Spider-man is about as near and dear to my heart as any fictional character has ever been. While I love a lot of the live action outings, especially Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, none have captured the spirit of the web-slinger more than 2018’s immaculate Into the Spider-verse. When I found out a sequel was being produced, my first reaction was unease. Into the Spider-verse was the most heartfelt, visually stunning, and emotionally powerful superhero film I had ever seen. There was nowhere to go but down. Cut to me on June 5, 2023, walking out of the theater with my friends, literally speechless. Phil Lord and Chris Miller have shattered the very bar they created – Across the Spider-verse ranks among the best films ever made.
Across the Spider-verse is very much a story about Miles Morales and his family, but the killer feature of this script is that it’s about dozens of things at the same time that are all consistently supporting each other. It’s a story about being yourself, unintended consequences, choosing to fit in, choosing to not fit in, trusting your gut, trusting your friends, betraying your friends, and simply having the courage to stand up to someone you love and tell them “no.” I’ve previously joked with friends that while the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are good, they are always only about one thing. There’s one theme, and it’s rephrased and repackaged nicely at the end of the film.
That’s all well and good for a popcorn action flick, don’t get me wrong. I am noting this simply because I am awestruck that Across the Spider-verse manages to take a comic book and turn it into an ever-shifting pantheon of themes so complicated and so universal that it’s hard to even find words for them. Themes this universal, however, don’t need words.
Into the Spider-verse thoroughly pushed the limits of what we as moviegoers understand animation to be. Most of us were raving about the careful use of frame rates, art styles, and coloring for emphasis in the first film. You can see a few films have taken notes from it, most notably Puss In Boots: The Last Wish and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Not everything has to look like Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks patented styles. And just like that, when the inspiration from the stunningly animated Into the Spider-verse is now revered as the bar everyone is shooting for, Sony Animation Studios makes their own last film look like a warm-up lap.
Every frame of Across the Spider-verse is handled with the care of a master painter’s brush stroke. There are sometimes dozens of different frame rates on screen at the same time (Spider Punk, anyone?), dozens of totally incompatible art styles, music tracks in every genre that layer into each other, and colors and shading that should clash. They never do. None of it ever clashes, and I think that’s the understated victory of this film.
At once, the viewer sees something that is happening in the real world, in a dream world, in another dimension all overlaid on top of each other – and yet they are never confused about what they are seeing. Hundreds of independent images you could spend an hour staring at and dissecting are woven into the web of the Spider-verse, and yet your eye is drawn to where it needs to be every single second. You hear three different themes playing at once, dynamically shifting volume to set the tone of who has command of the room. There is no confusion on where to look when hundreds of Spider-People are chasing Miles into the sky at once, all using independent powers at disparate frame rates. There is no worry that the viewer will be overwhelmed. Across the Spider-verse is not simply a mashup of styles; it is a perfect, chaotic stew of them.
While I missed some of our old characters, like Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir, the new characters presented in Spider-verse are all immediately iconic. I don’t use the word iconic lightly. Once glance at Miguel O’Hara, Pavitr Prabhakar, Spider-Woman, and Spider Punk was all I needed to know that these characters are cemented into the public consciousness now.
Not only does each design stand out with its own style, it matches the multilayered personalities of these many characters that are somehow not lost in the shuffle. People are going to be dressing up as Spider Punk at conventions for the next 20 years, and everyone is going to know the look. Today’s children will have Pavitr just as firmly planted in their heads as the face of Spider-Man as Miles Morales, and even more than Peter Parker. And yet, the film never stops being about Miles and Gwen, their tandem journeys to adulthood, their star-crossed love, and the incompatible paths they have chosen to walk. It was difficult for me to imagine how one could introduce hundreds of Spider-People in a movie and still give a dozen of them meaningful arcs and narratives over the course of two hours, and then still have time for Peter B. Parker to be the dad we all need – this is why I am not in charge of these films.
As an American-born Indian, I also want to give special recognition to the Mumbattan section of Across the Spider-verse. The character Spider-Man India has existed for a while in comics, but has never been popular mostly due to the lackluster design. The art team on Across the Spider-verse decided to scrap the look and start over, and thank god they did. Lord and Miller weren’t happy with the scene, and brought in a team of writers of Indian descent and handed them the reigns. What they created was something that made me cry in the theater. When I was a little boy, I’d often wish I could be my favorite hero Spider-Man, but as you probably know there were no superheros of Indian descent at the time. Now, there’s one who is the best new character in a Spider-Man movie! Of all things! Anywhere. I imagine all the little brown kids of today coming out of this movie this past weekend, thrilled and inspired that they too could be a hero one day, and it warms my heart more than I can say.
I don’t think I’m ready to watch Across the Spider-verse again yet. I would like to return to it after I’ve had a chance to sit down and think about what it all means. It almost feels like this movie is too good, and I don’t deserve to be viewing it – but of course I do, and of course all of you do too. Even with all the unbelievable character arcs we experienced in Across the Spider-verse, I think I can pull it all back to the central theme of the first film quite nicely. Anyone out there, including you and me, can be Spider-Man – the mask always fits, eventually.
I recommend Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse to everyone.