Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. Leaving our screening of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, I was hit by the overwhelming feeling that I had just witnessed something truly special. Like, the first time you saw Star Wars kind of special. It’s an appropriate comparison, as this, a sequel to 2018’s incredible, Oscar-winning Into the Spider-Verse, is very much the webslinger’s Empire Strikes Back. Far beyond just being “dark” or “gritty”, it takes everything we know about what makes Spider-Man, in all of his various incarnations, a great hero, and turns it inside out in an epic story told from the perspectives of two kindred spirits from different universes.
Across the Spider-Verse is almost too much good stuff all at once. But credit to the entire creative team, which includes fan-favorites Phil Lord & Chris Miller, for a fearless sequel that goes bigger and accomplishes more than its awesome predecessor. They have created perhaps the single best Spider-Man story ever brought to the big screen, and I say that with all the love in my heart to Spider-Man 2.
The first twenty minutes are a full course meal of emotions as we are reintroduced to Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), rockin’ out with her band to cover up her pain. Pain from a secretive home life that finds a wedge driven between her and her father Captain Stacy (Shea Whigham), but also from the loneliness of being away from her one true friend, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), from a different dimension. But it wasn’t always this way. Gwen had a life before she met Miles, and in true Spider-Man form, it was a life full of sacrifice and tragedy.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” We all know the creed by which every Spider-Man strives to uphold. But what does that saying mean in a multiversal sense? What does it mean when stretched across cultures, genders, alternate universes? One thing that remains true is that being Spider-Man is a sacrifice. There will be loss. In a physical sense that means the death of a loved one, like an uncle Ben or in Miles’ case, his uncle Aaron. In another sense, it means pushing away the people you love and who know you best. As we are reunited with Miles, he is still very much the innercity Blacktino kid trying to be the hero Brooklyn needs him to be, but also the young man his parents (voiced again by Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez) expect him to be. And of course, he fails at that more often than not, mostly because of his Spider-Man secret. Events from the previous film continue to weigh him down, just as they do Gwen. He longs to see his friend again, the one person who truly understands what he’s going through.
This is all pretty heavy stuff, and it’s only just the beginning. A good thing that a comical villain like The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) is around to lighten things up. Decked out like a walking Rorschach mask, the goofy, awkard baddie is able to create portals, or holes, to access just about anywhere he wants to go. In true comic book fashion, he uses this incredible gift for petty crime. That is until he encounters Miles, and a dark origin story is revealed that sets off a cataclysmic chain of events that could destroy all of reality.
That whole “great power, great responsibility” thing is a Hell of a burden. We see how Miles and Gwen internalize it to their detriment, leaning on it as an emotional support crutch to escape the loneliness they feel, or the confusion of their home lives. This idea is expanded on with the introduction of an entire multiverse of Spider-heroes, gathered to save the multiverse from being obliterated. The team is led by Miguel O’Hara aka Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), a ferocious, brooding grouch who rejects Miles’ place in the overall scheme of things. Others in the group include Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), with her afro-puff hair, badass motorcyle, and very big belly, this mother-to-be is also like the team matriarch. Making incredible use of the vast array of Spider-Man heroes, we are also introduced to the magical Pavitr Prabhakar aka Spider-Man India, who watches over the people of Mumbattan; and the anarchistic Hobie Brown aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) who rocks out rather than shoots webs.
Literally hundreds of different Spider-Man characters (Andy Samberg’s histrionic Scarlet Spider is a real treat) populate the screen at any one time, including a lot of old favorites and more than a few surprises. You could watch Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse a dozen times and not catch all of the surprises and Easter Eggs. There’s so much going on that it can be overwhelming to the senses. Not only do you have tons of characters to keep track of, but the visual style is constantly changing. This is the most stunning animated movie I’ve ever seen, combining so many stylistic flourishes that never feel out of place. The ethnic diversity of Miles’ Brooklyn is a colorful, kinetic place with animation that largely reflects the previous film. The vibrant aesthetics never stop and reflect the personalities of each character; the darkened, sketchy inks of Miguel’s scenes give way to a supernova of colors in Gwen’s reality. Other skips through the multiverse reveal an even more imaginative palette, some mimicking the art of the greatest Spider-Man pencilers ever, and others that bring more of a meta flavor. It’s truly extraordinary how good this film looks. There’s never been anything like it before.
Action has been pumped up to another level, as well. The dizzying array of effects is on full display during an incredible chase involving dozens of heroes (and one Spider-Horse) at a time, while the slugfests pack an even greater impact because everyone has something to lose. Defeat isn’t just a loss, it’s a failure. And failure means people die. It’s easy to see how bearing that much weight can create an endless loop of self-destruction.
Once again, there’s a perfect balancing of stakes. Cosmic level threat is matched by deeply intimate moments that strike at the core of what Spider-Man is meant to be. Miles and Gwen continue to be the perfect match; a love story without the puppy dog, high school angst b.s. When they are reunited and go swinging through the city, no words need to be shared between them. It’s all romantic tension and passion and that need for human connection. There’s so much heart to go around that you probably need more than one movie to contain it all.
Good thing there’s a sequel, Beyond the Spider-Verse, coming up in 2024. Because this is just the first chapter in a two-parter, the cliffhanger ending might leave some wanting more. Well, that’s sorta the point. I want the sequel RIGHT NOW. I literally can’t wait for it to get here. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is such an enormous film it threatens to leap off the screen and into your lap. While it can be overwhelming, as well, it’s all worth it in service a truly astonishing experience that will be hard to match. How can the sequel possibly ever live up to this incredibly high standard? Well, we never would’ve thought this one would surpass Into the Spider-Verse, and yet it does by leaps and bounds.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens in theaters on June 2nd.