Sometimes lightning strikes twice. Throwing around terms such as “amazing” and “spectacular” refer to more than just the comics when it comes to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. 2018’s Oscar-winning Into the Spider-Verse set a new standard for the daring wonder that could come out of superhero films. Somehow, this incredible sequel has not only matched what that previous Sony Pictures Animation film delivered but surpassed it. Bursting with color, multiple animation styles, and a ton of innovation for the sake of deepening what can be done with comic book movies, it would only go so far if the film wasn’t also entertaining, funny, and fitted with proper emotional stakes. This movie has all of that, as it’s a blast to watch and will ideally push others further regarding the limits of imagination.
Set a year after the first film’s events, this first part of a two-part story picks up with where both Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld) are in their young lives as Spider-People in different universes. While Miles is balancing his school and home life with an unexpected threat known as the Spot (Jason Schwartzman), Gwen’s world has become much bigger. She’s now part of a Spider-Society led by Miguel O’Hara (Spider-Man 2099, voiced by Oscar Isaac), whose work involves cleaning up the messes made by disruptions in the Multiverse. Miles eventually finds himself wrapped up in all of this and must prove what his Spider-Man is truly capable of.
Taking a hint from many of the other Spider-Man films that want to repeatedly tell people how much of a drag it sometimes is to be Marvel’s favorite Webhead, so much of this film presents why Miles, Gwen, and the various forms of Peter Parker genuinely love being superheroes. Yes, there is plenty of weight put on top of them as the stakes become more apparent in this film, but being able to balance whatever dastardly characters are causing trouble with the utter joy from web-slinging around different versions of New York and saving civilians is a huge part of the charm here. Not hurting is how this film makes it all so visually compelling.
Directors Joaquim Dos Santos (The Legend of Korra), Kemp Powers (Soul), and Justin K. Thompson, along with the enormous crew who seemingly poured everything into this, have arrived with a stunning feature that never loses track of its goals or the heart at the center. With that said, so much effort has been put into raising the bar when it comes to what’s cinematically possible in a story that surrounds characters exploring other universes.
Take Gwen’s universe, for example. It’s built around an impressionistic watercolor style that informs the backgrounds, with a color palette acting as a mood ring to reflect the emotions on display. Miguel’s universe takes on a neo-futurist look that wouldn’t be out of place in a sunnier part of the Blade Runner world. Even the other characters we meet all present a variety of formats (some of which are fun surprises). An early appearance from The Vulture has a Renaissance-era look, and seeing it clash with an entirely different animation format really shows what kind of fun these animators were willing to get into.
This also means the action on display is truly something special. Given the unique nature of Spider-Man’s abilities, seeing how this character can defy gravity in an animated space allows for so much freedom to explore that potential in this medium. Adding a villain like the Spot only increases the opportunity to impress as we watch Spider-Man contend with the urban environment around him and how portals can disrupt his flow. Thanks to heavy influences from comics, cartoons, anime, and whatever else, this sort of film elevates what one should expect from these big-budget superhero blockbusters.
The same applies to storytelling as well. Across the Spider-Verse delivers so many well-earned moments through skilled filmmaking and a focus on character. Whether these individuals interact through conversation or stylized thrills, the narrative is driven by things that matter. It makes a huge difference when considering how the momentum of this sort of film easily shifts if our attention relies on only the visceral nature of what’s on display, as opposed to discovering the level of nuance layered into this story as well.
A major help to all of this is the wonderful assortment of talent who lend their voices and truly nail the beats required. Moore’s affability continues here, affecting how he talks to his parents, Gwen, and others. Steinfeld is given a lot to do as we delve more into her backstory, making the character better for it. Helping to ground things, Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez do terrific work as Miles’ parents, who take their issues with how Miles seems to be handling himself but love him more than anything. Another welcome return is Jake Johnson as the older Peter B. Parker, who now has a daughter (Mayday) and a clearer outlook on life.
As far as the new additions go, Oscar Isaac is the one Spider-Man with no sense of humor, but that doesn’t prevent his beast of a character from being effective. Schwartzman’s take on the Spot is quite interesting in how he progresses from bumbling to something far more complex. Issa Rae’s Jessica Drew serves as a fun moral compass. Plus, the notion of a pregnant Spider-Woman riding around on a motorcycle speaks plenty to the first film’s message of how anyone can wear the mask. Karan Soni’s Pavitr Prabhakar brings the most optimistic take I think I’ve seen for the Indian version of Spider-Man. And then there’s Daniel Kaluuya having a ball as Hobie Bown, aka Spider-Punk, whose constant anti-establishment attitude is a hilarious way to counter everyone around him.
This set of voices doesn’t even cover the treasure trove of easter eggs, taking the form of the hundreds of other versions of Spider-People that have existed in one form or another (including cats, cars, horses, and dinos). It would take so many viewings to actually identify all that’s going on, as this film is packed to the gills with references to everything Spider-Man related. And yet, the story does not get lost in having this sort of fun. Unlike another Spider-Man film, the crux of this narrative is in no way dependent on nostalgia or the strength of other versions that came before it lending a hand to help map out the emotional journey being taken here.
At the center of Across the Universe, you have Miles (as well as Gwen) being presented with ideas that dig at what his existence means to the rest of the universe and what kinds of choices and sacrifices could or should be made to maintain a balance. The way this movie can tie that into growing up, holding onto responsibilities, and other familiar coming-of-age themes makes it more impressive, considering the PG rating that encourages all audiences to embrace a film like this. Plus, even with all this talk of multiverses, hundreds of Spider-People, and dizzyingly great action, this movie never gets lost in what it’s after. There’s a complexity to delve into, but it’s presented so cleanly and, in many moments, quite humorously. And to be clear, this movie is very funny.
Once again, showing that going darker doesn’t automatically equal better; for all the drama that encroaches on this film’s story, it’s not as though Across the Spider-Verse misses any opportunity to nail plenty of jokes along the way. Whether it’s based around wordplay, sight gags, running jokes, or physical humor, this is absolutely playing on what kind of amusement has always been associated with Spider-Man, even as he deals with so many types of struggles.
The music feels pivotal here as well. With Miles being a Black/Puerto Rican kid from Brooklyn, there was a distinct flavor to the hip-hop-infused soundtrack from the first film, and this sequel is no different. Various artists all get their chance to shine, but composer Daniel Pemberton returns as well, and he brings so much to a film overflowing with different ideas. It’s a great use of music that pulls from traditional scores to jazz to funk and whatever else feels right.
With a conclusion to this story set to arrive in March 2024, it’s hard to imagine what else could possibly be done to grow from here. However, even if it didn’t, having more of what Across the Spider-Verse provides would not stop being impressive. So many chances were taken to go as far as I’ve seen in American animation. Barriers are broken all over to deliver a collision of different styles in one enormously entertaining story that never loses focus or lacks a sense of coherence amid all that’s happening. It’s truly a triumph and shows that great power can lead to great animation in the hands of responsible artists who were given a couple of web-shooters and the chance to swing big.