2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" was a truly spectacular addition to the superhero genre, despite being less financially successful than the box office powerhouses of more established cinematic superhero universes. The film’s visuals were unique, with each frame bursting with the same color and imagination you’d find in comic books. Its bigger gambit, however, was introducing wider moviegoing audiences to the concept of the multiverse, while maintaining a grounded perspective of its characters. In the five years since, the multiverse has become a subject of great importance in not only films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” or “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, but also the Best Picture winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. While the results may vary on the effectiveness of many of these films, I’m delighted that “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" is a reminder of what made the multiverse such a novel storytelling tool in the first place.
Though it is technically half a movie, with next spring’s “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse" serving as the concluding second part, “Across the Spider-Verse" is remarkably satisfying on its own. Returning characters Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy – voiced by Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld, respectively – are put through a psychological journey which examines their identity as a Spider-Person in a multiverse of Spider-People.
“Across the Spider-Verse" dares to improve upon the near perfect animation and style of the first film, with every frame bursting with ambition and each character uniquely expressive. The film's most emotional scenes are depicted artfully, with Gwen's world literally painted with brighter brushstrokes as she overcomes her issues with her father and hugs him. Similarly, Miles’ world falls apart around him to reflect his inner psyche as he swings through the city. One of the film’s most eye-popping set pieces is set in the frenetic city of ‘Mumbattan’, a stylized and comic-booky mashup of Mumbai and Manhattan, where we meet Spider-Man India, voiced by Karan Soni. We are also later introduced to Spider-Punk, voiced by Daniel Kaluuya, who is drawn using different techniques with different parts of his body animated at varying frame rates because the character “hates consistency.”
Much like “The Matrix Reloaded”, “Across the Spider-Verse" is a sequel that serves as a deconstruction of the themes and messages from the previous film. As Miles and Gwen continue to struggle with the responsibilities of being a hero as well as the burden of keeping it a secret from their families, they are introduced to a society of Spider-People across the multiverse where they learn their lives are, in a way, predetermined.
Of the four cinematic Spider-Man series, the first Spider-Verse movie was the first film not led by Peter Parker. However, Miles Morales loses his uncle, Aaron, just like Peter Parker loses his uncle, Ben, and learns that each iteration of Spider-Man in the film had an uncle whose death inspired their heroism. Miguel O’ Hara, the antagonist of the new film voiced by Oscar Isaac, explains that this is one of the “canon” events that must happen to every iteration of the character to keep each of their universes from collapsing into itself.
I found this to be an interesting meta-narrative which subverts a fundamental aspect of Spider-Man as a character. Uncle Ben’s death was originally used to illustrate the great responsibility that should come from Peter’s great power. However, if Spider-Man was to know that his own father would die, because every Spider-Man bearing the loss of a police captain is another “canon” event, would his responsibility lie with protecting a loved one or in allegiance to a multiverse of Spider-People?
There are a few more character-defining twists revealed for Miles in the final act, but in my opinion, it’s these stakes — that are at once multiversal and as personal as they have ever been for Spider-Man in 20 years of his cinematic career — that make the film so gripping. This is in great contrast with other superhero films centering around the multiverse, where the concept is often used to revive old iterations of characters for cheap pause-for-applause moments hinged on nostalgia rather than more substantial storytelling.
I have a lot of faith in the film’s three directors (Joaquin Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson) and its writers (Christopher Miller and Phil Lord) to conclude the story in a way that stays true to the interesting themes and ideas of the franchise while delivering another visual masterpiece. I will be rushing to theaters to watch “Beyond the Spider-Verse" next spring, but I don’t think I will have much patience or interest in any multiverse-related superhero films outside of this trilogy once it ends.