If there’s a complaint to be made about Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, it’s that it is yet another story about superheroes and the multiverse.
To be fair, though, Sony’s zippy Spider-Verse franchise introduced the idea — parallel universes, alternate versions of ourselves, realms of endless possibility — in the first, stellar movie in 2018, years before Marvel went all-in on the concept. The entertainment behemoth has since made the multiverse the central figure in its grand storytelling design. It’s like how the Sex and the City producers talk about New York City as the fifth character, but if that fifth character was an extremely tedious, dull-looking energy drain.
The problem is that many iterations of the multiverse are so terrestrially boring. Conceptually, the multiverse represents infinite possibility with an implicit invitation to fantasize different futures and pasts for ourselves. In a different universe, we could be superheroes or presidents or rockstars or rugged adventurers or cosmic supervillains. The multiverse is only as limited as our imagination.
Yet, in seemingly every on-screen iteration that Marvel (the real culprit of multiverse fatigue) has put out, these limitless worlds lack creativity. The characters who live in the multiverse are just slightly different from the ones in the “real” timeline, and the worlds themselves feel like inevitably temporary stopovers rather than places you want to explore.
And because of that onslaught, the m-word — whether it appears in a middling Marvel movie like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania or the valiant Everything Everywhere All At Once or in an episode of Riverdale, or wherever — makes me howl in despair into the cold abyss.
But even with my anti-multiverse bias, I found my imagination awakened while watching Across the Spider-Verse. The key to this splendid film — the second movie in a trilogy — is its commitment. The movie isn’t content with being another Spider-Man movie, another movie about the multiverse, or another superhero movie. It challenges ideas about great power and responsibility, stories about the worlds we live in and the things we’re searching for, and our concepts of heroism and morality. And it does so with a gorgeous, imaginative animated style that makes each world seem limitless.
By the end of Across the Spider-Verse, I found myself wondering: Why can’t all superhero movies look like and be this good?
The conflict in this sequel is that Miles Morales’s (Shameik Moore) adventures in 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse have created a series of anomalies — universe-jumping villains — that threaten to rip the fabric of the multiverse itself, and there’s a lot more that Miles doesn’t know. He has no idea that Miguel O’Hara a.k.a. Spiderman 2099 (Oscar Isaac) has appointed himself as the Spider-Sheriff who sends anomalies back to their timelines. He also wasn’t aware that his love interest, fellow super-powered Spider-Person, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), has been recruited onto Miguel’s team.
Instead of treating these parallel timelines as throwaway places, Across the Spider-Verse leans into them. Operating without the constriction of live-action actors and sound stages, the directing team of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson build out the multiverse into full-fledged universes like a sepia-toned timeline where Peter Parker lives in the dusty Wild West, or a kinetic future where Spider-Man is merely a bubblegum-popping, teenage technopath’s cyber avatar, or a world where the web slinger and the rest of Queens, New York, exist only in Lego form.
As in Spider-Man: No Way Home, we get glimpses of Spider-Worlds we know well or have heard about, specifically of live-action Peters Parker (played by Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire), the 1960s cartoon, the bodega owner from Venom, and even a glimpse of Donald Glover playing another universe’s version of The Prowler, Miles’s Uncle Aaron.
One of those alternate Earths is where Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni) exists as the arachnid-based protector of a combination of Mumbai and Manhattan. Mumbattan, as Pavitr slightly breaks the fourth wall to tell us and Miles, is a place that vibrates with life. Soaring domes, jagged skyscrapers, and the Brooklyn Bridge flank one another, all connected by skinny little streets, teeny tiny veins packed to the edges with honking cars. Pavitr, who has perfect, flowing superhero hair, explains that people have places to go, traffic to sit in, and chai to drink, but some need saving. It’s easy to see why Pavitr loves Mumbattan with all his heart.
Every line, every shading, every movement in Across The Spider-Verse’s Mumbattan evokes how this place hums with life — a life that’s different from every other place in the multiverse. When our heroes left it, I couldn’t help but imagine what was still happening there.
All this universe-skipping, though, takes a toll. As Isaac’s Miguel explains, Miles has disrupted what he calls “core events,” or “canon” — the crucial elements of a Spider-Person’s life that turn them into a hero. These moments connect Spiders-People all around the multiverse.
Miguel is, of course, speaking in euphemisms. These “core events” are inevitably about loss. According to his own calculations, Miguel believes Miles needs to experience one of these “core events” to ensure that he becomes the Spider-Man who saves countless lives.
You can see the doom sharpen in Miguel’s face when Miles starts to question him, as the animation advances the storytelling. Why has Miguel, out of all people, appointed himself the architect of every Spider-Person’s life? Miguel’s brow droops with disdain and his torso, a perfect V, contracts with a spiky menace as he takes in Miles’s reluctance. Though Miguel has contracted a plethora of Spiders-Man and Spiders-Women into saving the multiverse, Miles is the only one who seems to have questions about his authority.
The fight between the two, Miguel’s brawn versus Miles’s agility, is as inevitable as it is beautiful. That goes for every action sequence, where there’s careful thought paid to how the characters are framed, the space they zip around in, and the steadiness of each shot. Despite the fact that the movie is animated, there’s never any feeling of weightlessness or throwaway flimsiness — a tendency that tends to rear up even in some of the best live-action superhero movies.
Miles’s encounter with Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a villain made of holes that double as portals, allows the movie’s artists to go full tilt with their imagination. Limbs appear out of nowhere to kick and punch, headbutts travel, via hole, across the screen, sometimes maybe to nowhere at all. (And no “hole” joke is left unmade.) The trick to teleporting sequences (See: X2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past) is that the action needs to be both easy to track and chaotically exciting, and Across the Spider-Verse thrillingly executes this dynamic.
But even with these new worlds and spectacle, the best use of the movie’s artistry is in Across the Spider-Verse’s tender scenes.
Early in the movie, Miles and his mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) have the talk that’s intrinsic to every single Spider-Man story. He can’t tell her that he’s Spider-Man. She can’t figure out what he’s keeping from her. Being and raising a teen are equally terrifying. Rio wants the world to love her boy the way she does, and you can see the tremble in her fingers and soft eyes that she’s afraid that she won’t ever be able to. She neatens up the lines of her son’s shirt and sends him off, making him promise to never forget how much he means to her.
Not unlike another recent movie, Across the Spider-Verse is, at its core, about a hero finding himself in a world that doesn’t seem made for him. That hero’s journey of self-discovery takes him to the edges of worlds beyond imagination — right to the cliff-hanging ending of this movie — and what he finds there are the human vulnerabilities that allow us to be heroes. It’s a beautiful story, any way you look at it.