Movie Review: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse continues what the first film did so well – feel like something you’ve never seen before. An intense thrill ride that explores carving your own path and not staying constrained to the expectations set before you.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did something I’m not sure I’ve seen in years – redefine multiple genres with one swing. Since its release in 2018, animated and superhero movies have been trying to live up to the Miles Morales origin story that exploded with color and original ideas not usually flowing through the corporatized moviemaking landscape. It actually reinvented the wheel rather than tweaking a few numbers in the formula and repackaging it under some neat animated sequences: Into the Spider-Verse felt wholly original and couldn’t be compared one-to-one with anything that had come before it.
But with all commercially successful IP movies, there has to be a second one. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is that sequel and is finally set to hit theaters five years after the first. Miles and Gwen are back, and they’re sharing the screen with a handful of new and returning characters ready to take on new ideologies of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
I want to start off by prefacing that I did enjoy Across the Spider-Verse quite a bit. Expectations were high given that the common consensus on social media platforms that I’d seen before my screening was that it’s not just one of the best animated films ever made, it’s one of the best films ever. Surely a bit hyperbolic to say after only seeing the movie one time, but I see why many critics feel the need to call their shot with this one. After all, only a few movies every year land the sort of box office success crossed with critical appreciation that Across the Spider-Verse is set to accomplish.
Combining that with the cultural thumbprint that Into the Spider-Verse seems to have on moviegoers – a common response to “What’s your favorite Spider-Man movie?” – there was a lot to live up to for Across the Spider-Verse, and it passes with flying colors a majority of the time, sometimes even surpassing the original.
The movie opens with what I thought was the best stretch of the film. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) is back in her corner of the universe fighting crime after being sent back during the final events of the previous film. The animated sequences sprinkled through Across the Spider-Verse are going to garner a heaping number of rave reviews, but it never gets more beautiful and painterly than Gwen’s world.
Gwen and her father (Shea Whigham) share an occasionally tumultuous relationship as Gwen struggles to keep her secret of being Spider-Woman away from him. That secret is inevitably blown when a paper-thin, expertly animated Vulture ends up in her world and a few of the new Spidey heroes have to travel to her to stop him. She’s forced to follow her new team of heroes – which includes previously teased Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), and the punk rock Hobie (Daniel Kaluuya, who is very, very British) – when her dad’s only response to learning about his daughter’s identity is to attempt to arrest her for the murder of Peter Parker.
This is a dense and effectively emotional cold open that builds and builds, perhaps better than any sequence in either of these two Spider-Verse movies. The first movie accomplished an incredible two-hander of animation and music to create a universe unlike anything put to screen, and Across the Spider-Verse improves on many of the aspects that made the first so unique. The animators outdo themselves this time around, and the mixture of sounds between composer Daniel Pemberton and soundtrack producer Metro Boomin proves to be quite effective and riveting as the music matches each sequence perfectly.
As a technical achievement, Across the Spider-Verse may just be the most stunning animated film I’ve ever seen. It is visually overstimulating and never lets up on the gas to breathe. This story’s supervillain The Spot (in some of my favorite casting thus far this year, Jason Schwartzman voices him as an aloof petty thief only turning to a life of crime because of the events that led to his new look – and those events are ridiculous and hilarious) could only work in a movie like this as his design and character traits are so odd and cartoonish. He’s the ideal villain that doesn’t need much screentime, but he’s distinct and memorable whenever he’s on screen.
And yet, AND YET, I bumped just a bit when the universe expanded, and we were introduced to the Murderers’ Row of Spider-Man variants. This point in the film serves to explain Miguel O’Hara’s tragic backstory, and how the multiverse effectively works and is susceptible to unwanted changes in the timeline. This is about an hour into the movie, and it takes a significant shift in tone and emotionality. There’s quite a bit of handholding by the writers (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, of course) to reframe the multiverse and the original timeline as something new – each Spider-Man has relatively the same “cannon” and must face the same tragic events in their lifetimes that make them who they are when they grow up. Any time one of those events is stopped, it is an error that the Spidey heroes have to go and reverse.
This section of the movie is much clumsier than the rest of Across the Spider-Verse as it essentially vomits all this information onto the screen – like reading a multiverse for dummies book or watching the handful of past time traveling movies that crumble under the weight of their own premise. Across the Spider-Verse isn’t ruined by this stretch of the movie, but I felt myself slowly being pulled out of what I thought was so effective in the beginning.
And much like what happens when the timeline of Spider-Man’s life is tampered with, Across the Spider-Verse diverges into so many different directions that it’s occasionally hard to follow. Miles decides he wants to make his own path as Spider-Man and sets off to save the lives of those that are doomed to his timeline (one of those being his father) only to end up in the timeline of the spider that bit him in the first film – a timeline without a Spider-Man and with chaos reigning supreme.
Reviews for Movies like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)
Gwen attempts to stop him but realizes too late where he’s gone, and the rest of the Spider-Man team now has to track Miles down and reset the multiverse damage that’s been caused. Across the Spider-Verse starts rather grounded for a franchise like this, but quickly evolves (or devolves) into something much different – something much more cosmic and otherworldly.
Time will tell how fans react to Across the Spider-Verse, especially that the final moments serve as a pretty stark cliffhanger that I wasn’t prepared for. It’s a setup film, and I couldn’t help but wonder if its initial delays were partly due to tying the release of the third film as close to this one as possible. The end result didn’t bother me but leaves me feeling like the grade for this movie is a bit incomplete. It expands exponentially on the first in terms of reach and ambition, but it’s hard to judge whether it was all worthwhile if the movie doesn’t give many answers to its own set pieces.
But regardless of a few plot points that didn’t stick the landing for me, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a real barnburner that kicks off the summer blockbuster season in style. An absolutely delightful trip back to New York that doesn’t faulter given the expectations after the first. Beyond the Spider-Verse is set to be released around this time next year, and that couldn’t come soon enough.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is available to stream on Netflix and VOD
Film Cast and Credits
Shameik Moore as Miles Morales
Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy
Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker
Oscar Isaac as Miguel O’Hara
Issa Rae as Jessica Drew
Daniel Kaluuya as Hobie
Jason Schwartzman as The Spot
Brian Tyree Henry as Miles’ Dad
Luna Lauren Velez as Miles’ Mom
Art Direction: Dean Gordon
Editor: Michael Andrews
Composer: Daniel Pemberton