A film review by Craig J. Koban June 16, 2023

SPIDER-MAN: 

ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE jjj
˝ 

2023, PG, 140 mins.

Shameik Moore as Miles Morales / Spider-Man (voice)  /  Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman (voice)  /  Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker / Spider-Man (voice)  /  Oscar Isaac as Miguel O'Hara / Spider-Man 2099 (voice)  /  Issa Rae as Jessica Drew / Spider-Woman (voice)  /  Daniel Kaluuya as Hobart 'Hobie' Brown / Spider-Punk (voice)  /  Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ohnn / The Spot (voice)  /  Brian Tyree Henry as Jefferson Davis (voice)  /  Luna Lauren Velez as Rio Morales (voice)  /  Greta Lee as Lyla (voice)  /  Rachel Dratch as Principal (voice)  /  Jorma Taccone as Adrian Toomes / The Vulture (voice)  /  Shea Whigham as George Stacy (voice)  /  Andy Samberg as Ben Reilly / Scarlet Spider (voice)

Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers

Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham

Even though I liked 2018's SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, I honestly wasn’t as completely enamored with it as most, seeing as it sometimes distractingly bombarded audience members with too many fourth wall breaking self-aware gags for its own good that distracted from the whole.  

However, I'll still wholeheartedly concede that (a) this Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman directed animated film gave proper and due time to Miles Morales as the main Spidey protagonist, the first mixed-race super hero ever (which is highly noteworthy and commendable), (b) it was an absolute technical dynamo in terms of pushing the animation form joyously forward to new innovative heights and (c) it showed an unabashed love for this decades old character and his vast and diverse history on the comic pages and the silver screen.  

That, and it was the first animated SPIDER-MAN feature film, which is almost impossible to believe.   

Now, after five long years, comes the eagerly awaited and unavoidable sequel in SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE, which manages to easily one-up its predecessor on both a visual and narrative scale, but it also features deeper and more dramatically penetrating storytelling with a keener understanding of the anxieties and dilemmas of its main hero among many, many other heroes.  One of the central conundrums of Miles (Shameik Moore) as the legendary wall-crawler is that he essentially was never meant to be.  The Peter Parker Spider-Man of his universe gave his life in order to save him, which prompted him on his own journey to becoming a super-hero.  In short, Miles fell into being Spider-man by a twist of fate, which leaves the young man (now a few years older) struggling even further with identity, great power, and even greater responsibilities.  

SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE - like all great sequels should do - adds to the character and story building blocks of what came before and expands and enriches them for the better.  And for my money, this is definitely a finer film than what we got before and, for what for it's worth, a thanklessly great sequel.

Perhaps best of all, rookie directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson (replacing the first film's filmmaking trio) compliment Miles' arc with an expanded subplot about Spider-Woman herself in Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who's afforded more screentime this go around and far more crucial purpose.  Even more intriguingly, ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE opens exclusively with Gwen in her own universe and just over a year after the events of INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. When we hook back up with her, she's acclimating to her world and desperately trying to ensure that her police officer father, George (Shea Whigham), doesn't discovery her web-swinging alter ego.  Threatening any level of peace and normalcy in her life is the sudden appearance of Vulture (Jorma Taccone), whom at first glance is clearly not of Gwen's universe and has somehow made his way to hers.  Following Vulture through the universe hopping portal is Miguel, aka Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), and his own Spider-Woman sidekick (Issa Rae).  Once Vulture is defeated, the two Spider people reveal to Gwen that they are from a universe that has a gigantic army/secret society of thousands of Spider heroes in various forms that try to prevent nefarious foes from skipping their dimension and into others.  During one particularly sad moment, Gwen has her identity revealed to her dad, who essentially disowns her on the spot and tries to place her under arrest.  Emotionally devastated, Gwen joins Spider-Man 2099 and journeys to his realm to join his team.   

 

 

From here, ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE shifts us back to Miles' world and shows him dealing with the day-to-day grind of being Spider-Man while maintaining a healthy home life with his family, comprising of mother, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), and father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), who's about to made captain of the police force.  You may or may not recall that Miles' own uncle in the last film turned out to be the villainous Prowler and died, leaving Miles and his parents still trying to get over the loss and horrific revelation.  Miles' relationship with Rio and Jefferson is a stressful one, seeing as they think he's irresponsible and uncaring for being late for seemingly every important event in their lives (which is compounded by him being Spider-Man, a fact still unknown to them).  Complicating Miles' life is the re-appearance of Gwen, who's trying to move on from her own family woes and reacquaints herself to her friend.  Concurrent to this is the appearance of The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a bumbling, but potentially dangerous new villain that is revealed to be a scientist that was granted portal-creating abilities caused by Miles destroying a particle collier in the last film (in classic comic book troupe form, the hero accidentally creates the baddie).  Realizing that he has a new responsibility to stop this new threat, Miles decides to join forces with both Gwen and Miguel and treks back to his universe to meet with his Spider-Society in hopes of stopping The Spot from destroying the fabric of all universes.  

One of the more compelling angles of ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE is its gangly new antagonist in The Spot, who's initially revealed to be not so much of a galactic threat versus someone that has stumbled into his powers and awkwardly tries to learn how to harness them.  Miles casually brushes him off as a stock "villain of the week," and early on this scientist turned portal opener is more of a nuisance than a danger (his attempts to steal a convenience store's ATM machine is equal parts goofy and visually inventive).  What makes this villain truly unique, though, is that he matures into his abilities and soon comes to grip with the mind-blowing revelation that he has the omnipotent power to disrupt not only Miles' universe...but every universe, which makes him a far cry more unstable and frightening than any villain of the week.  I appreciated how ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE sets up this character and makes us think that he's simply a momentary diversion from a larger and more destabilizing monster...only to then subvert those expectations and make him the chief bad guy.     

