Directed by Jaoquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson
Written by Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Dave Callaham
I don't know why I'm the only person who cares or has even noticed that our superhero movies have experienced catastrophic stakes inflation, but there will be four movies released in a row about Spider-Man, traditionally a superhero local to New York and, really, just part of New York—a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man you might say—saving not merely the world, but ALL THE UNIVERSES THAT ARE OR COULD BE, and I declare this to be completely fucked. In an insane world they call the sane man mad; or, failing that, whiney.
It is, admittedly, somewhat baked into a sub-franchise that has the word "Spider-Verse" in its title that it will be engaged in some manner of grandiose multiversal crisis, and, yes, the multiversal crisis is obviously the fun of it. Even so, what Marvel Studios, with their branch of this increasingly-fractal superhero, thought they were doing when they also swung their Spidey into a multiversal adventure, besides making a billion dollars off of the nostalgic ferment that's replaced the rotted brains of millions of filmgoers, I can't say, though I guess it preempts thinkpieces about why Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) can't have his own self-contained stories when Peter Parker (Jake Johnson in this movie, at least principally) doesn't get any, either. I just kind of wish this film weren't so determined to be bigger, because at a certain point, much of its humanity and far too much of its internal logic gets lost in the colossal size of its undertaking, which ends on a final image that promises even more bigness in its second part (Beyond the Spider-Verse, coming 2024) (ETA: no it is not). This is right when it was finally consistently doing what I wanted and narrowing things down to the two or possibly three people who actually matter in this whole infinite splay: Miles, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and, if we must, Peter Parker again. I wouldn't even mind Peter Parker again, except this Spider-Verse's way of honoring Peter's excellent "hey, what are your thoughts on middle-aged divorcé suicide?" arc from the first Spider-Verse is to inflict upon him an extraordinarily dubious joke delivery device that I was willing to indulge for the last half of this film, where Peter was, after all, just kind of coincidentally around (in a pivotal sense, but he was, literally, caught in his bathrobe), but which sends him into the next movie in a manner calculated to get tiresome the instant that movie starts.
And so—maybe I am the crazy one—I kind of wish that the medium-sized focus that this film was clearly capable of had been more of its whole approach, because everything that's best about this Spider-Verse as a story, rather than just a vessel for more and more Spider-Versiness, comes down to those three characters and their relationships with their loved ones, which, following their bonding over the last movie, includes each other, too. Frankly, not very much of it has to do with them being joined by substantially less good joke characters than the joke characters from the first film (who ultimately rejoin them alongside the new ones, just to impress upon you how this film whose chief selling point was infinite Spider-people does in fact have way too many dang Spider-people in it).
I should be clear that I am still very satisfied; in some respects, I'm blown away. But part of me wishes we could've just had Miles and Gwen in a lower-key multiversal affair—a crisis on two Earths doesn't have to shake the very foundations of reality—and an even bigger part of me, frankly, wishes that the follow-up to a bunch of Spider-Men showing Miles that anyone could be Spider-Man if they had the heart was not a bunch of Spider-Men punching Miles in the face because they're basically, well, a cult of comic book nerds led by a shiny future fascist Spider-Man (Oscar Isaac), who have collectively decided what a Spider-Man must be. Into the Spider-Verse, for all its achievement, did annoy me in little ways all over the place. Across the Spider-Verse trades all those little annoyances in for that big one, though it then sprinkles in new little annoyances of its own. And not even all the little annoyances others have griped about—I don't personally mind that it's "not a complete story without an ending," or that in groping their way towards a good stopping place instead, the filmmakers stumble across about four different cliffhangers that each feel like the movie has already reached its stopping place; personally, I like that about it, and the third act's series of hope-killing reversals and its attempt at giving this movie at least one complete arc is probably my favorite thing about this, as a story. I will get to the "I still love this movie" part eventually.
In the meantime, there is its plot, which I have to some degree already summarized. It goes like this: a year after Into the Spider-Verse, Miles has gotten pretty good at being his universe's one and only Spider-Man, but being the one and only Spider-Man has worn heavily upon him, so that he's found himself missing his friends from the multiverse, particularly Gwen, as they were the only people who ever understood him. There isn't anyone else who does: his parents Jeff and Rio (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez) still don't know he's Spider-Man, so they naturally interpret his truancy and avoidance as an especially secretive and worrisome teenaged acting-out; his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is dead (indeed, as we are reminded in one of those new little annoyances, a big rest-in-power mural of Aaron, aka the fucking Prowler, an assassin for Kingpin who, as everyone now knows, kinda tried to destroy the world, so it's somewhat like if a Brooklynite painted a giant mural of Ashley Babbitt except worse*); finally, in a very funny little touch, the one alive person who knows Miles's secret identity, his school roommate Ganke Lee (Peter Sohn), pointedly refuses to care or acknowledge the existence of a "Spider-Man" any more than he has to. Meanwhile, off in her universe, Gwen is having an even worse time, when her cop dad, Captain George Stacy (Shea Wigham), discovers that the Spider-Woman wanted for murder is in fact his daughter, and he makes a go at arresting her anyway; and I'm almost burying the lede a bit, not just because this is the first thing that happens chronologically, but because this is at least Gwen's movie as much as Miles's, which is one way that I am happy saying Across is objectively better than Into, insofar as this represents a significant and welcome step up from where she was in the last film, where she was a very cool object of awe, inspiration, and desire for Miles, but principally a collection of sassy line reads that occasionally found a depressive register, rather than a third lead.
