SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE Review: Superhero Storytelling Raised to High Art

Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld star in the animated sequel.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE Review: Superhero Storytelling Raised to High Art

Five years ago, the English language — and every other language — ran out of superlatives to describe the next-level brilliance of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In or out of context, that sounds hyperbolic, but sometimes even the most hyperbolic of statements aren’t just objectively and subjectively true. Sometimes they’re insufficient to put into words what can be described, however limited, as not just commercial art, but simply put, cinematic art. That it came from a studio, Sony Pictures, that had seemingly run the Spider-Man character into the metaphorical and literal ground across five films, two talented performers (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield), and a never-to-be-completed trilogy, seismically jolted critics and audiences alike with its visual, narrative, and thematic originality.

The much-awaited sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the first entry in a two-parter that will conclude next year, doesn’t just reach the same lofty, seemingly unmatchable levels as its Academy Award-winning predecessor. It surpasses them, mixing deeply felt, character-driven drama, wildly imaginative set pieces, and thematic heft rarely seen in mainstream blockbusters or the last half-dozen entries in the sputtering Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A great deal of the credit belongs to writer-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21/22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) along with the creative triumvirate, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, that led the first film to the Platonic ideal of comic book storytelling translated into film.   

Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman are only back as producers for the sequel, handing over directing reins to a new trio of talented filmmakers, Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson, each making their directorial debut. While obviously a daunting challenge for whoever followed the first team’s efforts, the new directing trio dispel all doubts about their abilities to handle the demands of a bigger, more complex sequel within the first, electrifying moments, focusing not on Miles Morales (once again voiced by Shameik Moore), the half-Puerto-Rican, half-African-American webslinging teen superhero, but on his multiversal counterpart, Gwen Stacey / Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and a mind-meltingly staged, watercolor-filled recap of the previous film’s key events and subsequent events.

Initially centering Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse not only plays against audience expectations, it also sets up an entirely new set of expectations: Miles Morales might be the driving force and nominal protagonist here, but Spider-Gwen has her own vital story and it’s just as worthy of telling.

It also helps to clue the audience to the ever-changing, ever-flowing changes in visual styles that represent the different Earths occupied by Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and the multitude of Spider-people we’re about to encounter over the next two hours and twenty minutes, each one so heavily stylized, so heavily influenced not just by comic-book art, but a century's worth of modern and post-modern art, that they’re not just separate worlds, but separate universes, each as distinct and worthy of our time as the next.

The Miles we meet a year later in-universe hasn’t changed significantly. He’s still trying to juggle high school, his demanding, if loving parents, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and
Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), and attempting to put the events of the last year, including a bittersweet ending that saved the multiverse, but left Miles permanently separated from his newfound friends, especially first-time/long-time crush Gwen. Doing the webslinging thing and saving his native Brooklyn from “villains of the week,” though, has kept Miles more than busy.

One of those villains, calling himself the Spot (Jason Schwartzman), wants to be more than just a one-and-done foe. He wants to be Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin or Doc Ock to Miles's Spider-Man.

Miles doesn’t think much of the Spot and the Spot’s portal-jumping abilities, seeing him as a minor nuisance. That changes, though, when Gwen appears back in Miles’s courtesy of super-advanced tech that allows her to both jump from one universe into another and remain there glitch-free. Miles sees nothing but upside to Gwen’s return to his life and his universe. When he learns about a super-secret, multiverse-spanning society of spider-people led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), a self-described “ninja vampire,” Miles wants to join in, especially after the Spot elevates himself into an existential threat, requiring a concerted team effort to defeat.

Leaning hard into the idea of a multiverse where spider-people seemingly exist in each universe, some as variations of Peter Parker, the ur-Spider-Man, others as comically bizarre as a masked feline or even a rapacious, costumed dinosaur, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse practically bursts at the seams of its comic book panel-inspired imagery, but it doesn’t stop at what superficially minded critics might derisively dismiss as “fan service.”

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse goes far beyond the idea of simply dropping Easter Eggs for the comic-book cognoscenti, treating almost every new iteration of spider-people as an opportunity to introduce new, well-developed, shaded characters, including Jessica Drew / Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), Spider-Gwen’s de facto mentor, the welcome re-introduction of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), Miles’s erstwhile mentor and father to an effervescent toddler, May-Day, whose inherited his spider-powers and his irreverent sense of humor, and the aforementioned O’Hara, a self-appointed guardian of the multiverse rigidly, uncompromisingly dedicated to preserving the conventions, tropes, and traditions, of comic-book storytelling (i.e., canon) with the fervor of an overly zealous comic-book uber-fan.

It’s there, in the eventual conflict between Miles and O’Hara over “canon,” that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse takes a deep dive into the metafictional physics of storytelling. O’Hara has declared himself the arbiter of what stories can and can’t be told while Miles, in his naturally rebellious, teenaged enthusiasm, just as naturally wants to be not just the hero of his own particular story, but the teller too. Ultimately, that elevates Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse from standard superhero fare about power fantasies and wish-fulfillment and into a heartfelt story about free will, predestination, and becoming the author of your own life-story.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse today (Thursday, June 1), via Sony Pictures.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

  • Joaquim Dos Santos
  • Kemp Powers
  • Justin K. Thompson
  • Phil Lord
  • Christopher Miller
  • Dave Callaham
  • Shameik Moore
  • Hailee Steinfeld
  • Oscar Isaac
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Brian Tyree HenryDaniel KaluuyaGwen StaceyHailee SteinfeldIssa RaeJake JohnsonJason SchwartzmanKaran SoniLuna Lauren VelezMiles MoralesOscar IssacShemaik MooreSpider-Man: Across the Spider-VerseJoaquim Dos SantosKemp PowersJustin K. ThompsonPhil LordChristopher MillerDave CallahamShameik MooreOscar IsaacAnimationActionAdventure

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