To many, the 2018 animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the finest of all Spider-Man movies (and there are many to choose from), with its frenetic energy, mixed-media animation style, and interplay among Brooklyn-born Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) and a small army of spider-themed heroes from all corners of the multiverse, including potential love interest Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). But apparently that first entry (which won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, need I remind you) in the Spider-Verse storyline was only a taste, because the latest chapter, Across the Spider-Verse, is bigger, has epic stakes, and is just better.
In fact, everything about this second film is better, from the seemingly enhanced animation style, the writing, the imagination, the humor, and the emotional investment, all of which combine to feel like the great comic-book storyline come to life (or as close to life as animation can feel). As an artistic achievement, Across the Spider-Verse looks like a scrapbook of all things Spider-Man. There are pages and covers from actual comic books; there’s a collage-like approach to some of the sequences, with images and lettering that looks like it was torn out of various magazines; there’s even a live-action component in several key instances that remind me a bit of the approach to the multi-verse in Spider-Man: No Way Home. And the visuals are made all the more electric thanks to an incredible Daniel Pemberton score, which feels like a great DJ set or playlist more than anything.
The film actually begins with its focus squarely on what Gwen has been up to since the last film, living in her universe with her police captain father, George Stacy (Shea Whigham), who has made it his primary goal to arrest a masked vigilante named Spider-Woman, who just happens to be his daughter. But as the movie’s framework begins to expand, we realize she truly misses Miles after the time they spent together, and she wants to travel back to his universe to see him.
Or is that her true mission? It turns out Gwen is part of a massive secret society of Spider-Man variations (we met a handful of them in the last film, but we’re talking thousands of them, all from various parts of the multiverse). This Spider-Verse is run by Miguel O’Hara, commonly known in the comic books as Spider-Man 2099 (voiced by Oscar Isaac), who has made it his mission to make sure that all crucial events that help form the backbone of every Spider-Man story (such as the death of Uncle Ben) don’t get taken off course. If they do, he has ways of dealing with them that are rather unpleasant.
For reasons too complicated to go into here, O’Hara believes that Miles is going to somehow screw up his own origin story, which will diverge his timeline to such a degree that it could destroy the entire universe. And Gwen is sent to lure Miles into the Spider-Verse, where he can be trapped until the event takes place. Before he is made aware of this predicament, Gwen takes Miles to meet a few other Spider-Men, including one in India (Karan Soni), the OG Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), and even a British punk-rock Spider-Man (Daniel Kaluuya). This entire multiverse journey is kicked off when Miles confronts a would-be, seemingly lame villain named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who can create spots on things or in the air that open up pocket dimensions people can go through (or he can make a hole in an ATM, so he can relieve it of all its money). But when we get Spot’s origin story and an understanding of how he wants to accentuate his abilities, things start to take on much more dire options in defeating him.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse barely slows down to take a breath or give the audience a chance to process anything that is happening in the film. But we do get more reflective moments with Miles, especially when he’s with his dad (police officer Brian Tyree Henry) and mom (Luna Lauren Velez), or with his Spider-Man mentor, Peter B. Parker (the returning Jake Johnson), who now is married to Mary Jane and has a baby daughter, May Day, who is already showing signs of becoming a crimefighter.
The Spider-Verse HQ is one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in a superhero movie, ever. Imagine a collection of characters, each representing some small costume or personality or identity change that Spider-Man has ever had, all together with the common goal of stopping any incursion from a pre-determined event that will help shape the web-slinger into the hero he is meant to be, and by extension, protecting existence itself. O’Hara wants to hold Miles captive until his significant event has passed, but Miles has other ideas, plotting his escape from captivity and this other-dimensional universe.
From directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson (working from a screenplay by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Dave Callaham), the film works on multiple levels. But for pure Spider-Man nerds, the easter eggs in this movie are endless and righteous and with many of the references made, it seems second and third viewings are required. More to its core, the film also asks bigger questions about what the definition of a hero is: someone who saves one person, or someone who lets that person die to save an entire universe? Miles believes he can do both, but no one else thinks he can, so the final act of the movie is thousands of Spider-Man variations going after one, who is either the hero or villain of this story.
Everything about these Spider-Verse films is different from more traditionally made animated works; the craftsmanship on display makes you fully understand why it takes years to produce these films (although the third part of this franchise, Beyond the Spider-Verse, comes out in March 2024). You get the impression that spending too much time in the Multiverse might drive you insane, so I guess I’m ready to make that sacrifice because I could watch this movie for weeks on end. Having a world full of Spider-People hit a nerve with me, because now none of them have to feel alone in their lives in which someone important to them has to die in order to learn their “with great power comes great responsibility” lesson. The problem is, Miles hasn’t learned that lesson yet, despite losing his much-beloved uncle Aaron in the previous film.
Fair warning: Across the Spider-Verse ends in a cliffhanger (multiple cliffhangers, actually), so no whining about unfinished business (save that for Fast X) once the film is over. There’s even something about the way the voice work is done here that is different, more lifelike; it feels more like actual acting, daring to take a beat to get quiet and allow us into the heads of these fully-realized characters. It’s refreshing, exciting, and puts to shame a lot of what’s going on in other animated works these days. Some of the alternative Spider-Man references might be a bit too geeky for non-die-hard fans, but there’s still joy in seeing the variations who display attitudes that are vastly different than what we’re used to from Miles, Peter, Gwen, and everyone else we’ve been introduced to thus far. This is a damn-near perfect film, animated or otherwise.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens in theaters June 1.
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