It feels like there as many superhero films as there are realities in a multiverse, but the best of them continue to succeed when they are unique, committed to strong storytelling, and speak with their own voice. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did just that when it burst onto the scene in 2018. Though only a modest box office success, it was a critical darling. It won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, and fans and critics alike raved at its bold animation style and knowingness about the genre without too much winking.
Since its release, multiverses have exploded. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made it a major priority, the most recent Best Picture winner revolved around the subject, and now the DC Universe is pulling in the concept with its upcoming The Flash. Despite the arguable loss of stakes and the increased opportunities for cheap nostalgia, the storytelling possibilities are certainly there. What the best multiverse stories have shown is that creative use of the concept allows for exploration of what “self” means in an infinite and varied multiverse, and to reflect on the meaning of existence and the importance of fighting for it.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse arrives five years any many multiverses after the first film. Could a sequel match its originality and offer its own compelling take on multiverse storytelling?
Shove aside the concerns. While not a perfect journey, Across the Spider-Verse doubles down on its bright, loud, visionary voice and delivers an excellent cinematic experience. Picking up about a year after the prior film, Miles Morales, now his universe’s one and only Spider-Man, is coming into his own. He is struggling with the secret of being a hero, hiding from his parents who he is. When the villain, The Spot, arrives with the power to transverse the multiverse, Miles discovers there is a secret society of Spider-People dedicated to protecting the web of universes.
An innovative and distinctive variety of art styles depict the different spheres of realitiy. A long intro sequence set in the universe of Spider-Gwen uses a moody watercolor style to showcase the perspective of Gwen and her own parental issues. Another character is depicted like a collection of newspaper clips strung together. The action flows in comic book style, continually dazzling with its images. In a word, it’s gorgeous.
Beautiful visuals go a long way in an animated feature, but it would amount to a hill of beans if the story and characters were lacking. While not as unimpeachable as the animation, Across the Spider-Verse still delivers on that front. Characters wrestle with the themes of parenthood and the uncertainty of identity. The two main leads, Miles and Gwen, both have struggles with the deception that comes with being a masked hero, and the fact that both have cop parents with a dim view of vigilante law enforcement only adds to their doubts. The parental figures also have their own struggles learning to let go and allow their children to become adults, while still making sure their kids become good people and stay safe in an often unkind universe.
These struggles inform the bigger picture of Miles fighting for his own sense of determinism. While avoiding spoilers, the film also examines whether the universal constant of Spider-People of losing loved ones — a big origin-story trope — is actually necessary. It’s dressed up in sci-fi language, but the ultimate question of the film is whether one can forge their own identity.
The themes don’t get a conclusion in this installment, but Miles does make a choice that shows some degree of development. Gwen also makes a choice, following an arc from the beginning of the film, though the fact that she has less to do in the middle of the film does take away from the resonance of her storyline. There are also times where the film drags, making you feel its length as it becomes a showcase for the infinite variety of Spider-People.
The film is a reference-palooza, and fans of Spider-Man in any medium will likely feel rewarded. The references are truly a deep dive. To the film’s credit, the cameos and Easter eggs are often unobtrusive and even serve the story occasionally. There is also a bit of humor that comes from thousands of variations on the character all sharing a common tragedy, and yet the rules and particulars of their own universe still help distinguish them.
An excellent voice cast helps sell many scenes. There are several emotional high points, often thanks to Shameik Moore‘s great take on Miles and Lauren Velez and Brian Tyree Henry shining as Miles’ parents. Their commitment to their roles makes the parenting scenes quite resonant. Credit must also go to Oscar Issac, who plays Spider-Man 2099, the leader of the Spider Society. His dark and somewhat amoral performance gives him sufficient threat while also providing enough humanity that he never feels as outright villainous as he could.
As in the first movie, there is a great hip-hip soundtrack and climatic score. While no song stands out quite as much as “Sunflower,” this one uses music to great effect to set mood and tone. It works well in concert with the aforementioned dazzling visuals to create several striking sequences. The first time that Gwen and Miles reunite feels sufficiently flirty, with the song “Hummingbird” playing, but the song also has enough weight when they hang upside down together and share a moment of contemplation. Moments like this throughout the film give it a real impact.
Bold artistic steps prove that creatives at Sony, from writer/producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to the three new directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson, were not content to do the same thing again. They continue to innovate with their animation and storytelling to deliver a great cinematic experience that’s leaving audiences eager to see part three, Beyond the Spider-Verse. This and other strong offerings from 2023 prove that superhero films have plenty left in the tank, when creatives take proper care to tell worthy stories.