A Review by Victor DeBonis
“Across the Spiderverse” is a rare type of film, indeed. It genuinely challenges me to my core, and it does so in the best possible way. This film isn’t the first to accomplish this by any means. There is a wealth of superhero media out there nowadays. Some of it fares far better than others.
“Across the Spiderverse” had a tricky act to follow up on given that the preceding film, “Into the Spiderverse” is regarded by many, including myself, as one of the best comic-book films ever made. The movie stands proudly next to “Superman” “The Dark Knight” and 2004’s “Spider Man 2” as a gold-standard comic book movie in my eyes. Seeing “Into the Spiderverse” in theaters was easily one of my favorite moviegoing experiences ever. I was blown away from start to finish by its storytelling, emotion, humor, and, naturally, animation.
Wonderfully directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson, “Across the Spiderverse” somehow achieves the impossible and only dives deeper into the strengths of the original film while still maintaining the passion, depth, and incredible artistry that made it a masterpiece. Plenty goes on in this movie with its story and artwork, but it miraculously feels fresh and easy enough to follow and never once losing its richness and power on-screen.
Nothing I say or write can do justice to applaud the spectacular animation on display. I’ll try my best, though. Movements of characters swiftly swing or spin around or sprint forward with complete life and energy as any animated film worth its salt should accomplish, of course. Yet, emotional scenes occur in which a brighter color fills the space of an empty room or the presence of a specific character as she is sadly reflecting upon her current state. Other characters have specific times of anxiety and will technologically flicker in half a second, and the digital smudges, similar to what a computer with a serious malfunction will experience, artistically flicker with authenticity. A villain possessing the ability to pop up in polka dots rapidly shifts as the camera swoops like an eagle to catch it, and the film never once backs down on its speed.
The first 20 to 30 minutes literally left me gaping in sheer awe at the visual beauty and incredible speed of what unfurled on the screen. Characters and action scenes swing and sprint and race around landscapes in ways that would leave several modern-day live-action blockbusters panting just trying to keep up. Sometimes, a different style briefly steps in to replace the main computer-animated one to tell the story, including hand-drawn sketches, watercolor painting, and other forms of animation that I won’t dare reveal here. All of it is done to magnificent effect. One could literally put any still shots of this movie up on a wall, and it would look incredible. This sequel takes the speed and energy of the previous movie, which was already impressive on its own, and cranks it up to next-level work, and it still works wonderfully.
I implore you to see this on the big screen because the size of impressive artistry on display here was clearly meant to be shown on this level.
Shameik Moore returns to voice Miles Morales, and he carries the vast charm, humor, and vulnerability that many come to recognize from Spider-Man and admire him for. In this film, he pauses at heart-wrenching moments and speaks in a low, incredibly sincere tone, reminding the audience of his humanity and honesty.
Part of the audience’s investment comes from the depth of his connection towards those he loves, and, while the well-crafted story certainly factors into this, Moore’s strong vocal performance also plays a role in this.
The same can be said of Hailee Steinfeld who returns to voice Gwen Stacy AKA Spider-Woman. A surprising amount of story is devoted to exploring her life and her struggles that mostly come from her superheroine persona. Sometimes, Steinfeld voices the playful smart-aleck character that she is, but, in emotionally weightier scenes, she successfully conveys her frustration and heartbreak from the overwhelming nature of her life and who she’s lost just to reach where she is. A specific sequence involving her may legitimately be one of my new favorite parts of a comic book movie mainly because it explores the sacrifice and strength that comes with being Spidey or any superhero for that matter. The story regarding how much a specific loss in her life has affected and wounded her is told to beautiful effect here, and it develops this story’s theme about the toll that being a hero can sometimes have on someone and who or what can either be broken or lost forever as part of that journey.
On a quick note, Oscar Isaac, Karan Soni, Issa Rae, and Daniel Kaluuya, among others, voice different Spider-people, and all of them are fantastic and provide the right seriousness, humor, and charm needed for their moments at hand. As a lifelong Spider-Man fan, I considered it an absolute treat to see this enormous world filled with Spider characters in just about every form that one can imagine. Some are lesser known versions from the comics, such as Spider 2099. Humorously, some are in the form of animals with red and blue costumes somehow attached to them. A wealth of imagination and scope breathes from this film, and elements, such as this, continue to honor what makes Spider Man unique and memorable.