So, essentially a disowned fugitive, Gwen is given a lifeline when she's inducted into the supreme Spider-Man Miguel O'Hara's legion of multiversal defenders after they both go after an extremely odd version of the Vulture (Jorma Taccone), who's gotten lost in this dimension thanks to the cosmos-breaking events of the last film. Thus is Gwen one of the Spider-folk tasked with another multiversal problem in a reality more familiar to us, the problem being Spot (Jason Schwartzman), Miles's self-styled nemesis and a living multiversal portal whose grotesque mockery of a human body was created by the cosmos-breaking events previously alluded to, which he blames on Miles. Gwen decides that while she's here she'll catch up with her lost friend. This was maybe a mistake, and long story slightly shorter—this animated feature is a surprising 140 minutes—Miles winds up tagging along uninvited to the citadel of cross-time Spider-Men where he learns, amongst other things, that he's an anomaly, and that Miguel is something of a dogmatic lunatic about canon [sic, and sigh], dedicated to enforcing his particular view of it inasmuch as the multiverse self-destructs when you try to change certain crucial Spider-facts.
This is pretty much my core objection to the film as a narrative: it is, I'm sorry, stupid, and it's not even really trying to make what's effectively a metafictional conceit mechanically workable as a basis for a story, which is even more bothersome when it doesn't feel like it has any metafictional ideas it's passionate about working out, but just that the movie needs to motivate conflict amongst Spider-factions and because Spider-Verses are meta, this motivation, obligingly, shall also be meta. It barely serves to prompt that conflict anyway, and requires some troublingly un-Spider-Man-like behavior from a vast horde of Spider-Men, whose series of cameos likewise start to hit some serious diminishing returns as far as the whole "I understood that reference" of it goes. Then again, the single best joke in the movie is here, an unexpected Spider-Man whose limited animation translates into hilariously limited effectiveness as a combatant, whereas even the "we're required by law to do the pointing meme gag again even though we already did it when it was still clinging to relevance" at least doesn't take very long. (I also appreciate roping Donald Glover into this, and still as a live-action human—this isn't ha-ha funny, but it is absurd, and it's amusing in the sullenness that Glover projects, partly out of being imprisoned by multiverse cops and doubtless partly about his irritation, which I share, that we're never in a universe where Glover ever got to play Peter Parker.)
Anyway, sure, I realize that "hundreds of Spider-Men" is not actually a very high number when compared to the number of quantum states a Spider-Man could possibly take; but if you're drafting Ben Reilly (Andy Samberg) into your elite corps of Spider-Men, you at least look like you're approaching the limit of the concept's usefulness. (I did understand this reference and I did find it cute.) The whole sojourn across the spider-verse is not as fascinating as one is primed to expect: the major location that gets any exploration whatsoever, Mumbattan, is basically just "what if Spider-Man were Indian" and that's pretty underwhelming (I initially thought it was at least a Years of Rice and Salt thing, but it's not, it's just a fictional city in some other universe's India); and Pavtir Prabhakar (Karan Soti) commits the cardinal sin of having a Spider-Man costume with a mask that doesn't cover his hair.**
But there are so many halfway-important secondary Spider-Men flitting about: and while I shall pointedly ignore the genuinely-boring virtual reality one, the main ones would be another Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), who's kind of blank and placeholdery, and Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), and while he's more like what I mean when I say "joke character," positioned as this film's answer to Nick Cage's scene-stealing Spider-Man Noir—a self-describing stereotype taken to comedic extremes in the dialogue—the film sort of whiffs what ought to be readily funny about this, mainly by not having the time or space to develop the natural eye-rolling antagonism Miles ought to be feeling toward him. There are other Spider-Men to get to, after all! The other, even-more-major multiversal location in this middle stretch, incidentally, Miguel O'Hara's 2099 Nueva York, never even gets to be a place to be explored, or really even learn anything about. It is almost exclusively just a building with a lot of Spider-Men in it, that practically sends you out on a bathroom break while the more tedious exposition gets delivered, and eventually, it's a chase setpiece on a spacetrain that exists principally just to support a chase setpiece.
Yet it is—this is important—a great chase setpiece on a spacetrain. Which is where we finally shift into talking about why I'm giving it near-masterpiece points rather than the much less important (but much more cumbersome) reasons for taking one point off. Interestingly—at least I think so—Across the Spider-Verse indicates that this franchise belongs, fundamentally, to the animators and all the other below-the-marquee artistic talent at Sony, because this sequel might not share a single director with the first (the most significant junction between the two is producer-writers Christopher Lord and Phil Miller), but it does what that first one did, except way, way moreso, and that first one was as horizon-expanding a "holy shit" moment as the medium of computer animation has had since Tangled, or since ever. Across the Spider-Verse is already another one of those "holy shit" moments.