I perhaps admired even more how this sequel, as alluded to already, elevates Gwen to a near equal status of main character alongside Miles.  This is not to say that Miles has been delegated to the sidelines in his own film, but rather that Gwen is afforded increased depth and pathos here that mirrors her BFF's own vulnerabilities and fears.  Her once loving father falsely believes her to be a murdering vigilante, which spawns a terrible mental crisis within that further causes her to abandon her own friends, family and universe to join Miguel's ranks.  There's an undeniable aura of tragedy that's peppered into both Miles and Gwen's backstories: he lost his uncle to villainy, and she lost her father because of his perception that she devolved into villainy, which makes both of these characters more natural mirrors of one another and, in turn, closer in the process.  ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE continues to tease a romantic union between these two lost souls, but refreshingly never commits to it; they become more platonic partners of shared pain and commitment to their super hero ways.  So many lesser super hero films insert female characters to simply be the one-note love interest in the hero's life, but here Gwen is anything but that.  She's on equal footing to Miles in most respects, and sometimes more.

Of course, ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE takes us to the Spider-Society of Miguel's world, during which time we witness an endless stream of Spider-Man permutations that will serve as fan servicing odes to classic interpretations of the past in multiple interactions.  There's the wonderfully envisioned Pavitr (Karan Soni), a South Asian Spidey, not to mention Spider-Punk (a great Daniel Kaluuya), who's a classic flip-the-bird-at-authority British punk rocker-inspired Spidey.  We also meet back up with old Spider-Man in Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who before was a pudgy and down on his luck hero that was separated from M.J., but through his past adventures with Miles he cleaned himself up, got back together with the love of his life, and now has a baby that - sometimes inconveniently - uses her dad's genetically passed down powers at the wrong time.  Miguel is also a fascinating new addition because of how intense and moody he is as his futuristic Spider-Man, who may or may not be on the level as to why he has allowed Miles to tag along and join his super squad.     

The multiple universes presented in ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE are all - in-tandem - bravura pieces of masterful art direction and design. The directors here have made painstaking efforts to give each one of these worlds their own look and flavor that sets them apart from any other, which makes this sequel such an explosion of ambitious visual storytelling.  The Earth-65 of Gwen's world (my favorite) is made to look like loose and spontaneous impressionistic paintings, and this watercolor tableau makes it so beautiful to gaze at.  Then there's Earth-50101 (nicknamed Mumbattan), which looks like Mumbai cross morphed with Manhattan, which is endlessly imaginative.  Spider-Punk's universe looks inspired by punk rock albums with its aggressive collage of mismatched imagery thrown together.  Miguel's 2099 base of operations looks like a nightmarish BLADE RUNNER acid trip.  When so many sequels (especially of the super hero variety) lazily spoon feed viewers status quo material and seem reticent to audaciously mix things up, ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE deserves serious accolades for pushing the boundaries of the first film's pioneering and Oscar winning animation aesthetic and unleashing an unbridled amount of limitless imagination on the screen.  Like STAR WARS before it, these SPIDER-VERSE films are as joyously dense as they are generous.  There's always something to drink in and pay attention to in every shot of this film, and that sense of meticulous detail separates these films on a level of stupendous world building.  

This also wouldn't be a SPIDER-MAN film without gravity-defying action, and ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE is even more astoundingly dynamic than its antecedent.  The opening set-piece featuring the Vulture is amazing; he's conceived as a Leonardo Da Vinci-esque creation that looks ripped from one of his legendary sketches.  Miles' first city-spanning battle with The Spot is continuously clever in showing how his ability to conjure portals makes actually catching him a beyond arduous task.  Perhaps this film's piece de resistance is a mind-blowing chase involving Miles trying to elude capture in Miguel's psychedelic cyberpunk world of tomorrow, which involves him evading countless Spider-people in the process.  For as awe-inspiring as the animation and sequences are here, there's also a part of me that sometimes felt (as I did with INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE) that the film may come off as eye-strainingly assaultive on the senses at times, which also has the negative side effect of drowning out the characters, their arcs, and the dramatic ambitions of the story.  There are moments in this film's somewhat lumbering and bloated two and a half hours (the longest animated film in history) that made me wish it held back a bit, even though the makers here continually desire to give us more.     

Ultimately, the supreme artistry of ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE is wisely in service (well, for the most part) of the plot and the people that dominate it.  Even as jam packed with action and sights to behold as this film is, it's telling that what stayed with me the most were the key characters beats, especially between Miles and Gwen, whose relationship not only blossoms but becomes more complicated and ethically challenging when new obstacles are thrown their way.  In pure THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK fashion, ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE bravely ends on a non-ending cliffhanger that throws Miles into a shocking pressure cooker of a situation with no easy answers in sight.  We only have to wait until 2024's BEYOND THE SPIDER-VERSE for answers, but for fans that will feel like an eternity.  Another recent sequel - FAST X - also ended on a cliffhanger, but the difference with ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE is simple: I cared more here.  I cared for these characters.  I cared about the stakes.  And I urgently wanted to know what comes next.  That's the special ingredient, I think, that makes SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE such a wondrous achievement: It mixes state of the art and ground-breaking spectacle with heart and soul.  It also tells a quintessential Spider-Man story that taps into what it means to be a hero and the costs involved.  This is not just an amazing animated adventure, but an amazing Spider-Man film (live action or not) as well.  

I may not have fully embraced INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, but ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE has made me - to coin a phrase from Stan Lee - a true believer. 

  H O M E