, refusing to let go until the clock runs out. Even when it does, hovering just over two and a quarter hours, I was ready for more to this story, knowing just how deep it’s willing to cut from an emotional wavelength. The gut is wrenched without going for shock value, the funny bone tickled with an appropriate idea of placement. The heart captures a denser, magnified beat. And the eyes welling up with warranted overload, lost in the moment while never dropping engagement.
The level of ambition shared amongst these creatives never goes unnoticed, unfelt, unseen. It was just impossible to look away, even if a couple faint stretches of dialogue needed a little extra work to connect with its neighboring dots. Beyond that, it’s a flawless work opening itself to endless opportunity and ingenuity. Not shirking from its cinematic qualities, this Spiderverse looks to often challenge even that of the old comics, even genuine high art. Could it be Gwen’s opening battle inside the Guggenheim Museum serves as a tongue-in-cheek appetizer of that idea? Or the very presence of a million obvious (and not-as-obvious) easter eggs littered across your secret Spider-Society headquarters to attract all corners cutting the tension? And evidently yes. It all plays out like an unpredictable puzzle, losing the instructions and discovering exciting ways to link the pieces. Always, with a reaction that’s profound, with a raised game, and certainly with a high musical profile. One shared between an arduous Daniel Pemberton (The Bad Guys) score, and a hip soundtrack curated by Metro Boomin.
That much can apply just as promptly to Spider-Verse’s broad, eye-popping style template. Look at any given frame, and one will find a myriad of ideas stacked together in full cohesion, besting the previous film at every turn. Never fighting for screen time, persistently leaving any moment as awe-inspiring. Any potential lack of consistency may vary by one’s perspective, as the room is made here for anything to fly, depending on the character’s lens. Miles is more down-to-earth, fragile, gritty like his neighborhood, as colorful as what’s there. Bright, if not also a trifle faded, as he struggles with upholding the duties of a justice-abiding vigilante and maintaining firm ties as a teenage son with an awkward family dynamic. All of that grows to newfound depth, the same way we uncover more of Gwen’s misunderstood identity. A bit anarchic, but no less bright and ethereal, with 80s-esque watercolor flourishes across her range of vision. Think of the band Blondie, but more indie. The Spot’s perception is completely experimental, often with the bite of a manga, or the draftsmanship of Kandinsky. The more disdain he creates, the more sway he has slicing through other dimensions with a sharp, effortless flow.
The animation can show so much here and does. The story can say many things with utter eloquence, accomplishing so without a second thought. But it’s far from complete without the voices to back up its emotional and moral compasses. Moore delivers equal modesty and ferocity when trying to justify a shift in the timeline, a shatter in the events. So too does Steinfeld, capturing the same nugget of firm emotional growth, with Henry digging deeper for the clueless dad part. Schwartzman and Kaluuya offer up dry silliness to their parts, with the hope that, given time, that balanced corruption outshines. It’s Isaac who steals the show, without being the antagonist, while still wrecking the status quo with his intent to maintain it. And all of them need only the simplest of directions to really match the heaviness of the situation, and the plight of these characters. How often could we say that about an animated feature and its cast, that they effectively allow themselves to belong in this world, embody these figures, at such a level one would swear it was live action? Rarely, at best. This film, like its counterpart, has blurred the line. Maybe it’s been redrawn, and the dust has yet to settle entirely.
Not that there’d be much reason to worry, let alone think about the impact the sequel will have. Better to live for it, stay in the moment, much like life when justifying emotional growth. Probably not the easiest thing when keeping differing multiversal realms from imploding, but eventually one finds a way. Miles is on that path, and we’re merely following along with whatever he’s experiencing on this climactic hero’s journey. A figurative rollercoaster, if one will, with its highs, lows, varying in-betweens, and little chance of catching your breath. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is just that kind of ride on screen, perhaps the best of its variety we’ll see all year. The sort of film that redefines what great animation – nay, what great storytelling can do, no matter the subject or the parameters. The sky’s no longer the limit with the art form, and certainly with this franchise. Quite possibly the definitive Spidey, but let’s not jinx anything just yet. (A; 4.5/5)
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens in theaters June 2; showtimes begin 2PM June 1; rated PG for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements; 140 minutes.