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Across The Spider-Verse: We Can Be Heroes

A Spider for all universes.

When Into The Spider-Verse came out in 2018, it became not only the best Spider-Man film ever made — a title it arguably still holds — but one of the best super-hero films ever made, period. Its mind-blowing animation style drew heavy inspiration from comic books not only in structure and framing but in how it told its stories, turning the film into a wildly alive graphic novel. Focusing on the origin of Miles Morales, one of multiple Spider-People in the cast, it explored what it meant to be a superhero and how those stories are formed and told, how they hold common themes but evolve based on the circumstances not just of the players but of its medium and audience. Now, its follow-up Across The Spider-Verse expands its reach, its depth, and its visuals to blow our minds all over again.

It’s been 16 months since the last film, and Miles (Shameik Moore) is trying desperately to balance his life between his school, family, and crimefighting when he receives a surprise visit from Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), the Spider-Woman of Earth-65. Through her, he discovers a multi-dimensional society made up of hundreds of Spider-People that work under the leadership of Miguel O’Hara / Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). However, Miles soon finds that his actions in the last film have started a chain of events that might lead to a multiversal catastrophe, one that Miguel holds him personally responsible for. Miles finds himself on the run from an army of Spider-People while he desperately tries to save his world from a dimension-hopping villain called The Spot (Jason Schwartzman).

The original film was nothing short of a revelation, a brilliant reminder of how exciting a superhero film could be. In literally bringing a comic book to life, it not only told its own story but the story of how we consume and relate to superhero media in general. It held a strong metatextual edge without fully breaking the fourth wall, and it treated its characters and canvas with the utmost respect while also celebrating the specific tropes and modes of the comic book and the superhero origin story.

And every meme, too.

The sequel takes that approach and amps it up to 11. Instead of focusing solely on Miles’ world and the other Spider-People that visit it, it instead turns its gaze to the actual Spider-Verse to find out how Miles and the other characters fit within that. While the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have treated the multiverse as something of a remix project or plot hook, Across the Spider-Verse views the multiverse as nothing short of an endless series of opportunities. There aren’t just other Spider-People in different costumes. We also have Spider-Cat, Spider-Rex, Spider-Horse, and even a sentient Spider-Mobile (real name: Peter Parkedcar, and I am thankfully not making that up).

This kind of approach is at the core of both Spider-Man’s appeal and his legacy. Many of the heroes of Marvel Comics come from very humble origins, and they are often made, not born. Even most mutants are born as ordinary humans who develop their abilities later in life, often without warning and accompanied by trauma. It’s the idea that literally anyone you meet could be a potential superhero, and you just can’t tell from looking at them. The Spider-Powered we meet in this film in general don’t come from the upper tiers of society, and outside of their heroics face real, legitimate struggles around family, jobs, and identity that anyone can relate to.

The diversity of the Spider-Powered is reflected not only in their portrayal but in how the film frames them. Each character is drawn in their own specific art style and palette, something which is not changed when they interact with their extra-dimensional companions. While Miles and Gwen’s character designs look extremely similar in style, their worlds couldn’t be more different. Miles’ setting hews very close to a more “standard” style of animation, featuring realistic backgrounds that often fade into something resembling Ben-Day dots, while Gwen’s world is often rendered in abstract, especially during quiet scenes, where background items are done in rough brush-strokes and colors constantly change to reflect the mood of the scene. And those are both radically different than the more angled, intimidating lines of Miguel’s design, the indie-zine vibe of Spider-Punk, or the more photo-realistic sheen to Jessica Drew’s Spider-Woman.

One, two, Spidey’s comin’ for you…

The most remarkable part to this wild array of art styles is that when they all converge, they actually work perfectly as a whole. Instead of being jarring or incongruent, they all make sense when used together. The focus is always squarely on the story; the art is the vehicle and the reflection of that story. It’s also letting us know that while Miles might be the center of this narrative, the universe doesn’t revolve around him. By showing every character in their own unique way, we’re reminded that the multiverse if full of stories just as important as Miles’ own, set in worlds limited only by imagination. By extension, the audience of those stories is just as important and vital to the experience as the characters themselves.

