How does one follow up a once-in-a-generation film? That’s the question that Across the Spider-Verse poses, a follow-up to the 2018 masterpiece (I don’t use this word lightly) Into the Spider-Verse. The first film was rightly hailed as one of the greatest superhero films of all time, not to mention one of the greatest animated works to boot. So any form of sequel would have to raise the stakes in some meaningful way to feel like anything other than a soulless cash grab.
Thankfully, the film feels like much more than that. For while the first entry of a two-part sequel does feel a bit overstuffed when it comes to the story, almost every other aspect – the voice acting, the animation, the humor, and beyond – feels worthy of its place as a follow-up to a, for lack of a better word, marvel.
One year after the events that transformed him into his universe’s Spider-Man, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) continues to struggle to balance his life with his loving parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez), his schoolwork, and saving the city from the cyclical “villains of the week.” However, as tensions continue to rise as Miles finds himself itching to embrace his alter-ego, Miles finds himself facing a new threat to the multiverse, putting him back in touch with his old allies, mentor Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and crush Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), not to mention a whole secret society of multiverse Spider-Men, led by the brooding Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac). And soon Miles faces a series of impossible decisions that will challenge everything he knows about his family, his friends, his heroes, and even himself.
Every frame of Spider-Verse indicates a desire to push past perfection. If directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson must follow in the footsteps of an already-perfect endeavor, then everything about this outing must be bigger. It’s ultimately the film’s fatal flaw. This is a nearly two-and-a-half hour story that feels its weight even without the knowledge that it’s the first of two parts. It tackles every possible nuance of heroism, from cost analysis to the ethics of heroism to the pains of growing up to the struggles of entering new phases in parenthood. Every fight sequence is a nearly twenty-minute setpiece (even the humorous ones), so as to immerse the audience in the Weight and Importance of this world.
Even the animation feels like it’s trying to one-up the original, with hundreds of different styles blending together and crossing paths – occasionally to the detriment of the visual. Some of the early sequences set in Gwen Stacy’s universe are so pastel-laden it becomes hard to make out what’s happening. There’s just so much going on, it’s occasionally hard to appreciate the artistry going into each and every frame.
Luckily, it’s not that hard to appreciate the good, because so much of this film is just marvelous to behold. While there may be too much story at times (or maybe the perfect amount of story stretched too thin – some of those early fight sequences could easily be trimmed to a palatable length to rein this massive film in), the story that’s there is so wonderful to behold.
Spider-Verse understands why Spidey is such an iconic character, and emphasizes the human aspect that 2021’s middling No Way Home did not: that while Spider-Man is a kid figuring out his own insecurities, what he loves first and foremost is to help people. As impressive as the battles here may be (a setpiece near the end featuring almost a thousand Spider-Men is oftentimes breathtaking, even emotional), what makes this film work is Miles’ heart, his desire to help both in and out of costume, and the actual stakes of trying to rescue people, not defeat or kill a bunch of monsters or aliens.
To tell this story, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (plus David Callaham) craft another breezy, witty script that’s equal parts funny and emotional. This film continues to firmly plant its feet in both realistic humor and the absurd, finding comedic beats in both the familial repartee of the Davis-Morales household just as much as the realities of Spider-Man India (a Bollywood star version of the iconic character) and Spider-Punk, a Johnny Rotten-esque version of the character who may be the coolest cinematic character we’ll see in a while.
And it all comes to life with absolutely jaw-dropping animation. While there are a few nitpicks to be had, and it certainly doesn’t surpass the work on the first film, the work here is still extraordinary to behold. Whether it’s the way the visuals dart and zoom with the passion of live action during fight sequences, illustrate the inner workings of a Mumbai-Manhattan hybrid, or capture the quiet moments between two kindred spirits afraid to admit their own feelings, each frame feels the care and attention that five-plus years in development enhance. The visual that headlines this article, where Miles and Gwen sit on the underside of a skyscraper and hang above the inverted city, is one of the coolest visuals I’ve seen all year (and when the camera pans out to show the panorama, it’s even better).
Everything in this film ties together with the litany of game voice actors who manage to provide as much pathos as they do humor. Moore is still pitch-perfect as an angst-ridden Miles, while Steinfeld has her chance to shine as the isolated Gwen. Meanwhile, the filmmakers wisely expand the roles of Henry and Vélez to great effect – Miles’ stern, but loving parents provide a great juxtaposition to the film’s madcap energy.
Oscar Isaac finds himself in an expanded role after his first film cameo, and he’s quite good as the antagonistic, self-serious keeper of the multiverse. Jake Johnson is still lovable as the former-loser new-dad Peter Parker, and can balance mentorship and stupidity with ease. And great character actor Shea Whigham makes his debut as Gwen’s father, and immediately reminds you why he’s the go-to for these kinds of roles.
Meanwhile, the new cast equally brings their A-game to the material, whether comedically or emotionally. Jason Schwartzman plays the villainous Spot, and his nebbish demeanor highlights the character’s journey from Silly to Terrifying. Great improvisers Greta Lee, Issa Rae, Andy Samberg, and Taran Killam pop up as different Spider variations here and there, all to great effect.
But if there are two newcomers who really feel right at home, it’s Karan Soni as Spider-Man India and Daniel Kaluuya as Spider-Punk. Soni’s sardonic deliveries help emphasize and juxtapose his character’s high-energy demeanor, but it’s Kaluuya who’s the real find. The Oscar-winner so rarely gets to do comedy, despite being terrific at it, and his 80s-rocker anti-establishment Spidey is easily the film’s highlight. No one else could have played this role this well, and I applaud the filmmakers for letting him fly.
Spider-Verse is about as great a follow-up to a masterpiece as you can hope for. Is it too long, and only half a story? Sure. But at the end of the day, only one thing matters for a film of this magnitude: were you invested in the story while watching it, and do you find yourself thinking about it for days afterward? The answer to the first part is a resounding yes. And while I was skeptical when I left the theater, I have found myself both munching on the themes and reflecting on the awestruck spectacle of what was witnessed a full week after watching. Across the Spider-Verse is more than what we want a sequel to be. It’s what we want cinema to be, period.
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse is now playing in theaters nationwide