Now, this is what superhero sequels should be like – a radical deepening of emotional and thematic material accompanied by enough style and visual flair to tie it all together. Sure, some of the Marvel Cinematic and DC Extended Universes (along with some other similar comic book-themed franchises) get it right from time to time, but not with the cunning bombast and idiosyncratic consistency of Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Verse films. After blasting us out of our seats with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018, we have the opportunity to get propelled further into the multiverse via Earth-1610’s Spider-Man, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), and Earth-65’s Spider-Woman, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld).
This installment proves that directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson knew exactly how to harness the power of the previous film – its louder-than-life colors, diverse animation styles, superb comic artistry, and humanly vulnerable characters stepping up and swinging with newfound strength – and amp it up to a new level without losing one bit of its unique qualities. A hell of a sentence, I know, but this is the kind of sequel that should be the template for sequels. It’s akin to how well The Empire Strikes Back defined two films’ worth of characters and conflicts in one explosive package.
In wondrous style, our introduction informs us that the story’s not told entirely from Miles’ point of view; it begins and ends with Gwen taking the reins, being our guide – and Miles’ – through the latest rumblings in the titular Spider-Verse. Of course, we’re still vested in Miles and his triple life as a private school student, the son of policeman Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Vélez), and Earth-1610’s one and only Spider-Man. At times, the parent/guardian role is flipped, with Miles having to protect the city while his parents strive to protect their son, who refuses talk with them about what’s troubling him. Not even hints from his school’s guidance counselor can help start the conversation, as both Miles and Jefferson are pulled away by their respective duties.
But it’s Gwen’s story this time out; she’s broken the rules and contacted Miles in friendship, just to check on him and to feel normal for just a little bit. It’s through this breach that we’re introduced to one of the biggest surprises ever committed to animated life: the Spider-Society. An infinite number of Spider-People – humans, animals, creatures that aren’t any of those – serve as patrol on an infinite number of Earth realms. Up to this point, this franchise has only introduced maybe 8 of them (or 9, depending on how you count the previous film’s post-credits scene), and even then, that was enough to give us severe thrills. Here, we’re blitzed with a sprawling headquarters packed corner-to-corner full of them, all with the same purpose: maintain the universe “canon.”
If this canon is not kept in order – e.g., if one of these Spider-People saves the wrong person or if someone dies that’s not supposed to – their specific universe will cataclysmically self-destruct. And Miles has severely disrupted the canon by becoming Spider-Man. Because of the previous film’s supercollider mishap and Miles’ intervention, a new villain is on the rise – The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) – whose manipulation of dark matter is causing major problems throughout the multiverse. He’s not supposed to exist, but since he does, the Spider-Society has turned all its efforts into closing his loop and sealing the multiverse from further ruptures. (Read into that last sentence what you will.)
Throughout all of the action and visual surprises, the heart of the story lies between Miles and Gwen, and it also lies with how parallel their lives in teenage hell are. Neither can talk to their parents about their alter egos, and their parents don’t know how to accept their kid’s seemingly erratic behavior. But when Miles and Gwen are together, the world seems quiet and kind for a while, and it’s something they’re both willing to do anything to hold onto, even if it means crossing dangerously into each other’s universes. Web-slinging and villain-battling mean nothing otherwise; even though The Spot starts to loom large as a mortal enemy capable of wielding catastrophic extinction, the most important things to Miles and Gwen are each other and the people they love, which underscores the lengths to which they’ll go to protect them.
This movie raises the stakes beyond anything we’ve seen before, yet writers Christopher Miller, David Callaham, and returning scribe Phil Lord (Miller and Lord also co-produce) magically find a way to keep it down-to-Earth-1610 and personal, tying it straight to Miles and the ripple effects from his first outing as Spider-Man. Even though we’re talking about the fate of multiple universes, the uphill climb isn’t so big as to lose us in unchecked vastness. The script, the impeccable voice cast, and the eye-popping animation succeed at pulling off a very hard balancing act to keep us deeply rooted in Miles’ and Gwen’s battle for equilibrium as teenagers, superheroes, and – most of all – friends.
From the micro to the macro, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse wows us over and over again with each frame and each sequence, brilliant and bold in its animation and execution. Taking the mantle from its predecessor and leaping out of this world with it, we find ourselves in realms of limitless imagination put in pictorial form, an evolution from comic book to unparalleled high art. The anything-can-happen ethos, the saturated color palettes defining each world, the note-perfect voice cast binding themselves to their painstakingly rendered characters, and its overall sweeping grandeur clash wildly and erupt with blinding exuberance to make this one of those best films of the year.