For anyone who has been shivering with anticipation over this review, I do apologize for its lateness. The long-awaited follow-up to the Oscar-winning Into the Spider-Verse was certainly one of the most anticipated releases for the year, and its critical and box office reception shows that it did not disappoint. However, it did take me longer than expected to get around to seeing and critiquing this latest animated adventure for three main reasons. One, like many blockbusters, especially sequels to beloved originals, it really doesn’t matter what I think, because people were going to see it anyway. Two, I’m on a short-term job right now, and the hours have left me fairly exhausted most nights (I’m typing this on our one “dark” day, meaning we don’t shoot, so it’s essentially a day off in the middle of the week). Three, given the trend of studios essentially ceding one week at a time to their competition on summer releases, no matter how shitty they may be (Fast X, for example, was #1 three weeks ago and is now already on streaming because all indications are that it sucks out loud), I intentionally waited for the second weekend to see this one, in hopes that I could contribute to an “upset” where it held on to the top spot for consecutive cycles, because fuck the Transformers. It almost worked, too. This movie finished second to Rise of the Beasts, but only by $5 million, which is a paltry sum within context; essentially it’s a tie.
So, if you want to know why I waited until now to review Across the Spider-Verse, that’s why. There was no trepidation or concern that this wouldn’t live up to its dazzling predecessor. Despite my initial worries that Sony as a corporate entity would fuck this up like they have with every other Spider-Property they own, having Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in charge of the actual production ensured that the proper care would be taken to make sure the last film wasn’t a fluke.
And let’s just say it right now, this is spectacular, matching the tone, creativity, eye-popping style, and sheer energy of the last film. It has a few more shortcomings in terms of the plot and characters, but when I say that, I am largely just splitting hairs. This is every bit as exciting, poignant, and funny as what came before, and it sets the stage nicely for what should be a grand finale next year.
Picking up a year after the events of Into the Spider-Verse, the film once again toys with the conventions of superhero storytelling by opening on Hailee Steinfeld’s version of Gwen Stacy in her universe. The previous entry hinted at a juxtaposition of the standard Gwen tragedy, with her living instead of Peter Parker, but this film makes the backstory more explicit, revealing exactly how her Peter (Jack Quaid) met his fate, and how deeply it affected her. This lays the groundwork for the major plot motivator for most of what happens once we start mixing Spideys on a much more epic scale than last time out. It also serves as the catalyst for the movie’s actions, as Gwen is desperate for any kind of companionship, which she had in Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, as great as ever). With the link between their worlds gone, however, she has no way to reach out to her only true friend in any world, but she finds a new outlet when a chase is interrupted by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), also known as Spider-Man 2099, and his second-in-command, Jess Drew, a motorcycle-riding unmasked Spider-Woman voiced by Issa Rae. With nowhere else to go, the pair induct Gwen into the Spider-Society, an enclave full of multiverse heroes.
I really enjoyed this opening, partly because it slyly sets the stakes for all that’s about to unfold, but it makes it crystal clear that this is not just Miles’ story. He’s the titular Spider-Man for the sake of the forward-facing narrative, but this is truly meant to be a saga where everyone has an equally important part to play. This isn’t only about making one hero come to terms with his great power and responsibility, but about several heroes as part of a group of peers doing what they feel is right. And crucially, it leads to a sneakily profound exploration of what that “great responsibility” might ultimately entail.
It is only after this ambitious sequence that we get back to Miles, once again rendered as a comic book come to life, making things work in his world as the friendly neighborhood webslinger. Acting as a sort of amalgam of all the best qualities from the other major cinematic Spider-Men (Tobey Maguire’s sense of justice and ethics, Andrew Garfield’s humor and charisma, and Tom Holland’s curiosity and adaptability), Miles finds an acceptable balance between being a crime-fighter and being a normal-ish teenager (one who goes to a fancy boarding school and as a sophomore is already preparing to apply to Princeton so he can study quantum physics and find a way back to Gwen due to his boner, but still). On the way to a meeting with his parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez) and the school counselor (Rachel Dratch) to discuss his path to the Ivy League (his mom adamantly wants him to stay in Brooklyn for college), Miles encounters The Spot (an excellently neurotic Jason Schwartzman), a “Villain of the Week” who considers himself to be Miles’ true nemesis, because the accident that caused him to lose his body while gaining portal powers (his design is expertly minimalist, as he’s basically a faceless animatic frame, including rough sketches of circles for his joints) was a side effect of Miles destroying the dimensional collider in the last movie.
