Film Review: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse


Sixteen months after the events of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and returned to their respective realities, our arachnoid avengers are still juggling crime-fighting with their personal responsibilities. The first of a two-parter, Across the Spider-Verse is bigger, bolder and grander than its predecessor, and with little serious competition from Marvel or DC’s live-action factories, looks set to be the best superhero film of the year.

When Into the Spider-Verse swung onto our screens back in 2018, cinema had already hit peak superhero, yet its gorgeous animation, dynamic animation and storytelling made Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore) animated entry the Spidey film to care about. Five years later, the slow-motion car crash of the DCEU is finally nearing completion, while the creatively-waning MCU – so critic-proof for so long – finally seems to be testing even its biggest fans’ patience. Can Across the Spider-Verse repeat the same trick again, and prove there’s still life in the old genre yet?

In short, the answer is a firm “yes” – albeit with a few caveats. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson take over directorial reigns, with The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord returning as writer, teaming up with regular collaborator Christopher Miller and Marvel writer Dave Callaham. The new team prove even more dynamic, balancing action and drama with a deftness that shames their live-action counterparts. True to the title, this film is a journey across the multiverse, with each reality distinct and vibrant.

Whether we are in Miles’ Brooklyn – built from Ben-Day dots and bleeding colours – or the Brooklyn of Hailee Steinfeld’s Gwen Stacy – all impressionistic sweeps of electric pink and violet – every frame bursts with colour, every cut purposeful, every composition builds and reinforces character development. Meanwhile, the soundtrack – a poppy, synthy orchestral mix – complements the graphic frenzy on screen. The pre-credit action sequence, in which Gwen takes on a version of the Vulture made from Renaissance-era parchment, is hands down one of the most exciting set pieces of any superhero film and a reminder that done well, frenetic can also be coherent.

Just as Raimi did with his much-vaunted Spider-Man 2, Across the Spider-Verse builds on its predecessor by going deeper as well as broader, exploring the familial pressures on both Gwen and Miles without going over the same ground we’ve seen in the past. The film’s big idea is revealed in the second act as “canon-events”: essential historic moments in the Spider-Man mythos that must be allowed to happen – such as the death of Uncle Ben – lest the fabric of reality be undone. The film’s Big Bad is ostensibly the reality-warping Spot (Jason Schwartzman), but in a meta-versal twist, the true villain of the piece wryly connects modern fandom’s obsession with ‘canon’ and ‘lore’, to real emotional and moral motivation for our heroes.

Where Across the Spider-Verse falls short is that it holds back its narrative and thematic conclusions for next year’s Beyond the Spider-Verse. At nearly two and a half hours, there’s more than enough time to tell its story here, but the pacing often feels padded in order to justify the two-part structure. Sure, there’s a lot of plot and big ideas to get through, but that never stopped the last film working as a standalone story. And so the result is that just as we’re gearing up for what feels like the climax, Across the Spider-Verse comes to a close. As tantalised as I am for yet more Spider-Verse, this reviewer is not entirely convinced there’s a full film’s worth of story left here, though time will tell.

In any case, the net result is that threads are left dangling: narratives can always be picked up, but themes don’t work half-finished. As a result and despite its many triumphs, in the end, what we’re left with is an incomplete film. Nevertheless, Across the Spider-Verse’s hymn to emotional storytelling is a much-needed salve to the dreary primacy of cycles and lore: more importantly, full of colour, life and drama, it is a near-unassailable good time.

Christopher Machell