Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the tenth Spider-Man movie to come out in theaters since Sam Raimi first brought the webslinger to the big screen back in 2002. That’s a lot of hours of cinematic Spidey action, and that’s not even including various other film appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, three movies spun-off from villains like Venom and, er, Morbius (with Kraven the Hunter up next), and countless other appearances on television, in video games, and of course comic books.
It’s basically a running joke at this point how we keep getting more Spider-Man over and over again. Much like Batman, there have been a lot of stop-and-start attempts at rebooting the character, but for the most part it feels like we’ve ended up just retelling the same essential story of power and responsibility. The MCU version of Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland) was the first to mostly breeze past his introduction - skipping over overdone beats like the spider bite or the death of Uncle Ben - operating on the assumption that you already know the basic beginnings of one the most recognizable icons in pop culture.
2018’s Into the Spider-Verse used that self-awareness as its foundation, trusting the audience to follow along with several different takes on the famous web crawler all at once for an animated multiverse adventure. I recall rolling my eyes back then at the idea of an animated Spider-Man movie coming in and further cluttering up the character’s lengthy film canon, but was very happy to be proven wrong by just how brilliant it ended up actually being. It’s all the more miraculous that Into the Spider-Verse is as great as it is considering that it comes from Sony Pictures Animation, who built a not-so-stellar reputation for themselves with films like The Smurfs and The Emoji Movie.
It’s been five years since then and the multiverse concept has already started to feel considerably contrived in entertainment, especially when it comes to superheroes. So the pressure was certainly on for Sony’s followup to their surprise animated hit, and thankfully Across the Spider-Verse delivers on pretty much all fronts. It’s a film that’s overflowing with postmodern imagination and innovation; a sequel that genuinely builds and even improves on the original’s foundation and ideas. It goes far beyond the confines of superhero stories, challenging the very principles of them while also clearly holding that scripture close to its heart and ethos.
Opening with an extended look at the dual life of Gwen Stacy AKA Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), we’re immediately thrown into a world and story that fully embraces the limitlessness of the animation medium. Gorgeous watercolors flow and bleed in the scenes that are set in Gwen’s universe; a prime example of the colors and art style being used to convey and emphasize every emotional beat. It’s a visually stunning introduction to this sequel, backed once again by an outstanding score from Daniel Pemberton (and a banger soundtrack by Metro Boomin) that helps sell all of the thrills and excitement along with the significant sense of melancholy that can be felt throughout the film.
Once we catch back up with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the film has already immersed you in its unique kaleidoscopic explosion of comic book-inspired graphics, outdoing the original film and then some. This time around, instead of various Spider-People crash landing in Mile’s home, the Brooklyn hero ends up traveling through a multitude of different universes, each with their own distinct look and animation style. We even get some live action segments thrown into the mix. Just from a technical standpoint alone, Across the Spider-Verse is an astounding piece of art; each frame is a feast for the eyes that puts the vast majority of other animated projects - whether they’re made for children or adults - to shame.
But perhaps what’s most impressive is that the film’s story is able to truly back up all of that artistic achievement. In a way, it’s the ultimate Spider-Man tale, one that faces over half a decade of the character’s legacy and ideas of heroism head-on. Miles meets with a massive collection of multiverse-hopping Spider-People, including his friends Gwen and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), and he realizes that he’s a true outlier even among the countless superheroes that are supposedly just like him. The leader of the Spider-Society, Miguel O’Hara AKA Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) calls Miles an “anomaly”, someone who was never meant to be a Spider-Man in the first place, and whose refusal to go along with predetermined, sacrificial “canon events” bring him into direct conflict with the way a Spider-Man story is supposed to go.
Across the Spider-Verse is a movie that’s very much playing by its own rules, and it sets a new high benchmark for animation as a whole. The smaller, quieter, character-driven moments are just as compelling as the dazzling action set pieces, of which there are plenty. The only thing that holds it back from being a perfect movie is how it leaves things hanging; reaching a powerful conclusion to its story only to then end on a cliffhanger for the next installment. In that regard, it falls into the familiar trappings of the endless superhero franchise conveyor belt, but to call the film unsatisfying doesn’t exactly feel justified either. It simply runs out of time.
It’s impossible to say where Spider-Man or even the comic book superhero genre in general can go from here. This is a movie that constantly impresses and entertains while having plenty to say; a fun, funny and dazzling adventure that feels groundbreaking and important in a multitude of ways. Across the Spider-Verse, against all odds, is a victory for art in general and while that may sound silly to some, it’s certainly not a hyperbole. It would take another miracle of tremendous proportions for the third film in this series to top what’s come before, but I’ve learned not to bet against this particular trilogy.
‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ is now playing in theaters.