Sometimes this "doing more" is purely quantitative: numerically, there are more "mixed-media" Spider-Men now, which is not shocking and therefore not typically particularly earth-shaking, but these are usually still pretty great (I sneer at Spider-Punk, but the unstable zine-'n'-concert-poster collage that attends him is swell; I sneer at Ben Reilly, but the evocation of 90s x-treme musculature in his design, likewise called out in his dialogue so that, you know, maybe Ben Reilly is this film's truest answer to Spider-Man Noir, makes me giddy). Sometimes the Spider-Men are good enough to shake my earth a little bit after all: Miguel O'Hara is an outright superb work of design, a terrific villain by virtue of his 2099 milieu's mid-20th-century retro-futurist linework and the sheer angry shininess of a costume that is never quite contained by his figure's streamlined shape; that he winds up a compelling antagonist is more down to this, anyhow, than anything in the plot, or even in Isaac's general reliability as an actor. (I don't believe this really recalls the art from the interiors of Miguel's actual comics—this is better—but the eye-watering sparkle of his crimsons recalls his comics' collectible first issue chromium covers, presently in a landfill somewhere poisoning somebody's water supply.)
Sometimes it's not the Spider-Men: the Vulture is one of the more radical pieces here, a moving Da Vinci sketch, and my only complaint here is that while Into the Spider-Verse let you settle into its stylistic revolution before it alluded to any possibility that the characters themselves might be aware that the other Spider-Men looked weird, Across the Spider-Verse doesn't give you ten minutes before plunking a "hey, you look like a Da Vinci sketch" observation right into dialogue. The Spot is also very cool: often presented as a monster from the shores of nightmare in humorous counterpoise to his obvious ineptitude as a supervillain, frequently he's even weirder than that, a half-finished figure drawing that still has his construction marks but nothing else, which, like Miguel, does more with his design to indicate the destruction of identity he's suffered at Miles's hands than anything in his jokey dolt-to-cosmic-menace story arc does. (I think they were trying to do a "like a great hero, a great villain can also rise from dorky-looking beginnings" thing and just didn't quite nail that.) Sometimes, anyway, it's shockingly small and humane, despite the inhumanity of the grinding cosmic plot hanging over this movie's head; some of the neatest stuff Across the Spider-Verse ever does doesn't involve anything super, but just the particular ways that expressionistically colored lights can interact with the three-dimensional two-dimensionality of Miles's hair within a moving frame, or the particular way that hanging this 2-D rendering onto the 3-D rigging of Rio Morales makes her feel realer than just about any CG-animated character I could name, even (or especially) the photorealistic ones. And Rio Morales is just a cardboard overbearing mommy archetype, I really oughtn't be too invested in her.
And sometimes it's just Gwen Stacy, all of whose material keeps suggesting that despite the variety of Across the Spider-Verse being its entire reason for being, maybe if it were somehow only a Gwen Stacy/Miles Morales movie it would be better. For one thing, despite them being pared down into the smallest blocks of storytelling that would still be functional, she has the most interesting dramatic conflicts in the film; I've also always liked her costume, a sort of mostly-black-and-white cut-out in the frame, the best. Moreover, her universe is the best, probably the "analysis-schmanalysis" prettiest of them in its collection of pastels, even if it's mostly just two or three rooms. But because these rooms contain some of the film's strongest personalities, and because this is something this movie is uniquely situated to do, Gwen's is also the universe that comes off the most responsive to its heroic inhabitant's angry, alienated, and sometimes still hopelessly-hopeful feelings, till in moments of extremes it's basically just a swirl of girly colors and, like, the sketched indications of furnishings and the whispered possibility of walls, the characters themselves just gestures toward the difficult-to-find emotions alluded to by Gwen and George's impressionistic digital watercolor brushstrokes. Just gorgeous stuff—but as much as I liked Miles's Earth already, Gwen makes that better, too. Probably the centerpiece sequence of the whole film is a quiet tangent that captures an unusual vista of New York shared by the two. I'm not sure if Gwen makes composer Daniel Pemberton's score better, or if she just has the most sequences where you notice it—fittingly for a movie that concludes with Spider-Man having not quite gotten back up yet, his music is generally a much more pensive thing than the first one's joyous score, and I think I may like it more.
So you can see why I have misgivings about how big Across the Spider-Verse is and, no doubt, Beyond the Spider-Verse will be, even though "being big" is one of the things it's best at. But I don't know: it's probably the reason it found the space for so much of the smaller, ultimately more important stuff, too.
*In fairness, it's an excuse to do a very effective inversion of that image in the depths of the third act. Still kind of dumb, then, but at least nobly-intentioned in its dumbness.
**Also true of Jessica Drew, a character created explicitly just to establish a copyright on the words "Spider-Woman" and having extremely little to do with Spider-Man (I really don't care that she was in the Spider-Verse comic, I've never read it, it sounds like all of the problems I have with the movies with none of the pleasures).