Part of what makes this explosion of styles come together is the work of the directing team of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson. Replacing the directors of the previous film, the new team has taken what its predecessor did and pushed it past the limits. There is so much going on in each frame of the film that it can honestly be difficult sometimes to take it all in, but this is very much in a way that encourages careful study and re-watching as opposed to the brain checking out from over-stimulation. The film thrives on a kind of carefully-curated chaos, the kind that only comes from throwing out the rulebook and running on the whim of the muse. But the film is never incoherent or messy. The directors are full of surprises and sudden left-turns, but they’re just as capable of calming down to allow moments of genuine emotion and drama resonate within their visuals. Those visuals are amplified further by another brilliant synth-and-orchestral score by Daniel Pemberton and a collection of gorgeous hip-hop tracks compiled and produced by Metro Boomin that reflect Miles’ Afro-Latino heritage.

A lot of that emotion is due to the deft and sincerity of the script by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham. Lord also worked on the script for the previous film, and he helps maintain the first film’s voice and charm. The characters come off as extremely realistic and organic, and while there is plenty of humor and quips galore, there is also an equal amount of seriousness and weight. The only complaint I have about the film is that the overall arc of the script seems less focused than the previous film, although the reason for this becomes clear during the final act.

Spider is popping up all over.

This isn’t just an action film with a lot of jokes but also a look at the less glamorous side of the superhero myth. Every Spider-Powered we meet has suffered a devastating personal tragedy (or more), and it’s even revealed that the Spider-Powered are expected to suffer through these tragedies (referred to as “canon events”) to become who they are. And this isn’t played for a joke or a commentary on cliche. It’s through the experience of loss that we learn consequence, perseverance, and the importance of fighting for what we value. It’s up to the individual whether this becomes a desire to protect others from suffering the same tragedies or a need to punish the world for the same. A hero is truly made from the choices we make to move forward, another reminder that every person regardless of the circumstances of their birth, has the potential for being a superhero.

The cast of the film reflects this diversity of choice, as well, and each character has their own unique aura and voice. Miles is just as headstrong as before, his enthusiasm as great as his desire to define himself on his own terms. Shameik Moore once again perfectly captures Miles’ adolescent angst but also his youthful exuberance. Hallee Steinfeld is also brilliant as Gwen Stacy, here raised to co-protagonist. The film’s extended prologue even focuses specifically on how she comes into contact with Miguel’s Spider-Society. Steinfeld was made to play flawed but endearing and admirable heroes like Gwen and Hawkeye‘s Kate Bishop, and her nuanced and dedicated voice work here is stellar.

In comparison to Moore and Steinfeld, Oscar Isaac’s voice work as Miguel O’Hara is not quite as colorful, but this isn’t really his fault. Miguel is an extremely serious, sometimes antagonistic character, and Isaac is perfectly cast in the role. He gives a dedicated performance, but it’s also one that seems custom made for him, so there’s an unfortunate air of lower expectations. (But in the best way.) Gratefully, the rest of the cast adds more color and variety, including Issa Rae’s warm but cynical Spider-Woman, Daniel Kaluuya’s effortlessly cool Spider-Punk, Andy Samberg’s comically self-tortured 90s cartoon Scarlet Spider, and especially Karan Soni’s hilarious and instantly appealing Pavitr Prabhakar (a.k.a. Spider-Man India).

It’s not just the Spiders that make for great characters here, though. Through Jason Schwartzman’s disarming voice work, The Spot goes from a place of ridicule where he’s constantly called a “villain of the week” to a place of terrifying, even existential dread. Much like his portrayal of Gideon Graves in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Schwartzman’s initial air of awkwardness and geniality hides a character full of genuine pain and weaponized anger. Another shout out has to go to Luna Lauren Vélez as Rio, Miles’ mother. While she didn’t get much to do in the first film, this time around her role is thankfully expanded, emphasizing Miles’ relationship with his family and how his secret heroics affect his home life. Vélez’s performance has a solid strength punctuated by a bright but quiet fire.

Miles is in a Spot of trouble. (I’ll show myself out.)

No matter how many times you may have enjoyed Into The Spider-Verse, it can’t prepare you for either the visual impact or emotional weight present in Across The Spider-Verse. While its narrative might be slightly hazier, its animation redefines what it means to go to the next level. Its dizzying energy never feels overwhelming, and its massive cast of characters never feels superfluous. Equally adept at phenomenal action scenes and deep metaphors on what it means to be a superhero both in-universe and out, it raises the bar even higher for what a superhero film — or any animated film of any genre at all — can be.

FBOTU Score: 9 out of 10 / A

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