Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

My esteemed colleague Christy Lemire opened her review of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” with a quote from her nine-year-old asking if he could see it again, so I think there’s some synergy in quoting my nine-year-old to open this one: “That might be the best movie I’ve ever seen.”

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” explodes onto screens this week, building on the foundation of the masterful “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” with stunning animation, unforgettable characters, and complex themes. The first note I took after seeing it was “so much movie.” Like the work of a young artist who refuses to be restrained by the borders of the frame, “Across the Spider-Verse” is loaded with incredible imagery and fascinating ideas. It is a smart, thrilling piece of work that reminded me of other great part twos like “The Dark Knight” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” Like those films, it leaves viewers anxiously anticipating the next chapter (which will come in March 2024), and it earns its cliffhangers by grounding them in a story of young people refusing to submit to a concept of what a hero’s arc needs to be.

“Across the Spider-Verse” opens just over a year after the action of the first movie. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) is back in her universe, trying to keep her identity secret from her father, George (Shea Whigham). When an alternate version of the villainous Vulture (Jorma Taccone) drops into her reality, the bad guy ends up trailed by the intense Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) and confident Spider-Woman (Issa Rae). They reveal to Gwen that they’re part of a secret Spider-Society that has been cleaning up inter-universe messes, capturing villains who end up in the wrong one and sending them home again. When Gwen’s identity is blown with her dad, she joins the Spider-Crew, correcting the errors of multi-verse.

Of course, fans will remember that Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is essentially one of those errors. The Peter Parker of his universe died trying to save him, and the spider that bit Miles was never supposed to be there. But it was. So now what? This story’s backbone is about pushing back against determinism and moving forward with what’s in front of you. Superhero culture has used multiverse stories to expand on the concept of potential, but this film (and I hope these themes really land in its sequel) suggests that it’s way more important to hold onto the reality in your hands than imagine all of the other ones that might have been. It’s about controlling your own fate more than giving into a scripted narrative of heroism. More than most superhero movies, it’s about empowerment instead of destiny. And that’s powerful stuff.

Back to Miles. He’s in his version of Brooklyn, trying to balance being a good student with being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He’s considering telling his mother, Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez), and father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), the truth, but worries what it could do to their relationship if he does. One day, an odd duck that Miles thinks is just a “villain of the week” pops up in the form of The Spot (Jason Schwartzman). Formerly known as Dr. Jonathan Ohnn, the once-Alchemax-employee was forever altered by the first movie’s action, able to control time and space through a series of portals. At first, it’s kind of cute how he tries to steal an ATM with a portal, but The Spot ends up being significantly more dangerous as his powers grow, opening passages that can destroy worlds.

Naturally, the emergence of The Spot gets the attention of the Spider-Society, which sends Gwen and company back into the life of Miles Morales. The first sequence of their reunion is an absolute marvel as the two characters swoop and swing through the city, flirting their way through the sky. It culminates with a series of shots high above the city as the pair sits upside down, the skyline inverted behind them. It’s a quiet sequence in a movie that’s often very loud and a reminder of the film’s stunning visual confidence, just as striking in its calm as its noise.

If the first film interrogated who gets to be a hero, the second film takes that further to ask how heroism is defined. Why does every hero’s arc have to be the same? Why does so much superhero mythology lean into the idea that it is only through tragedy that heroism can be born? In an era when superhero movies have taken over the culture, writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, & David Callahan use animation’s freedom to unpack the structure of a world they know and love. It’s a script that earns every one of its 140 minutes, almost overwhelming in its abundance of ideas. (To be fair, my youngest also turned to me at one point and said, “I have no idea what’s going on.” He said it with a smile.)

Of course, most will remember its imagery more than its ideas. Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson build on the first movie’s aesthetics with one of the most strikingly conceived and executed animated films ever made. From the very beginning, the animators are using their form to do things that would never be possible in the MCU, and the art of “Across the Spider-Verse” feels even more self-assured than the first film. It’s not just that every action sequence would cost half a billion dollars in a live-action film. It’s that this freedom has been employed artistically and cohesively instead of just extravagantly. Even in a film where characters defy time and space with every leap and dive, the choreography of the action is easier to follow than some of the Hollywood blockbusters released already this season. There’s a true craftsmanship to the action that’s breathtaking, especially in a late sequence when Miles breaks free from what the canon says he has to be.

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