After I watched Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, I went back to my review of the first film. Apparently, I gave Into the Spider-Verse 3.5 out of 5 stars. On one hand, that rating seems pretty low. On another, it seems…well, dumb. After all, that film was just the burst of energy and invention that comic book movies needed. The animation was stunning, and the story had some real meat on it. Throw in a killer cast of voice actors, and you’ve got yourself a minor classic. So, let’s go ahead and slap another star on that original review, shall we?
As for this film, I’ll get the correct score right from the jump. Across the Spider-Verse might be even better than its predecessor. It’s bolder, brainier, and brawnier. Over the span of its 140 minutes, we see hundreds of characters and millions of colors, splashed across countless dimensions. It’s visually exhausting, yet creatively nourishing–a kitchen sink experience, but in the best way.
The film picks up right after Into the Spider-Verse. (If you haven’t seen that one, you’ll find this sequel moderately confusing.) Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has settled in as his universe’s sole Spider-Man. He protects New York City from a rogue’s gallery of cackling bad guys, and he does it with his own unique gusto.
Still, a few dark clouds billow on Spidey’s horizon. His secret superhero gig is drawing attention from everything else in his life. Miles’ grades fall, and he’s either tardy or absent at many family functions. His mother (Lauren Vélez) and father (Brian Tyree Henry) grow increasingly anxious. This doesn’t seem like typical teenage malaise. Something could be seriously wrong with their son.
Meanwhile, Miles is missing the inter-dimensional spider-gang he joined in the first film. That goes extra for Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), the Spider-Woman from a nearby universe. They formed an instant connection, and made a great crimefighting team. There could’ve been something even deeper between them. But since their victory over the Kingpin, she’s never come back to visit. What gives??
Spider-Gwen ultimately pops up, but things are weird between them. And not just the romantic tension, although there’s that, too. No, she acts a little off. Turns out, Gwen has joined a multi-verse squad of spider-beings, with the goal of keeping everyone’s reality safe and contained. She’s visiting Peter, but Gwen is also on official business.
That means another supervillain is on the loose. Spot (Jason Schwartzman) is a mutated man-monster, adorned with globulous Dalmatian spots. He can use those spots to create portals to other locations, or even other realities. Spot blames Spidey for his grotesque transformation, he’s come to prove himself as a true arch-nemesis.
The search for Spot will take Gwen across the Spider-Verse, and Miles will secretly tag along. His surprise appearance in other universes will have disastrous consequences, both on a personal and cosmic level. It will also put his burgeoning relationship with Gwen to the test.
Along this perilous journey, we meet an assortment of new Spideys. This includes Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the brooding, temperamental leader of the Spider-Pack. In all the dimensions, Miguel is the only Spider-Man lacking the character’s trademark humor. We’re also introduced to Hobie Brown/Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), who boasts snarling British accent and a wailing Stratocaster. There’s also Pavitr (Karan Soni), an Indian Spider-Man who protects Mumbattan, a sprawling hybrid of Manhattan and Mumbai. And Jess Drew (Issa Rae), a pregnant Spider-Woman. And Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), Miles’ mentor from the first flick.
Phew! That’s a lot of people, and a lot of plot. And that’s just the appetizer. During his time in the Spider-Verse, Miles will meet hundreds of spider-creatures. This includes lego beings, live-action characters, and an assortment of barnyard animals. Most incredibly, this dense, epic-length film never feels like a slog. In fact, I would describe this as a delectable, multi-course meal, served with a sorbet laced with psilocybin.
Across the Spider-Verse is so gorgeous, so bonkers, that you could watch it with the sound down, and it would still be a demented, dazzling experience. As with the first Verse, the filmmakers make the animation feel retro, but never stale. The CGI is cutting edge, but it’s never obnoxious or uncanny. Both Verse films go for the aesthetic of a literal comic book, but there’s never any doubt that both movies are alive with cinema.
That feeling is abetted by the film’s phenomenal voice cast, with many of them returning from the first installment. Moore anchors the film by giving Miles the perfect balance of intelligence, attitude, and insecurity. Steinfeld’s Gwen is savvier, worldlier, and more empathetic this time, as a result of her time in the Spider-Verse. Isaac gives O’Hara a rage he can barely contain, muddying the line between hero and villain. Only Schwartzman’s dweeby turn as Spot feels like a clichéd riff on Jason Lee’s spurned geek in The Incredibles.
While we’re picking nits, Across the Spider-Verse final act runs a bit long. I don’t think this will be a major spoiler, but this installment ends on a cliffhanger. (And Beyond the Spider-Verse may be a while, if the strikes continue.) If they’re gonna close out with a “to be continued,” it probably would’ve been better to trim a little fat.
But that’s a micro-quibble. Across the Spider-Verse is a gift that keeps on giving. After the middling escapades of The Flash, I’ll take the glorious, balls-to-the-wall melee of this film any day of the week. And twice on Sunday. I’m going to leave the original rating on Into the Spider-Verse as a reminder that I sometimes do things, to borrow from Forrest Gump, that “don’t make no sense.” Just remember: Both of these spider-flicks are the bee’s knees, y’all.
140 min. PG-13. In theaters and On Demand.