On assignment from the Society to monitor Spot, Gwen is sent to Miles’ universe on the strict condition that she not interact with him. Being a semi-rebellious teenager (and of course, just being lonely), she instantly disobeys, reuniting with Miles and catching up, while also being frustratingly vague about how she got to his world again, why she’s there, and why she’s clearly withholding information. Surreptitiously following her with his camouflaging abilities, Miles enters a portal after Gwen and aids her in a fight against Spot, alongside Pavitr Prabakhar, an Indian version of Spider-Man (Karan Soni, who might have been cast on surname alone; we can never be too sure with this studio) in a world where New York is “Mumbattan.” A disaster occurs, where Pavitr is forced to choose between saving his girlfriend or her father. Miles steps in to avert the impossible option, but that only has more dire consequences, as Mumbattan begins to glitch and deconstruct.
It turns out, by intervening, Miles has disrupted a “canon event,” a formative moment for every Spider that is supposed to fuel their destiny within their own world. By preventing such a critical moment, Miles has somehow risked the destruction of Pavitr’s entire universe. As such, despite a joyful reunion with Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and some of his other friends from the last adventure, Miles is now public enemy #1 in the Spider-Society, and it’s up to Gwen, Peter, and all his erstwhile allies to decide whether or not to help him and stop another tragedy.
This is what I mean by the surprisingly deep examination of what “great responsibility” means. It’s the classic “save one or save a thousand” dilemma spun in the most personal of ways, essentially asking each Spider-Man to willingly sacrifice their own stability and happiness — as well as human lives — for the greater good. As we’re shown through the perspectives of both protagonist and antagonist, there’s no right answer, only what feels right within individual morals and experience, and everyone has a valid take on the matter based on the context of their well-developed characters.
On a meta level, this is also a nice way to subvert comic book tropes. Because while there are still plenty of spectacular gags and references — from a Lego universe (itself a callback to Lord and Miller’s previous work), to clips and cameos from every film variation of this property across Sony and Disney, to a version of Spidey that narrates his own actions in an attempt to have a super cool monologue (of course he’s voiced by Andy Samberg) — the best nod to the audience of all is this thematic core. Ever since comic adaptations — and really modern franchise fare writ large — became the default money-makers for the entertainment industry, there have been myriad discussions (ranging from the subtle to the patently insane) about fidelity to, or consequences for, the canon of the IP. What does the introduction of a new character mean? What about killing them off? Is one actor more true to the role and the story than another? We’ve all had these debates, hell I’ve had them within this very blog when it comes to this very series (I still love Andrew Garfield as an actor, but the Marc Webb movies did almost nothing for me, largely because he and Sony seemingly cared more about setting up their own cinematic universe than spotlighting the rich characters they already had to work with). But Lord, Miller, and co-writer Dave Callaham (along with directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson) collectively ask their audience, “Does any of this truly matter? What does ‘canon’ even mean? Is the grand scheme worth the personal damage to characters you’ve grown to care about?”
That is incredibly ballsy, and again, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer here. It’s for you to figure out for yourself. More importantly, it’s for Miles, Gwen, and all the others to decide for themselves inside the film. That is one hell of a great way to challenge the viewer and bring some much-needed depth and nuance to not just this property, but comic book movies in general. To couch that in even more of the most gorgeous animation you could ever see (the way Gwen essentially has “mood hair” that changes color to match the tone and context of a setting is everything I could have wanted) is something truly magical.
