The Jaw-Dropping Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Will Have You Diving in Over and Over Again

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The Jaw-Dropping Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Will Have You Diving in Over and Over Again

In our superhero saturated reality, it’s easy to forget exactly how many Spider-Man adjacent stories audiences have navigated in the five years since Sony Pictures Animation dropped the truly stellar Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse into theaters. There have been 12 Marvel Cinematic Universe films, three of which featured the Tom Holland incarnation of Peter Parker / Spider-Man, including Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Plus, Sony Pictures dropped a Venom sequel which sorta nebulously floats in the same space. It’s all proof that the Spidey well has been tapped a lot in a relatively short span of time, meaning that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is webbing its way into a far more jaded world, one overstuffed with superhero sequels, and specifically, multiverse storytelling. And yet Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse swings in and, yet again, wipes the floor with its genre brethren by presenting a sequel that is both kinetic and deeply emotional. 

The script by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) smartly builds upon the foundation of its already established characters, their relationships and the ongoing consequences from the first film to further explore the lives of secret teen superheroes Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) a year after the first film. The writers do so with a clear agenda to not only best themselves visually, but by upping the game of the now-familiar multiple-timeline tropes. Together with the talents of directing team Joaquim Dos Santos (The Legend of Korra), Kemp Powers (Soul) and Justin K. Thompson (Into the Spider-Verse), Across the Spider-Verse—across the board—swings for the cinematic fences in the rare sequel that feels like every frame has been crafted with the intention of wringing every bit of visual wonder and emotional impact that the animators, the performers and the very medium can achieve.

From the get-go, Across the Spider-Verse doesn’t rest on its laurels. It takes a richer path by presenting Gwen / Spider-Woman and Miles / Spider-Man as dual protagonists. A hefty prologue gives Gwen the floor and leans on pulsing percussion to effectively get across Gwen’s unresolved emotional issues at being her time’s misunderstood webslinger. She’s wrestling with the weighty loneliness that comes with her powers and keeping them from her law enforcement dad, Captain Stacy. Her reality is captured with a breathtakingly gorgeous painterly style that is invaded by the parchment-style representation of an alt Vulture (Jorma Taccone) that Gwen must fight. He clearly doesn’t belong and she’s suddenly aided by two alt versions of her kind, Spider-Man Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) and alt Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew (Issa Rae). They let her know that Kingpin’s collider explosion from the first film created a permanent time hole that now has to be monitored by members of an Elite Society of Spider-Mans. They fix breaches and keep the timelines stable, and eventually allow her to become one of their own.

Equally alone and over-extended in his timeline is Miles, whose concerned parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez) remain in the dark about his extracurricular activities in Brooklyn. A recurring theme of the sequel is the impasse that’s created by these teens living secret lives that are way beyond their age, and how they’re unable to articulate that with their exacting parents who are secretly overwhelmed by their kids growing up and beyond them. Especially in the first hour, Across the Spider-Verse gives those conflicts a lot of quality real estate featuring fraught scenes between Gwen and her dad, and Miles with each of his exasperated parents. What would easily be considered “filler” in other superhero films become impactful moments of character development and self-assessment as they all messily navigate these confusing teen years. Together, the scenes articulate the unique space these two heroes exist in now, which is the dichotomy of being far more confident with their powers, yet still too young to be taken seriously by their families. 

“You’re just a kid” is the flippant phrase often thrown at both of them, but it especially rankles Miles. Now 15, he revels in the freedom of what his spider-bite powers afford him as his city’s only hero, but his constant “failures” at everyday life in the eyes of his school counselor and parents keep him stuck in a space that continuously challenges his autonomy. His frustrations trickle out to his adversaries, like new villain Spot (Jason Schwartzman). As a nemesis, Miles finds it hard to take seriously a faceless guy who looks like Charlie Brown’s botched Halloween costume come to life, and says as much. His pointed insults spur Spot to harness and increase his powers so he can become an actual threat to Miles, which leads to an escalation involving portal jumping to other timelines. Enter Gwen and her new Spidey friends. 

With Gwen now able to enter other times, she takes the opportunity to stealthily visit Miles where they reconnect and bond over their shared stress at achieving a “work/life” balance and their unique loneliness. But her carelessness in monitoring Spot allows the baddie to gain more powers and exposes her new vocation to a very curious Miles. A Spot-created massive power burst brings Jessica on the scene to reprimand and collect Gwen to fix the problem. But before the portal closes, Miles follows—and then the alt Spideys come fast and furious. 

If you’re a long-time Spider-Man comics fan, Across the Spider-Verse is going to be your every Spidey dream come to life. And even if you have a far more casual relationship with the webslinger, the script and directors frame every new introduction in witty ways so the story and particular quirks of every new Spidey is distilled clearly and evocatively for the audience. There’s a precision to the important cast additions, and a more impish “did you see that?” quality to the presentation of the Spideys en masse when they are collected in the second act. There’s also smart usage of return characters, like Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, who not only advances as a person but is also integral to Miles’ growth. The quality of the voice acting and direction remains a hallmark of this series. From the returning cast to new additions like Rae, Isaac and others not to be spoiled, everyone turns in A-game performances that are met by the exquisite work of the animators. 

So, be warned that this is a movie that’s going to require frame-by-frame rewatches at home to revisit the bulk of what is assuredly going to be missed in theater viewings. That also goes for the fast-paced jokes that fly through the mouths of the various characters as they’re battling verbally or physically. The signature brisk Lord and Miller comedy pacing is present with the punning and quipping of Gwen, Miles and the other Spideys, so some of it gets lost in how quickly the sequences move or drowned out by enthusiastic audience reactions. 

And then there’s the incredible visuals presented as each time and world visited reflects a unique aesthetic matched to the Spidey hero who resides within it. The hybrid computer-animation meets hand-drawn techniques established in the first films returns with a more sleek execution that’s a bit easier on the eyes, which affords the animators to get even more ambitious with their array of techniques and character-centric presentations. The depth and breadth of the animation and illustration styles are jaw-dropping. There are frames you just want to fall into, they’re so beautifully rendered and conceived. If there’s any critique, it’s that the more action-centric sequences are almost too detailed, so that the incredible work of the animators moves off-screen so quickly that you feel like you’re not able to fully appreciate everything coming at you. 

The only other slight ding on the film is the last act pacing, which serves up false ending after false ending, reminiscent of the critiques leveled at The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Daniel Pemberton’s eclectic and beautiful score sets the stage for a progression of major third act moments that hit emotional and aural crescendos, which seem like optimal closing points…but then they aren’t. It creates a bit of pacing fatigue in the last 15 minutes that makes you aware of the two-hour-and-20-minute runtime for the first time. 

As a middle film in the trilogy (Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse is due in theaters in 2024), it’s a joy to be able to say that Across the Spider-Verse stands well on its own, based on the merits of its story and stakes. The filmmakers took a lot of care to continue story threads from the first film and then establish the groundwork and stakes for new overarching threats that are world-threatening but also very personal to Miles. There’s also a killer cliffhanger that sets the stage for a third chapter that doesn’t feel like it’s cheating its audience like some other recent films have done (cough Dune cough). In fact, repeat viewings of Across the Spider-Verse to bridge the gap until the final installment next year sounds like a great way to savor this film as it so richly deserves.

Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
Writers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dave Callaham
Starring: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae, Jason Schwartzman
Release Date: June 2, 2023

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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