Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse - Does it Live up to the Hype?


Ben Jordan (he/him) reviews the latest entry in the beloved Spider-Verse trilogy

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Image by IMDb

By Ben Jordan

The wait is over. Nearly five years after the release of Into the Spider-Verse in 2018, Marvel and Sony have returned with their highly anticipated sequel, Across the Spider-Verse. I for one had high expectations for this film, and for the most part it lived up to them. Though I am by no means a Marvel fan, I fell in love with Into the Spider-Verse when I first watched it in 2020, to the point where I would still consider it to be one of my favourite films today. Though Across the Spider-Verse is not quite as concise and cohesive as the original, it is still clearly a labour of love for all involved. The ingenuity of the animators is palpable in every frame of this achingly beautiful film, and like the original Spider-Verse this film also feels as if it is pushing the medium of animation into new and exciting directions.

Though it is inevitably not as innovative as the original in this respect, the visual style of Across the Spider-Verse not only develops the pioneering aesthetic of its precursor, but also verges on its very own revolution at points. The scenes in Gwen’s dimension are particularly notable in this respect, and the way that the animators use a diverse colour palette of desaturated watercolours to communicate emotion was an absolute delight to see on the big screen. Further to this, the depiction of the Guggenheim Museum in such a vivid and lurid style in the opening sequence is truly captivating, and its break-neck pace never quite lets up for the majority of the film’s run-time.

However, Across the Spider-Verse also leaves its audience with ample room to breathe. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the original Spider-Verse (apart from the aesthetic) was how accessible it was, and the sequel stays true to this tradition by grounding its narrative in an emotional arc that transcends the confines of a Marvel film. You do not need to be a Spider-Man fan (or even a Marvel fan) to connect with Miles, and once again the charm and humour of Shameik Moore’s performance make him nearly impossible to not enjoy spending time with.

Furthermore, I was also a fan of how the film fleshes out some of the supporting characters from Into the Spider-Verse, with a significant portion of the film being dedicated to Gwen and the relationship that she shares with her father. Gwen’s emotional arc mirrors that of Miles, and their conflicting experiences and emotions counterbalance one another over the course of the film. The film also revisits Peter Parker, and the relationship that he shares with his newborn daughter. In one especially emotional scene, Peter tells Miles how their relationship influenced his approach to fatherhood. However, with the exception of this brief exchange, Peter’s character primarily serves a comedic purpose, which felt a bit disappointing. Further to this, the film also introduces and develops new characters, with my personal favourite being Daniel Kaluuya’s Spider-Punk, who boasts some of the most interesting and eclectic animation of the entire film (as well as one of its best performances). There is also the Spot, who serves as the primary antagonist of the film. His introduction and origin story are both hilarious, and I particularly liked how his presence relates to Into the Spider-Verse, and links back to one of my favourite moments in the original film (I will not spoil it, but it involves a bagel).

For a film with such an eclectic array of characters, for the most part Across the Spider-Verse balances its cast well, and never dedicates too much time to one at the expense of another. Though there were certainly times that I found myself feeling a bit overstimulated (such as during the sequence at Spider-HQ), it grounds its excess and exuberance in the emotional arc of its protagonists. The focus is on Miles and Gwen, but the film also does a great job of introducing its new characters, and making you care about them. Though Across the Spider-Verse spends a significant amount of its run-time introducing new faces and setting up for the climactic third and final instalment in the franchise (due to be released next year), it also dedicates the due amount of care and attention to each character, and with the exception of Peter and Miguel none of them felt underused or underdeveloped to me. There are multiple rather obvious pieces of foreshadowing that appear to indicate a significant character revelation about Miguel in the third instalment, but apart from this most of the characters are given enough space to develop in a way that does not feel contrived. Like the unenviable Dune: Part One, this film also has to forgo its conclusion for a future date. However, unlike Dune, I was not disappointed by the absence of narrative resolution or the absence of particular characters (looking at you, Zendaya).

Furthermore, the universes that are associated with each character are each as diverse and intricate as the characters themselves. One of the most exciting sequences in the entire film comes when Miles and Gwen travel to another universe and encounter Pavitr Prabhakar, the protagonist of the Spider-Man: India comic series. The intricate detail in which the architecture of his world is rendered by the animators distinguishes this sequence as one of most eclectic in the entire film. One of my favourite things about the Spider-Verse franchise in general are the subtle details that the animators painstakingly render into the background of particular frames (with a particular favourite of mine being a rather conspicuous poster of Son Heung-min), and this sequence showcases a diverse range of references across Western and Eastern cultures throughout. This intertextuality is characteristic of the entire film, and for fans of the Spider-Man comics the sequence at Spider-HQ is sure to be an absolute delight. One of its co-directors has confirmed that there are over 95 unique named variants of Spider-Man in Across the Spider-Verse, and most of them are featured in this sequence.

However, it is precisely this intertextuality with other Marvel media that also most irked me about the film. If there is one thing that lets this otherwise nearly perfect film down for me, it is without a doubt its insistence on integrating itself into the wider Marvel cinematic canon. The cameos in this film are some of the most forced I have ever seen, to the point where I was aware of a tangible cringe from some of the audience members around me. The presence of real people in the film took me out of the narrative entirely, and seriously undercut the film’s visual aesthetic, which only feels so disappointing as it is otherwise so distinctive. This is a very minor gripe, but it honestly felt like a betrayal, as the absence of this intertextuality with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the things that made the original film feel like such a breath of fresh air. The first time it does this it appears to be in jest, as the Spot finds himself transported into the cinematic universe of Venom for a brief scene that so far as I can tell no one around me understood. I can live with this. However, when the film starts to seriously integrate itself into the MCU in a way that not only has implications on its own narrative, but also the narratives of the other films that it references (I will refrain from saying how for the sake of not spoiling it), it loses me entirely. I can feel Keven Feige’s fingerprints all over this sequence, and this blatant studio interference for the sake of fan service strips the film of some of its spark and inadvertently makes it feel like yet another corporate product of the Marvel monopoly.

Though I was certainly disappointed by this particular aspect of the film, I still enjoyed it overall. I would not go as far as to say that it surpasses Into the Spider-Verse, but it often equals it, and for a film that has proven to be so influential, this is arguably enough of a compliment in itself. To see Across the Spider-Verse in the cinema is to see the very medium of cinema being pushed beyond what I thought possible. Consider me very excited for Beyond the Spider-Verse.