All that said, there are flaws, all of which fall under the same general headings of plot structure and character utility. First off, Miguel’s somewhat villainous turn should have been less obvious. The film tries to play it off like a twist when he turns the Spider-Society against Miles, but from the moment he’s introduced during Gwen’s prologue, everything about his dialogue, mannerisms, and design scream that he’s going to do something sinister. It also doesn’t help that this second act “surprise” all but squeezes Spot out of the rest of the picture, reducing him to secondary status despite the major threat he poses. In essence, right when he’s proving to be a legit baddie, the script turns him back into the “Villain of the Week” through no action or fault of his own.
Second, along that same line, Miguel’s heel moment, where he tries to capture Miles rather than let him attempt to prevent his own “canon event,” feels a bit forced, mostly because Miles arguably already had that moment in the last film when his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), aka The Prowler, met his untimely end, putting the real-world stakes of Miles’ mission into clearer focus. Why is Miles suddenly singled out for more tragedy? More importantly, why not just heighten that sense of justice Miles’ character borrowed from Maguire’s version and set him on a quest to prevent canon deaths all over the Spider-Verse, so that new Spideys can be motivated by something other than loss? Don’t tell me it can’t be done, especially with the flexibility this story was willing to raise as a crucial aspect.
Third, there’s Hobie Brown, voiced by Daniel Kaluuya. He’s a British, punk rock version of Spider-Man with a fantastic 2D design like he was ripped out of a punk magazine. He’s a fun character in his limited screen time, but he’s only there for cheap romantic tension. Gwen mentions offhandedly to Miles that she “crashed” at his place when she was getting acclimated to the Society, but basically everyone they meet hints that they had a full-on relationship, which makes Miles jealous, especially since Hobie looks like a taller, much cooler version of him. It’s a lame running gag, it eats up runtime, and it’s borderline cringeworthy to see Miles simp for Gwen the way he does, equaled only by Gwen’s manufactured obliviousness about Miles’ attraction to her.
All of this leads us into the final problem, the fact that the film ends on a cliffhanger. This is not a spoiler, as Lord and Miller made it clear when the movie was announced that it was going to be a two-parter. Even the Critics’ Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes mentions it. So no complaints about me revealing this if you haven’t seen the picture yet.
My issue is that it didn’t need to be a cliffhanger. Honestly, when the film was delayed from its original release date last fall, I kind of got my hopes up that the powers that be held off because they wanted to retool it into a single project. This was aided when the title for the next movie, Beyond the Spider-Verse, was publicized. Sadly, my wishes were not granted, and as I watched the flick unfolding, I must admit I became mildly disappointed that this core problem wasn’t fixed.
The last film proved that you can have a LOT of story and spectacle in a relatively short space of time. That movie lasted just under two hours. This one has an additional 20 minutes, and while it does up the ante on the story implications and adds more characters, there’s no reason you couldn’t have told a complete tale with that additional runtime. If you cut out the shoehorned love triangle (notably, Hobie doesn’t appear to give two shits about any romance or sexuality, one of his better qualities), trim about 30 seconds to a minute from each dazzling action set piece (give the animators all the credit in the world that you never lose track of people and places in any of these scenes; the MCU editors could and should take notes), and not spend the last five minutes on obvious table-setting for the “To Be Continued” font, and this could have easily been a self-contained feature, with next spring’s Beyond allowed to be a completely new adventure.
These missteps aren’t nearly enough to stop this movie from being great, and if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s probably already the front-runner for next year’s Animated Feature Oscar (while 2022 was a great year for the format, I’m guessing this year’s crop won’t offer much in the way of real competition), but they do potentially prevent this from entering the true pantheon for 2023. It’s still a visual feast, filled to the brim with expertly choreographed action, excellent jokes, and a degree of humanity you wouldn’t think possible from such a cartoonish presentation. And really, that should be the focus. It’s not a perfect film, but I feel like it’s strangely aware of that, and even embraces it, because there’s so much emphasis on the well-meaning imperfections of everyone involved in this ever-expanding world.
I just hope Hobie gets to do something more interesting next time.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which of the Spideys is your favorite? What are the “canon events” in your life? Let me know!