‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Review: A Triumph of Maximalist Filmmaking

The audacious sequel is gigantically intimate, grappling with challenging themes while pushing the animation medium forward yet again

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man/Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animations’ SPIDER-MAN™: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE.

My great movie sense is tingling.

Like pretty much any cultural icon, the superhero we call Spider-Man has been through a lot of changes over the years. Different costumes, different characters inside of them, different universes. There’s a Spider-Man from Earth-5194 who defeats his enemies by distracting them with Hostess fruit pies. That’s not just a thing he did once. That’s his whole raison d’être.

The Oscar-winning film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was a beautifully animated story about Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a teenaged Spider-Man who winds up at the center of a quantum singularity, which brought a whole bunch of different Spider-People into his world so they could save the multiverse. A dazzling fusion of impassioned superhero storytelling, humorous characters, and meta-textual insight, “Into the Spider-Verse” argues that every version of every character is equally important and valid. And after watching a movie that good, it was hard to argue the point.

Miles Morales returns in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” He’s been Spider-Man for about a year now and his parents still have no idea, even though his father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), is a cop who frequently works with “Spider-Man” to stop superpowered bad guys. They even bond over parenting advice, with “Spider-Man” trying to convince Jefferson to take it easy on his son. (Wink.)

The villain of Spider-Man’s week, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), is a scientist whose body is covered in portals. Punch him in the face, hit a wall across the street. But while he begins the film as a genuinely pathetic creature, awkwardly turning to crime after a bizarre accident rendered him unemployable, a chance encounter with Spider-Man inspires him to pursue his powers to their fullest potential. This sends him soaring from one dimension to another, on a quest to become more than just a random oddity.

Meanwhile, Miles and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) reunite, and it turns out Spider-Gwen is now part of a gang of interdimensional spider-persons. They’re all working overtime to fix the tear in space and time Miles thought he’d repaired in “Into the Spider-Verse,” which is currently sending random characters and villains across the multiverse. Cameos abound, some fleeting, some practically yelling “Look at me! Look at me! I was in that thing!” in the center frame.

It’s extremely odd that the concept of a multiverse — a series of infinite dimensions, where anything that ever could have happened actually did, at least somewhere — has picked up so much steam in mainstream popular culture. On one hand, it allows for shameless fan service team-ups between characters that otherwise have no business meeting each other. On the other, the multiverse theoretically robs any story of its significance, because no matter how engrossing or dramatic one tale is, somewhere else it happened a completely different way.

Across the Spider-Verse
Sony Pictures

A film like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” used the infinite potential of a multiverse to explore the disturbingly finite possibilities of a single lifetime, illustrating with a liberating, then depressing, then enlightening clarity the myriad ways our lives might have gone had we made literally any other choices. The push and pull between fate and chaos also gives these “Spider-Verse” movies their impressive heft — especially this new film, although to reveal exactly how would give away some twists — and there’s even more to it than that.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” doesn’t just tell a Spider-Man story, it takes the whole Spider-Man formula — a chance encounter with a radioactive spider, plus tragedy, equals hero — and transforms it into an oppressive, morally questionable dogma. The leader of the Spider-Men, Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), aka Spider-Man 2099, believes all their existences are defined by the deaths of innocent people around them. So those people have to die, don’t they?

Don’t they…?

Spider-Man, and lots of other great (and not-so-great) superheroes, have been forced to make nearly impossible choices over the years. To save many lives by sacrificing a few, to jeopardize safety in pursuit of principle. “Across the Spider-Verse” insidiously places those ethical dilemmas within a gigantic existential framework, wherein sacrifices aren’t just tragic, they’re obligations. Watching Miles Morales reject this concept, knowingly, and fly directly in the face of superhero storytelling in its most primal form, is exciting and liberating for the film and the genre.

To say nothing, of course, for the film’s increasingly audacious animation style. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” experimented with mixed formats and varying frame rates, and while the movie didn’t touch the sky-high box office grosses of the live-action Spider-Man films, it probably had the most profound artistic impact. Many animated films in “Into the Spider-Verse’s” wake have taken its cues and run with them, like “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” and (judging from the trailers) the upcoming “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.”

“Across the Spider-Verse” just keeps on running, opening with striking, expressionistic scenes that mirror music with teenaged moodiness, and then segueing into bizarre action sequences between heroes of varying artistic styles, and a villain who seems to have emerged directly from a Renaissance sketchbook. Characters like Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) look like they’ve been ripped from album covers and collage zines. Reality warps not because it’s on the brink of collapse but because it ecstatically realizes the inner worlds of the characters. There are no limitations to animation as an art form, which makes it an ideal medium to explore the limitless possibilities of space and time.

Joaquim Dos Santos (“The Legend of Korra”), Kemp Powers (“Soul”) and first-time feature director Justin K. Thompson have directed the living hell out of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” It’s a triumph of maximalist filmmaking, using in-your-face techniques to craft a gigantically intimate story. A wonder to behold, a shock to the senses, a thrill to one and all. And while it’s possible that the upcoming “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” won’t live up to the promise of these first two installments, at least we’ll know that somewhere out there, in the multiverse, the trilogy ended just right. Probably with the aid of Hostess fruit pies.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” opens exclusively in theaters on June 2.