Back when “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was released around the peak of the MCU wave, it offered an unbounded visceral experience that made the story feel immensely spry and urgent. With its hypnotic imagery, it left most big-budget live-action comic-book movies in the dust.
For the first time in years, the genre-defining animated film made people wonder how so many superhero films continue to be detached from their inspired source materials in their artistic spirit; most of these contemporary films couldn’t be further removed from the tone, look, and attitude of the comic books they jump right out of. These two strikingly different forms were brought together spectacularly in the 2018 coming-of-age masterpiece.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” doesn’t just extend the tale of Miles Morales – the film advances the overarching story into exciting jacked-up realms that make your jaw drop in sheer disbelief. It’s not only a genuinely riveting spiritual companion piece to the first film but one that is undoubtedly even better than its predecessor in terms of its visual prowess and coherence.
Stepping into the sequel, one of the concerns was the change in the team of directors who held the first film. Although the writers and producers share the credits, how do you expand upon a visual world that seemed so textured and true to the spirit of comic books? The new trio – Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson – masterfully craft a world that brims with intoxicating unpredictability.
The story continues to expand upon the story of Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic Brooklyn teenager who got bit by an electromagnetic spider, only to learn that he was one of many Spider-Men (and Spider-Women, and countless other Spider-people) in the multiverse of possibilities. This time around, a supervillain named Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), a.k.a ‘The Spot,’ shows up to Miles. He happens to be a former science geek who worked at Alchemax, only to be left genetically maimed by the spectacular collider implosion caused by our hero in the first film.
Ohnn has now become an all-white figure with splotchy black hole ink blots all over his body – holes that turn out to be portals directly linked to the multiverse. Having more power than he could comprehend, Ohnn is out for revenge. Stuck between the unraveling family drama and his livid shape-shifter nemesis, Miles must choose how to protect his family while being Spider-Man.
Most Spider-Man sequels are about our young superhero being faced with the responsibility that comes along with being the web-slinger. It not only refers back to Uncle Ben’s famous advice but also acts as a natural tool for the progression of the story, thus elevating the stakes further. Sam Raimi’s sequel to the original live-action film wasn’t just about Peter embracing the responsibility of being Spider-Man, but also about the consequences of being him.
That’s what made it a great sequel. In this film, the makers pound Miles from one emotionally vulnerable position to another. There are moments of brimming emotionality and stillness even amidst the remarkably popping visuals. While the first film was about Miles learning to become Spider-Man, this one is about him figuring out his true story while everyone tries to impose the same on him – something that is narratively reinforced by the high stakes of the story as reality truly bends itself onto our protagonist.
The movie opens with a prelude designed to throw us off guard as it fills in the story of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), the rock drummer. It not only makes for a much more melancholic and restrained opening compared to the previous film, but you realize right from the beginning seeing images of broad-brush expressionism, that it’s going to be a technically far more accomplished film even compared to the groundbreaking 2018 film. “Let’s do things differently this time,” she says in the opening voiceover. You take the leap, knowing it’s a world that has never looked more compelling enough to get lost in. Her point of view, as well as her personal story, sets up the stakes of the film.
Gwen’s relationship with her father, a police captain, later finds its striking echo in the story of Miles Morales. The fact that Gwen has lived this life far longer than Miles has adds an instant gravity to the shared responsibility of being Spider-Man – something that later comes haunting Miles as the infinitely dangerous possibilities of the multiverse lay in front of him.
Once Gwen visits Miles after well over a year since they last met, the latter learns that there’s an entire Spider-Society, led by Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). They are the ones trying to keep the multiverses as they should be, avoiding any disruptions or anomalies in the universe to arise. Miguel, a far more restrained and pragmatic Spider-Man, has seen what happens when events don’t go as they should and dedicates himself to making sure that Miles doesn’t seek things that he isn’t supposed to. But when Miles discovers what that means for his existence as a hero, he decides to take matters into his own hands and follow his heart.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, Gwen has an emotional conversation with her father, George Stacy (Shea Whigham). As the two talks in silence about their opposing views, a wall separates the two as the world around them shifts and changes. The style and the colors play out as borderline impressionistic, and as you feel the sweeping tones and conversation shift, the visual realization of it comes brimming to life.
It’s one of the many profound moments where the narrative informs the art and world around these characters. Something that almost all big-studio comic-book films tend to water down in their top-heavy and visually bombastic approach. It’s a moment of restrained emotionality at a time when rigidly overdetermined arcs define superheroes on screen.
There’s also the delightful sequence halfway through the film where we’re introduced to Pavitr Prabhakar (Earth-50101) – the Indian Spider-Man from Mumbai. It’s the kind of subplot that a lesser film would’ve treated just as hollow means of being quirky. But it actively ends up having ramifications for Miles’ overarching story. The way every new character and inventive concept we get interweaves in a way that makes narrative sense is astonishing. A scene lit with pastel colors would be followed by one relying heavily on neons until it cuts to a sequence bathed in black strokes. It all seamlessly flows into one other as ebbs and flows of an ocean filled with exciting new possibilities.
“It’s a meta-commentary on what we call art, but it’s also art,” Gwen educates one of the versions of the Vulture that she fights at an early point in the film. He’s from a multiverse that is apparently Renaissance-themed, giving the creators yet another opportunity to draw heavily from a certain kind of expressionism. It’s fascinating to watch all these styles play with each other, and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” constantly makes you learn how to watch it while overwhelming you with the adroit meshing of such techniques.
Apart from a couple of on-the-nose nods to Sony’s previous Spider-Man projects, all of it never makes for a jarring effect. The film ends on a classic, comic-styled cliffhanger that leaves you excited instead of aggrieved. Because how could you feel about the latter when you know you’ve watched something so ambitious and remarkable that it turns the memory of having watched countless live-action films in the genre to dust?