Film reviews and more since 2009

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) review

Dir. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Intermixing a wide variety of animation styles into its visual scheme, and building on the dynamic sensory stimulation of its predecessor, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse rises to the tall expectations harbored by fans ever since they were wowed by Into the Spider-Verse five years ago.

In many ways, Across the Spider-Verse is an achievement unto itself. Although I’d argue some of the initial praise for the film has been victim to hyperbole, I’ll offer my own: this series might wind up being for animation what The Lord of the Rings trilogy was for fantasy epics. After Peter Jackson finished adapting Tolkien’s iconic series for the big screen, it felt as if the stakes and expectations for fantasy filmmaking were effectively raised. Furthermore, it’s not as if Phil Lord and Christopher Miller weren’t already some of the best animators and visual storytellers working today, but this breakneck sequel — which is officially the longest animated film to be produced in the United States at 140 minutes — might certainly solidify them as the best.

With regards to the plot, let me try to be as generic as possible. The film juggles multiple intersecting storylines and reunites us with two victims of a radioactive spider-bite: Miles Morales, aka “Spider-Man” (voiced by Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy, aka “Spider-Woman” (Hailee Steinfeld), who looked to be star-crossed lovers of some breed when they were separated by the multiverse. Gwen’s prologue tells us how she linked up with the “Spider Society,” a massive group of hundreds of other Spider-beings, some of which not even human. When Miles and Gwen do manage to reunite, it causes a litany of problems for the multiverse structure, and in short, Miles isn’t necessarily supposed to be one with the Spider Society.

Let’s talk about said society for a moment. When the film invites us into that fraternity — which appropriately exists in a setting that looks like a futuristic college campus — we meet all kinds of unique and fun faces. There’s Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), a pregnant motorcyclist; a punk-rock Spidey in Hobie Brown (terrifically voiced by Daniel Kaluuya); and, my personal favorite, the Indian Spider-Man of Mumbattan (Karan Soni). The Indian Spider-Man’s introduction is gloriously rendered with culture-specific landscapes and colors as the hero speed-runs through his biography, and even gives Miles a lesson on the redundancy of the term “chai tea.”

Back to the story: a significant part of Across the Spider-Verse is devoted to the relationships Miles and Gwen have with their fellow Spider-People. Familiar faces return in the form of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who now has a baby girl Spidey of his own. Miles’ relationship with his parents, Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) and Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), is brought into the forefront too, as his disobedience has resulted in a proverbial barrier being erected between the family. The same goes for Gwen’s police officer father, George (Shea Whigham), who has the thankless task of being the police captain who must hunt for Spider-Woman, aka his daughter.

The villain of the film, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), is introduced in a way that makes us perceive him as much less dangerous than he ultimately is. In the opening minutes of the film, we see him bumbling his way through a convenient store, using universe-bending “holes” in an attempt to steal an ATM. He has some wise-cracking banter with Miles whilst nearly killing himself all over the store. But The Spot’s emergence commands the attention of the Spider Society, and eventually, he shows just how powerful he truly is.

The star of the film is obviously the visuals, which are even more kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, vibrant, and realized than its predecessor. It’s no overreaction to call this one of the most well-executed animated films in history. The legion of animators feel unbound to convention — much like Lord and Miller themselves — but more importantly, uninhibited by any sort of cinematic constraints. They make use of every inch and pixel of the screen, whether characters are soaring through the air, leaping into alternate dimensions, or stopping for a poignant conversation in a room where the walls are littered with eye-candy.

It’s hard to believe Across the Spider-Verse is the work of freshman directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson. The craftsmanship and animation on display will be studied for decades to come. Mark that down.

Think of Across the Spider-Verse as a large, elaborate quilt, filled with colors, ostensibly impossible stitching, and layers of patterns that draw your eye in different ways every time you look at it. As such, however, there are threads on which to pull. One of which is an issue I’ve more-or-less come to terms with when it comes to Lord and Miller. “Busy” doesn’t even begin to describe this film. At times, it’s exhaustive as it drowns the viewer in chaos and mayhem. It makes the duo’s occasionally frenetic LEGO Movie look calm and streamlined in hindsight. I have a feeling this style greatly appeals to the subzero attention spans of its Gen Z audience, but for older viewers, or at least those like myself, who fight off “checking out” during sensory onslaughts, it can be a mission to stay in-tuned with the film’s assault on your senses.

Impressive, however, is how Across the Spider-Verse‘s more thoughtful, meditative moments aren’t rendered artificial nor impure by its mad-dash approach to pop comic book art. The film is thematically related to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 insofar in that it skirts rehashing the material that made the original so successful, and instead poses deeper questions. What does the agony of being Spider-Man look like? Why must superheroes have similar origins? Is the only way a hero can exist is if he/she experienced some sort of tragedy or trauma early in life? This film offers a lot of meat for audiences to chew on, although I’m not sure how much of that will be remembered given the art direction will seemingly always be at the forefront of the discussion.

On that note, at least the discussion will revolve around greatness.

NOTE: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now playing exclusively in theaters.

My review of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Voiced by: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Jason Schwartzman, Jake Johnson, Bryan Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Shea Whigham, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, and Oscar Isaac. Directed by: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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