Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse will put your jaw on the floor

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse will put your jaw on the floor

There’s no denying that when it comes to both animation and superhero cinema, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse changed the game. The 2018 film emerged at a time when we already had too many damn Spideys to count and asked viewers to accommodate just a few more, while throwing at the screen an animation style that morphs on a second-to-second basis, mixing pop-art, surrealism, vaporwave, pastels, etc. to depict insane action sequences that would be impossible to describe on paper. All things considered, it should’ve been absolute chaos. It should’ve been a vomitous exercise in over-stimulation. Instead, it was high art. By the time multiple Spideys were swinging through a rip in reality to try and stop an impossibly proportioned Kingpin, few could deny the magic on display. Yes, anyone can be Spider-man, and everyone should at least try.

It’s been five years since then, and the second part of an announced trilogy has finally arrived. It pleases me to report that every second of those five years is visible on the screen and on the page. As far as sequels to masterpieces go, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse delivers in every way that it should, and then some. It’s larger in scope than its forbear, with infinitely more Spider-Men and Spider-Women (and Spider-Cats and Spider-Horses), and it pushes the animation envelope even further. If not for the somewhat jarring cliff-hanger of an ending (which is to be expected, given that it is expressly a middle chapter), I’d say it’s at least as good as the first film, if not better.

While Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) remains the focal point of the film, our introductory surrogate this time around comes in the form of Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld). After being sent back to her proper universe at the end of the first film, she has taken up a position as her world’s main Spidey, and just like every other Spidey in every other universe, she’s reticent to reveal her secret identity to anyone, least of all those closest to her. This includes her father (Shea Whigham), a police captain who sees the costumed hero as nothing short of a murderer. This is paralleled by Miles’ experience in his own world. It’s obvious to his parents (Luna Lauren Velez, Bryan Tyree Henry) that their son is struggling, but the cryptic nature of most teenagers plus the added stress of being a superhero and a student has him stretched rather thin. In addition, he misses Gwen, who he’s convinced will never cross his path, or his universe, ever again.

But she does, and she does so at a time when a mysterious new enemy has entered Miles’ world. His name is The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), and his mutilated body now lies host to a flowy set of portals which allow him to break pretty much every rule of space and matter. His abilities have attracted the attention of the Spider-Society, an elite group of Spider-folks from a multitude of universes whose job it is to keep the multiverse in check.

Yeah, it’s a ton of plot, but the script by Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Dave Callaham, manages it with an impossible ease, using the grandiosity of plot material to bolster the thematics and provide ample room to swing for the fences with the visuals, the comedy, and the drama. Each and every Spidey has their own world with its own design, as well as their own personality/look which matches said design. This allows for plenty of tags and references to the Spider-Man mythology, as well as superhero culture at large, most of which land just as well in a vacuum as they do for those savvy to the material.

This is perhaps what sets Spider-Verse apart from — and ahead of — the MCU when it comes to multiversal fuckery. The first few waves of the MCU got away with connectivity by assuring us that it was all leading to something big, namely Avengers: Endgame. The most recent wave, however, feels aimless, and the invocation of the multiverse, despite being touted as the path which leads us to the next big throwdown, feels much more like a ploy to grow the brand simply for the sake of growth. The multiverse means endless potential for films, shows, games, and other marketables, designed to get so damn big that we forget there’s an endgame at all. It’s a means to quantity rather than quality. This is very much not the case with Spider-Verse.

In the first film, the opening of the multiverse was used to create a universal relatability to the beloved hero. Spider-Man can be any race, gender, species, or robot, and he/she/they can inhabit any world. It’s a brilliantly empathetic application of the concept of infinity. Across the Spider-Verse doubles down on this usage, and further brings multiversal insanity into the plot itself. It’s not just an excuse for growth. In fact, the plot mechanics may even expressly deny such things. The Spider-Society (led by a showstopping Oscar Isaac-voiced Spider-Man 2099) has the explicit purpose of keeping the multiverses separate and thus, wieldy. As the film progresses, it seems to be making a strong case against the notion of canon itself. Anything can be what it needs to be, and the less adherence to connective tissue the better. The script smartly finds a way to pit these notions against one another plot-wise, while also having each complement the other in driving home the themes.

From moment one, Across the Spider-Verse is rocket paced, but never in a rush. Some scenes are chaotic, but somehow patient and ruminative. They can be absolute madness, yet totally cohesive. One sequence involving what we’ll call a rocket train and about 1000 different Spideys racing to its top is perhaps the most exciting balls-out action sequence since the highway chase in The Matrix Reloaded. There’s a palpable sense of the animators having fun maximizing the imagery of every scene — of every frame. At one point, Miles is doing battle with a version of Vulture drawn to look like he came from a Da Vinci sketchbook. At another he’s chasing The Spot through an endless chain of portals. One version of the titular character, Punk Rock Spider-Man (hilariously voiced by Daniel Kaluuya) changes from moment to moment, looking at all times as if he was taken from the walls any of a number of UK dive bathrooms decoupaged in pages of punk zines. It’s wildly impressive. The animators shatter the walls of whatever sandbox the first film established.

The only weak point in this near-perfect film is the aforementioned ending, and if I’m being honest, I feel like a real dorkus for even bringing it up. But alas, I am nothing if not a dorkus. Across the Spider-Verse ends with a cliffhanger, stopping dead in the middle of an extremely intense, exponentially expansive build-up. Granted, the third film will be arriving in about a year’s time, so there won’t be as long of a wait as we had for part two, but one can’t shake the sense that there’s a better way to end this entry. When I say it stops dead I mean it stops DEAD. Sure, we’re supposed to be champing at the bit for part three, but even the classic cliffhanger ending of The Empire Strikes Back leaves the movie feeling whole. Across the Spider-Verse takes more of a Fast X approach to its ending (or, more charitably, The Matrix Reloaded). The next film will have to pick up mid scene, which has already been established as being in motion at a very high speed.

But even so, I trust part three to pay this off properly and resume the interrupted energy with little difficulty. The writing/directorial precision/imagination in the first two entries has more than purchased my faith in the final, three-film product. And who knows? Perhaps this sorta wonky cliffhanger (which, I reiterate, is a minor quibble) will seem not just acceptable, but essential once the entire Spider-Verse story is in full view. I know I’ll be first in line to find out. Spider-Man 2 hasn’t been dethroned, per se, but it’ll have to scooch over to make room both entries of the Spider-Verse so far.

Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson

Written by Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Dave Callaham

Starring Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae

Rated PG, 140 minutes

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