Film Review – Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) is such an explosion of kinetic energy – both in its visual design and in its storytelling – that the result borders on creative overload. Where Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) feels like a living, breathing comic book, Across the Spider-Verse acts like an amalgamation of every comic book that ever was or ever will be. The rich textures fill every square inch of the frame. The vibrant colors and bombastic editing come so furiously that a rewatch is needed just to take in all the little details. Background environments will change shape and color to reflect a character’s mood. Text boxes will appear to provide helpful information, as if we were reading this right off a comic strip. It’s a light show of never-ending surprises, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it showcase of everything there is to love about our friendly neighborhood webhead.
But to say that this is merely an array of non-stop thrills would be doing it a disservice. There are several instances where the narrative will take a moment to breathe – to soak in the drama and build the character dynamics. In one scene, our protagonists Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) sit on a bridge overlooking New York City. But because the two of them are sitting upside down, the image is inverted, placing the city skyline on the top of the screen. As Miles and Gwen share this tender exchange, even hinting towards a possible romance, the backdrop looks so unique and alive that any disorientation fizzles away. The lights of the skyscraper windows mirror the stars in the sky.
In another scene, Miles has a heart-to-heart talk with his mother (Luna Lauren Velez) set on the roof of their building. Miles has done a lot of growing up since we last saw him, and his future is fast approaching. This transition proves difficult, leaving his dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and mom in constant bafflement. However, the conversation Miles has with his mother is honest, frank, and compassionate. There is obviously a generational divide (not to mention the fact that Miles has a superhero alter ego). But in this conversation, we see a maturity between both sides, where one may not understand the other but are willing to listen to what they have to say. In a movie that has so much action, it is moments like these that highlight just how thoughtful the production handles the material. Just as much effort is put into the thoughts and emotions of characters, right alongside the splashy action sequences.
Despite having multiple writers (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dave Callaham) and directors (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson), the overall result is a singular, cohesive vision. Utilizing the multi-verse conceit of the first film, this sequel introduces a ton of new iterations of “Spider-Man,” including – but not limited to – Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), and Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) also returns to say hello. There are so many versions of the character – pulling from comics, TV, movies, and beyond – that the final tally could be in the hundreds. Even more amazing is that each encompasses their own stylistic design. Some might look like they jumped out of a comic book, others might resemble a Saturday morning cartoon, while a few may even appear lifelike. It seems the production pulled every possible version of the character throughout history and dumped them all into one narrative.
And it is this choice that shows just how insightful Across the Universe really is. Spider-Man has had a long and storied history with countless artists contributing their own take. The thought of a “One And True Version” is ridiculous. A Spider-Man comic from 1962 will look vastly different than one from 2022, and that is the point. What is considered “cannon” in Spidey lore will mean different things to different people, yet all of them are valid and worthy of inclusion. That is the brilliance of the writing and direction, in how they tackle Spidey’s mythology and demonstrate how malleable he can be. Fandom can be a wonderful thing, but it also runs the risk of toxicity when one faction claims their understanding of a character takes precedence over all others. I grew up reading Spider-Man comics in the ‘90s, during the height of the infamous “Clone Saga.” Ben Reilly is a controversial figure to many Spidey fans, but to me he was just as compelling and interesting as Peter Parker. That is the central message here. Good, bad, or somewhere in between, the Spidey Family is very big, but they all fit together.
I’ve deliberately refrained from talking about the plot, because there are so many twists and turns that it would be better for you to discover it all on your own. I will say that things take a darker turn this time around. No longer burdened with the requirements of an origin story, the production shapes this sequel by ramping up the suspense. Daniel Pemberton’s music thumps with building anticipation, amplifying the thrills once we fully understand what is at stake. The introduction of a universe-hopping villain named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) acts as the trigger putting all of existence in danger. However, the real tension lies within the individual journeys of both Miles and Gwen. What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to do the right thing? Does being bitten by a radioactive spider make someone more special or unique as someone who hasn’t?
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the second of a planned trilogy, and it does that thing where it leaves its story arcs hanging, stuck in midair to be resolved in the final installment. But like many of the great pop-culture sequels, such as The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Dark Knight (2008), this film builds on what was established in the first entry. It is a dazzling experience – not only paying homage to the past but pushing things forward in unexpected and exhilarating ways. In an era where superhero movies feel increasingly like products churned out of a conveyor belt, Across the Spider-Verse refuses to settle on convention. It kicks the door open, announces itself, and asks us to come along for the ride. It’s one of the best films of the year.