Morales and Stacy’s friendship, in general, is wonderful to witness. They have occasional fun with their abilities and their role as the protectors of their specific times and places. However, they also know the devastating tragedy and loss that came with their story as these heroes. Praise and pride from their heroic presence and deeds is nice, but it can’t erase the pain and loss of their pasts.
Arguably, nobody else understands the other and what they’re going through better than these two, and that’s a huge reason why these two are best friends and why their relationship factors into making this film great.
The connections from the family related to these heroes are great. Thematically in relation to the family, no new ground is technically broken. There is a dilemma about knowing what Miles will do following high school and trying to balance his costumed life with his normal life while still trying to make his parents happy. The wheel isn’t being re-invented here in this regard.
However, unlike some other films with similar themes, this story takes it seriously and takes time to allow these characters to sit or stand around and calmly discuss the matter at hand. Miles makes it very clear what his dream school is and what his hopes are outside of his life that doesn’t involve swinging from building to building. They have comical responses to certain scenarios, but they never dance around the fact that, through their frustrations, they genuinely love each other and are doing their best through vastly complicated situations. The strong connection from all of the relationships in this movie rings loudly and proudly, and it lends additional power from this movie’s immense heart.
It is worth also noting that the balance between humor and drama is balanced to near-perfection here. To my surprise, there wasn’t as much humorous line-tossing as I anticipated. Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of one-liners, visual gags, and comedic, facial reactions occur here as they did in the previous film. Yet, unlike many modern-day comic book films (including, if I’m being honest, some MCU films as of recent), “Across the Spiderverse” never keeps pushing a joke longer than it should go or beats it into the ground. The humor here moves at a quick pace, yet it stays around just long enough for people to laugh and catch up to what the joke is. This results in several laughs and times of humor in a story that leans further into its serious nature.
Perhaps, the element that makes this movie special and truly transforms it into a great comic book film comes from its themes. Without spoiling anything, the idea of what it means to be Spider-Man is further expanded upon from the discussion of it from the previous film, and the story leans heavily into the idea regarding what is necessary for a hero to come to life, even if that isn’t necessarily a happy thing. Questions about what one would do if they were aware that a certain event was going to occur and if they even should change it come into light, and it welcomes some great discussion for both older and possibly younger audiences.
What does it mean to truly be a hero? What is the extent that one is willing to risk or sacrifice something or someone to continue their path of heroism and good-doing towards others? Is it fair to prevent something that could potentially be a positive deed by itself in the short run but inflict devastating consequences in the longer run? In a manner that’s not too dissimilar from “The Dark Knight” “Across the Spiderverse” dares to ask how far a hero can and should go to do what most would consider to be right, and, at the same time, it is bold enough to question what events, for better or worse, lead us to where we are in our journey. This film fascinatingly discusses the idea: As painful and heartbreaking as specific events in our own life stories may be, could they be necessary for people becoming “heroic” in their own ways and leading to the good events ahead?
Destiny, sacrifice, consequences from actions, legacy, heroism, and other ideas are explored in subtle and creative ways, and “Across the Spiderverse” makes its complex ideas simple and emotional enough to follow on a superb level.
If I had any complaints about the film, it would be a rather minor one. Many who haven’t seen the film going in should know that this is Part 1 of a second film that will later be released on March 2024. I was aware of this in advance, and there was admittedly a part of the third act in which I temporarily became Timon from the animated “Lion King” and mentally shouted aloud. “WHAT’S going ON here?” Granted, it was never in a frustrated or angry fashion, and I have a feeling that this part might happen in a specific way, due to a theory of mine, but we’ll simply see what the third film shows. In short, though, there were more than two spots in which I felt that the film was going to halt, but it continued going. Looking back, however, my pulse continued to run for good reason during this last act, and I definitely understand where this narrative was coming from with how it was presented.
“Across the Spiderverse” is wonderful, folks. The vocal performances are top-notch and are rich with humor and humanity. The script, written fantastically by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham, is moving and overflowing with heart. Characters are great and well-written. Ideas from the movie are complex and resonate with what makes Spider-Man and any great superhero beloved and interesting as they are. And, of course, the animation is phenomenal and raises the bar for what the medium can do. It may possibly be yet another shining example of a gold-standard superhero film.
Much like its predecessor and its legendary hero, this movie is nothing short of amazing.
Just go see it.