Let’s do things differently this time. It’s a line spoken by the punk little drummer girl of a Spider-Woman, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who opens Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse with a voiceover that doubles as a promise from the filmmaking trio of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson.
2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse floored critics and audiences with its groundbreaking animation and original exploration of the multiverse concept, but somehow, that film now feels like a practice run for the bold, revolutionary work displayed in the second installment, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Like the great sequels that came before (e.g., The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II), Across the Spider-Verse retains the first film’s emotional core and visual dynamism while pushing the boundaries with its style and storytelling. We haven’t seen an animated film like this one before.
In the film’s opening section, Gwen reminds the audience that Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) isn’t the only Spider-Person in the Multiverse. While Gwen occupies a different universe and borough in New York, her experiences are quite similar to Miles’. She lives in Chelsea with her father, a cop who will stop at nothing to catch Spider-Woman, who is nothing but a vigilante in his eyes. Most importantly, though, Gwen is just a teenager, trying to navigate what it means to be Spider-Woman in her world and a regular teenager playing the drums in her punk band. Giving Gwen a fleshed-out arc and a key place in the story strengthens the viewers’ connection to her as a character and increases the stakes of her relationship with Miles, the core of this sequel. There is a critical difference between Gwen and Miles, though. Gwen knows she’s not the only Spider-Person out there, declaring it emphatically in her introductory voiceover. After losing her friend, Peter Parker, she seeks community, bandmates, and connection. It makes sense then that when she confronts her father with her true identity as Spider-Woman in a striking showdown at the Guggenheim, she chooses to leave her universe behind and follow the Spider Society, a group of elite Spider-People who first assist her in her fight against Vulture (Jorma Taccone). The fight scene at the Guggenheim is one of the most stunning sequences in the film, with a vibrant blend of animation styles that brilliantly play on the location of one of Manhattan’s most architecturally striking museums. Vulture found his way to the Guggenheim from a Renaissance-inspired universe, and his character’s illustration and design reflect the artistic motifs of the period. Additionally, the circular nature of the Frank Lloyd Wright structure, Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog, and the repetition of “Yeah, it’s a Banksy” are just a few of the clever inclusions that proved the animators’ understanding of this specific universe, the modern and contemporary art world of New York City.
Meanwhile, Miles Morales shares that he is the only Spider-Man in Brooklyn. The re-introduction to Miles occurs in a different kind of quintessential New York universe, his neighborhood deli. There he fights the film’s central villain, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), as he tries to rob an ATM. Like Gwen, Miles struggles to balance his identity as Spider-Man with his responsibilities as a typical teenager. In a hilarious sequence, Miles’ parents wait for him at an appointment with his guidance counselor as he fights The Spot right outside the office window, trying desperately to maintain his two identities. When he finally arrives at the meeting, it’s clear that Miles is an excellent student, and he expresses a desire to go to Princeton for their physics program. Yes, New Jersey is too far from home in his parents’ eyes. It’s refreshing that the writers (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham) show how Miles is stretched completely thin under the weight of his responsibilities at that age. In addition to the parallel fight scenes to establish Gwen and Miles’ experiences as Spider-People, the writers display the differences in these characters’ outlooks on life. While Gwen seeks companionship and friendship, Miles is isolated as Spider-Man and feels that he is the only one with his specific experience. This is further exacerbated by his identity as a Black and Puerto Rican student at his prep school. After his parents leave the meeting, his guidance counselor asks him, “What’s your story?” This question becomes central for Miles throughout his adventures in the film, especially as conflicts surrounding order, the canon, and the status quo push him to his limits.
Throughout the film, The Spot proves to be an apt choice for a villain because his body is covered in “spots” that are interdimensional portals that grant him (and anyone who fights him) access to different universes. His movements allow the audience to move seamlessly from multiple visual spaces, highlighting the film’s fantastic animation. For example, in just a few seconds, The Spot travels from a Roy Lichtenstein-inspired universe to a Lego universe to a live-action futuristic universe. While it’s fun for the audience, this causes issues for the Spider Society, as their leader Miguel O’Hara AKA Spider-Man 2099 (a terrific Oscar Isaac), seeks to protect and maintain the order of the Multiverse by keeping every Spider-Person in their respective universe. Today, the Multiverse may feel like a tired concept, as filmmakers seem eager to explore it not as a way to craft unique stories but as a crutch to keep the stakes low and provide opportunities for fan service. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is anything but that, as the rules of the film are clean and straightforward, allowing the animation, killer soundtrack and score by Daniel Pemberton, and the human aspect of the story to shine. It also helps that the film’s humor is genuinely funny, with pop culture references that are clever, not cloying.
The film also incorporates several new characters, with fantastic voice performances that blend effortlessly into the story while also adding their own original flair. Jessica Drew (Issa Rae) is a pregnant, motorcycle-riding Spider-Woman who works alongside Gwen and Miguel in the Spider Society. Hobie Brown is a British anarchist Spider-Man (Daniel Kaluuya), while Pavit Prabhakar (Karan Soni) is Spider-Man in Mumbattan, a city with characteristics of both Mumbai and Manhattan. Fans of the first film will also be excited by the inclusion of a handful of specific shot references and returning character cameos that are best left unspoiled. How the characters traverse through these creative locations feels less like a comic book movie and more like a James Bond-inspired globetrotting adventure. It’s a fresh and exciting spin that makes the runtime fly by. In the most inventive sequence in the film, Miles finds himself being pursued by hundreds of Spider-People, as he threatens to break canon and the order of the Multiverse. It’s a dazzling moment that will thrill generations of fans. Simply put, the sequence is like living in your favorite comic book.
As the film and this segment of Miles’ and Gwen’s story came to a close, I couldn’t help but think of my dad, who was obsessed with Spider-Man as a kid. I imagined him lying on the floor of his childhood living room with a tattered comic book, finding a connection with Peter Parker, a regular teenage boy just trying to figure it all out–his relationships, identity, and responsibilities. The core of Spider-Man doesn’t lie in how the character connects to a handful of other movies coming down the pike or the CGI villains he fights. In its truest essence, Spider-Man is about love, death, family, grief, and how all of these pieces of life intersect when we’re too young to have it all figured out yet. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse honors the history of the beloved comic book character while boldly giving a new generation of audiences their own Spider-Man in the beautifully rendered Miles Morales. What’s his story? Yes, viewers will have to wait until Spider-Man: Beyond The Spider-Verse to have those loose ends tied up, but really, his story is the one each viewer brings to this film. It’s universal, and that’s the magic of Spider-Man.
Sony Pictures will release Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse only in theaters on June 2.