2023 | rated PG | starring voices of Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar Issac, Brian Tyler Henry, Jason Schwartzman, Daniel Kaluuya, Issa Rae | directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin Thompson | 2h 20m |
It’s increasingly hard to imagine how a good movie can come out of the modern studio system. It’s a modern miracle when great ones do and even more so when a full series does. You can probably count them on one hand and they seem to come together by happy accidents. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes Caesar Trilogy is one, the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy stayed focused until the end, The John Wick series is another and though pushed by an auteur Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy is another (though we can talk about how silly Rises is). The Phil Lord and Chris Miller written & produced Spider-verse trilogy is shaping up to be another. Opening with 2018’s 5-star animated delight Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and continuing just as confidently with Across the Spider-Verse, this series focus on character, storytelling, psychedelics visuals, crowd-pleasing thrills and self-interrogating themes is hard to match for modern studio filmmaking.
Years have past since the multi-verse opened up, a radioactive spider came out and turned Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) into Spider-Man. While he pines away for Spider-Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) she is dealing with her own parental issues in her universe, until Spider-man 2099 (Oscar Issac) shows up and invites her to join the Spider-Society, a multi-verse of Spider-people who converge in a futuristic cathedral to stop anomalies in the time stream. Meanwhile, Miles’s confrontation with street-level thief Spot (Jason Schwartzman) turns him into an interdimensional being capable of destroying the multi-verse, sending Miles, Gwen and the Spider-Society across the Spider-verse to put it right.
Like Into the Spider-Verse, Across is an endlessly creative film delivering a host of spider-people from 2099’s vampire spider-man to Spider-Punk Hobie (Daniel Kaluuya). The sight of a horse or T-Rex in a spiderman mask, or a therapist in a spiderman mask counseling a patient in a spiderman mask are all great gags that this movie knocks out of the park. But if Into was a fun and funny shot of adrenaline, Across gets serious. There is a sense of foreboding that creeps across the movie and effectively hints at the devastating revelations to come. The responsibility that Miles will have to take on as he grows up. The wild visuals contribute to this, sliding in and out of reality and metaphor and Miles’ world turns inside out. At one point, evoking a nightmare quality as Miles is confronted by countless other versions of, essentially, himself.
While Into the Spider-Verse remained on Earth and revealed new Spider-people, Across does some heavy lifting in the world building department. For pivotal sequences they reshape New York with a vertical high-speed rail for the Spider- Society to live in, an Italian renaissance world and Mumbattan, a Bumbai-themed New York where they pick up Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni) and have a spectacular action set piece on a bridge. The movie is passionate. Miles is more desperate, the villains more enraged, Gwen more aching and resolved. The POV shifts slightly here, starting and ending with Gwen to tell her side of the story and it’s a welcome way to explore another part of the universe, setting Gwen and Miles up as a power duo for the grand spider-finale.
There is some silly stuff in here. It’s clear that Amy Pascal’s note after the first film was simply “More women!” so we get Mile’s roommate refusing to be his “guy in the chair” (take that Homecoming), replaced in the Society with Spider-Byte (Amandla Stenberg) and Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), the motorcycle-riding pregnant right-hand woman to 2099. These box-checking studio exercises don’t diminish a movie with a story and characters as strong as this one. Though it does make one wonder if it’s safe to ride a motorcycle across a wall while 8 months pregnant.
I loved this movie as much as I loved the first one. It’s long, wonderfully, indulgently so, taking all of it’s 2 hours and 20 minutes to build it’s world it’s a rich and full experience – and even then if flies by. The film’s biggest problem is that it is only half of the story, with a big fat “To Be Continued” slapped in our face in the finale frame. This has a different feeling than The Matrix Reloaded or The Fellowship of the Ring or this year’s Mission: Impossible, Dead Reckoning Part 1. Those movies gave us a resolved story with a climax and teased more to come. This one cuts off before the action. It’s like if Dead Reckoning ended before the train finale or Reloaded ended before we got to The Architect. Across the Spider-verse is paced like the first half of a 4 hours movie, which makes it feel incomplete.
But that’s exactly what Lord, Miller and the three promoted directors here (including Soul’s Kemp Powers) are going for. This movie is executing a vision and trusting us to go with it. With this kind of track record, they’ve earned that trust. Like it’s predecessor, Across the Spider-Verse is one of the best movies of the year and a triumph in animation. This is exactly how to make a sequel, not by going bigger (though it does that) but by pushing the characters to greater depths – and heights.