Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
The impulse, of course, is to simply proclaim Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse a masterpiece and leave it at that. By almost any measure it's a stunning, staggeringly impressive piece of work, so creative and inventive that it feels like a quantum leap forward not just for super-hero films—whose creative heights, let us be frank, have not historically been nosebleed-inducing—but for the art of animation, and maybe for cinema in general. Whether the movie is that good will be a matter of opinion, of course, but I don't think many will deny that it feels that new. It's a game-changer, instantly recognizable as one of those watershed moments in popular entertainment that will divide all future discussions of its form into before and after.
And why fight that impulse? The only word for the experience of seeing Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse on the big-screen—and I had the experience twice, just to be sure—is "overwhelming."
On first viewing I was overwhelmed with the surface-level insanity of it all: with the incredible beauty of the shifting animation styles; with the clever and deliciously complicated plot that unfolds at breakneck speed; with the rapidly multiplying characters and easter eggs and throwaway jokes that literally appear too quickly and furiously to register them all.
Going back for a second viewing, I hoped to take in and appreciate more of those things, only to find myself overwhelmed anew by sub-surface pleasures: the emotional function of each visual shift; the subtle themes that play out beneath the chaos; the understated metaphors lurking within the preposterous plot contrivances. To see Across the Spider-Verse once is to be overwhelmed by the delirious madness of it all; to see it twice is to be overwhelmed by an awareness that there is actually a method to that madness, a rich and potentially profound artistic purpose that will require, and reward, many more viewings still.
What more, honestly, could we ask from a piece of popular entertainment?
It was the Oscar-winning feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) that first introduced then 14-year-old Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teen who uncertainly steps into the role of Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider and witnessing the death of (his reality's) original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. That film also introduced the concept of the multi-verse, as a collider explosion tore holes in the fabric of reality and brought a lot of alternate-dimensional Spider-People into Miles's life—most notably a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), and a cool, confident teen-age Spider-Woman, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld).
Into the Spider-Verse was itself a small miracle of a movie, its colorful energy and creativity seeming to put to shame most of its live-action counterparts. Fans of good faith can disagree about what the best superhero movie of all time might be, but I'd argue Into the Spider-Verse was, at the very least, the best comic-book movie that had been made yet. None of the live-action MCU movies, for example—though some of them are very good indeed—ever felt quite like the comics: their colors are too muted, their visions too compromised, their action and ambitions and aesthetics all too weighted by the sullen struggle between the two-dimensional source material and the three-dimensional world. But Into the Spider-Verse used the expressive, infinitely flexible potential of animation to capture both the dynamic visual power and the anything-can-happen spirit of the comic-page like never before.
And it turns out that—as the titles suggest—Into only opened the door to endless creative possibilities that Across explores more fully. We learn now that the explosion in the first movie ruptured many holes in the fabric of the universe, and there is an entire Spider-Society—led by the Spider-Man of 2099, Miguel O'Hara (Oscar Isaac)—dedicated to stopping the cross-contamination and repairing the damage. So where the first movie brought visitors from other universes to Miles' reality, now we get to enter those other worlds, each rendered in its own visual style.
Apart from Miles' world, we spend the most time in the universe that's home to Gwen, whom Across wisely promotes from supporting character and love-interest to co-protagonist. (In many ways, Across is more Gwen's movie than it is Miles'.) In contrast to Miles' more realistic, sometimes almost roto-scoped animation style, Gwen's world is a softer, beautifully shifting world of pastel-shaded, water-color-pencil backgrounds, the hues often dripping and changing in response to the current emotional situation in the teen-ager's life. (That both Miles' world and Gwen's accurately evoke the art-styles of their respective comic books is a bonus for the aficionados, but such insider-knowledge is not necessary to appreciate the beauty of either, or the expressive possibilities they—and the many other styles throughout the film—provide.)
The less said about the plot of Across the Spider-Verse—and the seemingly endless number of clever surprises it provides—the better, I think. What is important is that there is—as I said—a method to the madness, a purpose beyond the amusing stimulation of our senses or the constant barrage of in-jokes. Between the dizzying, cross-dimensional set-pieces, Across the Spider-Verse spends an admirable amount of time on quieter character work and serious family drama: Miles' gentle pulling towards independence from his parents (Bryan Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez), and Gwen's strained relationship with her police-captain father (Shea Whigham), from whom she must hide her secret life. There will undoubtedly be those who feel the film—admittedly long at 140 minutes—spends too much time on these domestic scenes, but they are more than just a welcome respite from the senses-assaulting chaos of the sci-fi shenanigans: they are the emotional heart of the film.
In common with many film trilogies—the original Star Wars, The Hunger Games, etc.—it appears that the Spider-Verse films will follow a progression across the stages of life. Where Into the Spider-Verse was a story largely about childhood—and daring to believe that you could possibly grow up to be a hero—Across the Spider-Verse, the middle film in a trilogy, is about the terrifying possibilities of adolescence: the search for identity, the struggle to take responsibility for your own narrative, the fear of being permanently shaped—as you can see the older people around you have been—by bitter failures, and inevitable tragedies. Miles and Gwen have both been told they are unique among the infinite versions of themselves that exist in the multi-verse, but everyone they encounter—from Miles' guidance counselor (Rachel Dratch), to a deceptively silly villain called The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), to their respective parents and the Spider-Society itself—wants to shape their narratives, and define their identities, and determine the dominant emotional palettes of their worlds.
How that will all resolve remains to be seen, as we await our heroes assumption of adulthood in 2024's Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse. This middle film—in common with those of other trilogies I mentioned, and others—ends on a cliffhanger, with Gwen seemingly ready to assume responsibility for her future, but Miles in confrontation with the darker possibilities of his path. The ending feels appropriate: the entire movie is structured like issues of a comic series, and no comics reader can be unfamiliar with the frustration of seeing a "To Be Continued" box appear in a climactic scene. But it is also jarring, and risks leaving us feeling a little unfulfilled. If I have any dissatisfaction with Across the Spider-Verse, it is only there, craving the emotional catharsis—the triumph of narrative arrival—that the first film provided so thrillingly.
But that is the nature of middle films in a trilogy, and it is also the nature of adolescence: messy, complicated, unformed, unresolved, teetering tentatively on the edge of infinite possibilities both exciting and terrifying. It is no mark against Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse—the pleasures of which I have barely begun to catalog—and it can only make us more excited to see this sensitive, sensational, stunningly inventive story conclude.