Five years ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse pleasantly surprised many fans and skeptics alike, including me . It was first (and perhaps for some, foremost) a triumph of American animation. Yes, many films for the family by Disney and DreamWorks have achieved a level of glossy quality in the computer-generated imaginary that folks find pleasing, but rarely have any of them pushed the aesthetic boundaries of animation itself.
Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse did that through its aesthetic choices, as well as the style of the animation itself, and left an impact that a few have copied since. Into… was not only a success in form, but also in genre. For many, including myself, the movie managed to tell a very humanist story while maintaining the wild imagination of its comic book source material. It was somehow groundbreaking while still having the flavors of the thing that made many of us fall in love with this world of storytelling. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse continues all the greatest elements of the original while expanding them into new and interesting territories. It gives greater context and texture to multiple characters and universes, while still advancing Miles Morales’ story. It is so packed with references and metacommentary that many who have lost patience already with this brand of storytelling might feel overwhelmed, but I think it’s a revelation. We are drawn even deeper into a story of complex realities, responsibilities, and even moral compasses, without ever losing sight of the people we love or why we love them. It is a hilarious and heart-warming science fiction/action film that gives me hope that maybe superhero stories have a future.
That was an overwrought introduction, perhaps, but not without reason. I need to give you sufficient information on how great this movie is without spoiling any of its numerous surprises. There is much to say about what this film accomplishes; in the genre, in the field of animation, in the trend of metacommentary upon a format and industry, and even within the conversation of representation and what that means. Much of it, though, will have to happen once the film has been out longer, once folks are less sensitive to spoilers. Suffice it to say, what follows is my best attempt to describe the joys of this film while maintaining not only the most important surprises, but even the small ones that made me audibly giggle in the theater while watching it.
Across the Spider-Verse continues on the basic premise of the first film: there is a multi-verse of dimensions that must be kept separate to maintain the integrity of each. There are a number of heroes across these realities that reflect each other, resonances of one central narrative involving a spider. Miles, since the last film, has become a much more confident Spider-Man, the official hero of Brooklyn. While his relationship with the police has improved, as a teen, he is dealing with many of the issues that teens do. Yes, his police father is more comfortable working with Spider-Man, but he is still struggling to understand his son Miles.
Meanwhile, Miles, in keeping such a massive secret from his parents and school, seems like a flakey and unreliable character. Into this complicated and familiar mix of heroics and teen angst steps the question of multi-versal incursions. Miles encounters a villain called The Spot, who creates portals on his body that can connect to various dimensions, and through this encounter becomes aware of a fellowship of “spider” heroes across realities.
That is probably as much of the plot as I can share without giving away anything important. While Miles is still the protagonist of this film, and despite my clumsy summation, the film actually starts with an extended sequence focused on Gwen Stacy (Spider-Woman, or, alternately, Ghost-Spider in some of the comics) and this insightful introduction represents part of what makes this movie so compelling. Across… doesn’t leave Miles behind; he is still the anchor of the film emotionally. However, the film does give us a lot more of the various other characters than we received previously and this expansion is never distracting. Each new element aided in propelling the narrative and adding context and detail to the story. This is a truly outrageous world to be building. The film is often adding details and beats to characters, but each drew me in and made me appreciate what the film was doing.
The script brilliantly builds towards more difficulties and complexities without ever overwhelming the momentum. Across the Spider-Verse has a lot of thematic threads to pull on for those interested in doing so. Rarely have I seen a film take so seriously the complicated emotional realities of being a teen, as well as the struggle of parenting that teen, and almost never in a film that was a sci-fi/action film. This is an exciting story and while there is a good chunk of exposition, it is balanced with some of the most visually compelling and thrilling action I can remember. The incredible fights and hilarious gags never obscure the human story or the metacommentary. What does it mean to have a canon in the first place? Does fidelity to a form or a genre mean innovation is impossible? Or, on a more human and less literary tip, does the idea of fate preclude free will? The film gets into heady spaces of morality, identity, and even politics if you have the ear for it, without ever obscuring the development of Miles as a hero and a person.
I would be remiss to not mention the animation again, not just because of how well executed it is, or how it continues the brilliant aesthetic choices of the first film. It also deserves acknowledgment because, as I cited in my piece on the first film, the form has a thematic function that is made even more explicit here. The aesthetic choices of Across… reflect the differences in dimensions, both in style but also in format. For the script and performances to be so in tune is difficult, but it makes sense to me. However, an animated movie of this scale must include hundreds of animators and programmers; for the choices to be so precise is quite impressive. The kind of innovation and experimentation happening with the visual language of the film, as well as the way the animation functions, could become distracting in less careful hands. Perhaps for some viewers, it will be, but I was overwhelmed by the harmony of multiple elements woven together to create something so compelling.
I am uncomfortable writing a review that is nothing but me gushing about how much joy a film gave me. I don’t value objectivity, but I deeply fear creating unrealistic expectations in folks who bother to read what I write. I know many, many people who have become understandably weary and skeptical of the MCU and might see this release as yet another variation on something they no longer need. I hope that is not the case and you will walk into this joyous (but also intense) film with an open mind. There is an ever growing industry of film commenters convinced they know exactly why the latest MCU films are not successful, or are possibly bad. I would suggest caution to them as well.
I think this film does many of the things, thematically and narratively, that many have decided are the worst aspects of the current crop of MCU properties. Despite this, it is somehow a dramatic success. In my estimation, Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse has expanded not only the narrative possibilities of its world, but also its connection to what drew me (and I suspect many others) into reading comics in the first place. Indulging in wild and speculative flights of imagination does not require one to abandon story or human connection. This film is a revelation of strong and compelling filmmaking, while breaking new ground in the kind of deeply weird comic book history that made many of us think so many years ago that maybe comic book movies were a bad idea. They were not, and hopefully this property will help others understand how to bring these stories to life.