Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
2023, PG, 136 min. Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson. Voices by Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar Isaac, Jason Schwartzman, Jake Johnson, Issa Rae, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 2, 2023
Before you ask, yes, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (the sequel to 2018 animated smash Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) answers a question that has been plaguing fans of Sony's Marvel spinoff: The illustrated "Spider-Verse" is definitely part of the extended MCU's now incredibly complicated multiverse, with infinite dimensions filled with infinite alternate timelines and therefore infinite webheads.
However, there are still some constants: Most importantly, that every Spider-Man has known life-shaping loss. The death of a loved one – referred to here, in a nod to comics lore, as a canon event – is what makes Spider-Man/-Woman/-Horse who they are as much as being bitten by a radioactive arachnid. That's a topic that's been covered in depth within the live-action Spidey adventures, most recently in Spider-Man: No Way Home, which featured multiple Spideys discussing that thorny burden. So what could Across the Spider-Verse possibly add to that narrative?
Well, the answer is "lots, and stylishly."
The Spider-Man of Earth-1610, Miles Morales (Moore), has known a different loss than most Spideys but he's still no exception to the rule. Indeed, unlike most Spideys, he's got a happy and supportive home life, being still in high school with loving parents (Vélez and Henry) at home. His Earth is a kinetic, vibrant version of our own NYC, and that's the start of what makes Across the Spider-Verse so visually thrilling. In the first film, each Spidey had a distinct look that still felt like it was part of the same world. Here, each universe's webslinger feels like they were drawn by a completely different artist and then digitally decoupaged together. Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson (who took over the reins from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, and are sticking around for trilogy capper Beyond the Spider-Verse) use the multiverse to pay tribute to many comic artists: Die-hard fans will see nods to everyone from Tom Lyle to Bill Sienkiewicz to Phil Noto to John Romita Jr. Different eras are emulated, from those distinctive Ben-Day dots that will trigger memories of newsprint to gorgeous modern digital washes. Across the Spider-Verse may be the closest cinematic experience yet to grabbing a long box of endless back issues and feverishly reading through them.
And that's all necessary because of how many Spideys there are. The action begins not with Miles, but with Gwen Stacey (Steinfeld) aka Spider-Gwen, who lost what she thought was the only person she could really talk with about being a superhero when the dimensional rift that brought her to Miles closed. Now reality-hopping is back on the table, bringing with it both a new villain-of-the-week in the seemingly hapless Spot (Schwartzman) and all the other Spideys. It turns out Miles' alternates have their own secret club, headed up by a deep-cut character from the comics: Miguel O'Hara (spotted in the last film's post-credits stinger and voiced by Oscar Isaac), aka Spider-Man 2099, a future Spidey trying to keep realities from unfurling. Right now, that involves making sure that Miles can't avoid his own next canon event.
Honestly, the greatest achievement of Across the Spider-Verse is that it blasts away the creeping ennui and rising confusion about the multiverse in the main MCU and replaces it with visual and narrative opportunities. Electric, eccentric, and eye-popping, it could easily have become overstuffed if it wasn't for both the constant visual invention and the blissfully light script of returning producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, working with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings writer David Callaham. Instead, the film flips and whirls like Spidey himself, breathlessly switching from breathtaking action to touchingly quiet and tender emotion.
Across the Spider-Verse isn't just mind-bending spectacle – although it definitely dazzles in every frame. It's mind-bending spectacle in service of a thrilling story about a teenager facing the horrifying possibility that he can't fix everything. This is an animated masterpiece that can make a moment of two teens sitting on the edge of a building both jaw-dropping and sweet. The fact that they're upside down doesn't hurt the moment, of course. Spidey gotta Spidey.