Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, 2023.
Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson.
Featuring the voice talents of Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Jake Johnson, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae, Daniel Kaluuya, Karan Soni, Jason Schwartzman, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch, Jorma Taccone, Shea Whigham, Peter Sohn, Andy Samberg, Metro Boomin, and Peggy Lu.
Miles Morales catapults across the Multiverse, where he encounters a team of Spider-People charged with protecting its very existence. When the heroes clash on how to handle a new threat, Miles must redefine what it means to be a hero.
The opening fight scene for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is against notable Spider-Man villain Vulture (here inspired by Renaissance artwork and voiced by Jorma Taccone), taking place inside an art gallery with aspiring punk rock drummer Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman (voiced by a returning Hailee Steinfeld) making a fitting meta remark about the location. Every image in this animated feature is spellbinding and often innovative, taking the phrase “a picture is worth 1000 words” as a challenge to triumph over.
Starting from the perspective of Gwen Stacy allows directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson (taking over what Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman established in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, of course, based on characters created by comic book legend Stan Lee) to introduce a watercolor environmental animation aesthetic that, through color, reflects the character’s mood and emotions. Then, as more characters come into play and new ones are introduced, each distinct art style occasionally seamlessly and majestically blends into the other.
The animation is simultaneously overwhelming, takes on unprecedented stunning styles, and is utterly breathtaking from the first scene to the last, dazzling with a character-driven purpose (all elevated by a tremendously impacting score from Daniel Pemberton). If the entire film had been created using that watercolor animation, there would be no complaints here. It’s not a shame that the filmmakers consistently switch it up, but they excel at each style to such a degree (particularly the watercolor animation, which is beautifully absorbing and groundbreaking) that one almost doesn’t want to see a shift.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is an animated Spider-Man flick so deserving of “amazing” and “spectacular” superlatives, finding flaws comes down to nitpicking by wishing there was more of a good thing. That’s also not solely because of the marvelous visual eye candy on display. It’s safe to say that the screenplay from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the former also has a credit on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) covers familiar Spider-Man ground, but working together with Dave Callaham, they are determined to interrogate origin stories entirely, looking at decades upon decades of Spider-Man material across various entertainment mediums, retooling them into a “control your destiny” arc, defying multiverse rules.
There’s a new threat who initially seems harmless and more of a joke villain, with Miles Morales/Spider-Man (once again voiced by Shameik Moore, nailing some powerful, climactic emotional moments) even poking fun that he is fighting a “villain of the week.” This seemingly unremarkable supervillain that one assumes will be disposed of within five minutes as a means to provide some action is The Spot (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), a faceless being with white flesh and dark ink blotches on his body functioning as portals. It turns out that his current condition was indirectly caused by Spider-Man, with The Spot now having a relentless grudge against him in the wake of being abandoned by his family and unable to find a job, both due to his appearance.
Meanwhile, Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman has joined an elite, dimension-hopping society of Spider-Men led by the only ultra-serious, non-joking Spider-Man persona, Miguel O’Hara (voiced by Oscar Isaac). Anything is better than sticking around her police captain father (Shea Whigham), who, in one of the film’s numerous emotionally riveting moments, discovers that his daughter is Spider-Woman and responsible for the death of Peter Parker in that universe. He is torn between his role in law enforcement and as a father. Nevertheless, his cold actions and lack of understanding further push the angsty and friendless (in her universe) Gwen into searching for a higher calling, taking up training by another Spider-Woman (Miguel O’Hara’s second-in-command), Jessica Drew (voiced by Issa Rae). Traveling between universes to repair leftover damage from the first film’s events also allows her to reunite with Miles in his world.
Amid the crowd-pleasing chaos (including a sequence with relentless cameos that doesn’t come across as annoying or irritating largely because Phil Lord and Chris Miller know how to play that to their comedic strengths, similar to their success on The Lego Movie), Miles and Gwen also get a chance to talk about life, resulting in one quietly devastating piece of dialogue where she insists he not reveal to his parents (once again voiced by Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez, stressed about his erratic disappearing behavior and how it might be affecting his school work and future decisions) his superhero identity, assuring that parents do not understand.
Nearly every Spider-Man movie, game, and comic book treats that as a secret to protect, but what is especially moving, in this case, is that juxtaposition where one teenager has the experience of divulging her alter ego, with nothing good to say about it. These films continue to excel with complicated parent-sibling dynamics just as much as they do with eye-popping, colorful action. The film could also use one or two more of those moments, as the highly ambitious story sometimes gets lost in the urgency of saving the world or take a backseat to fan service.
Fortunately, the last 40 or so minutes of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse are highly personal, playing up those family dynamics with some shocking twists and turns, setting up more to come. It’s too soon to jump to conclusions, but one does get the sense that these filmmakers have tapped into something that moviegoers and fans have possibly felt for years now; redoing the same old origin story is tiring and unnecessary. Tackling that from the angle of changing fate and destiny currently feels like a brilliant creative choice, as evident by how positively annoyed I was upon reaching the cliffhanger ending. You come away wanting to see how it ends now, frustrated about waiting almost a year for it, but ecstatic that a modern blockbuster is so outstanding that it has given you something to look forward to while standing on its own as a remarkable achievement in animation.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com