Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Review

Across the Spider-Verse is exactly what a sequel should be

The follow-up to the critically acclaimed 2018 hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse swings into theaters with a heavy burden to bear: simply live up to the expectations set up by its predecessor. Not an easy task considering the previous film topped the long-awaited The Incredibles 2 for the best animated film Oscar at the Academy Awards. Despite the burden, Across the Spider-Verse not only succeeds in this but exceeds its predecessor in some ways. This film is a treat not only for the eyes but for the heart as well.

Without his old spider-friends, Miles Morales hits a low. Having made friends that understand him, his struggles, and his view of the world, all the rest becomes a bit dull. Luckily for us, through unintended (yet at times hysterical) consequences, our hero finds himself on a multi-dimensional romp that extends its web beyond Miles’s world and into those of many other spider-people. The primary villain is introduced early and seems to be a one-off intro to the film. A quick, easily discarded “villain-of-the-week.” But as the film progresses, we see the horrifying possibilities of the Spot. The introductory battle is comical, action-packed, and only a taste of what Across the Spider-Verse has in store for its viewers.

The writing is brilliant, with almost every comical quip hitting its mark. Considering every spider-person in every universe has some sense of humor, it’s impressive to see each of them aptly apply their humor in specific situations that succeed within the narrative framework. With so many moving pieces, it’s commendable that the writers rarely stumble with any of their spider-folk. This extends to the serious moments too. The frustration of being a parent is palpable (especially the parents of Spider-Man), the desire to do the right thing despite negative repercussions weighs heavy, and the conflicting anxiety of choosing to help a friend or save the multiverse pulls at the heartstrings. Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and David Callaham nailed it.

Miles’s Afro-Latino heritage plays a large part in who he is and how he is accepted in not only his world but in the entire multiverse. I found the storyline within the spider-people's HQ to be an allegorical exploration of Miles’s entire existence. Being a minority in a place where people don’t think you should exist (or that one should “go back to where you came from”) hits home for many, and seeing Miles’s solution to the problem play out on screen is both rewarding and inspiring. Ensuring Miles never forgets who he is and where he comes from does the character, and in turn the film, a great service.

On the other side of the emotional coin, Gwen’s personal issues are explored. Again her side is allegorical, but in this case in regards to trans acceptance. Struggling with her father’s denial of who she is and the choices inherent to her is reflected by the bleeding watercolors that sink ever down. The despair she feels at losing the person she trusts most to protect her is on full display with the dialogue and reinforced by the beautiful animations that represent the mood. The brilliance is in the obvious yet subtle implementation and spot-on delivery. The film doesn’t outright mention Gwen being trans, but the trans symbols surrounding her are quite apparent. A trans flag can be seen on her father’s police officer uniform, a “Protect Trans Kids” sign hangs above the door of her bedroom, the colors primarily used in her world share the same color with the trans flag, and the lighting used when displaying her are frequently blue, white, and pink. Easy to glance over if you were not paying attention, but the repetitive use caught my eye.

While comedy and drama are on an equal balance, the third element of any great superhero film is here in full force: the action. The smooth yet stop-motion-like animations flow so perfectly. Each combat or escape scene plays out with a precision that complements each character. Each spider-person and villain has a unique take on combat, regardless of how similar many of their ability sets are. Renaissance Vulture fighting three different spider-people is an amazing intro that sets the pace of the film. Watching the combat scenes kept me engaged throughout, and the escape scenes felt like I had a web shot stuck to my chest as I was yanked along for the ride. This is where the animation style flexes its biggest muscle, as up to six different styles come together in the harmonic cacophony that never lets up. This movie is worth it for the action alone, but I’m glad it’s so much more.

With quips, web thwips, and feeling trips all in beautiful equilibrium, one would think the setting would seem to be somewhat of an afterthought. Luckily for us, this is yet another visual treat. Each world is beautiful and distinct. Even when representing many different New Yorks, the artists and animators ensure that the viewer can not only see a difference but feel it. Gwen’s world has a more watercolor feel. Earth-616 boasts a more lively atmosphere, while Earth-42 contains heavy shadows, indicative of its more oppressive environment. The seedy underworld of Spider-Man 2099 contrasts with the pristine skylines of the technologically advanced society up above (anyone for a quick trip to the moon?). The fusion of Mumbai and New York City makes for the comical Mumbhattan, the world where Pavitr Prabhakar is Spider-Man. I can go on and on about how well they’ve represented each Earth, but it’s better to use one’s own eyes because what we have here is an absolute delight.

The VO performances here boost the film into the stratosphere. I can list every major voice actor here, but it would do a disservice to all the people who deliver only a few short lines. Each character is important and it’s frequently the smaller characters that deliver memorable lines, each one placed with a purpose (usually comical). One could say that much of it is fan service, but it isn’t there for the sake of being fan service. It serves the narrative, the world, and the characters, and almost every performer has a stellar performance here.

At the beginning of the film, I had a bit of trouble hearing the dialogue. I wasn't sure if it was my specific theatre or the sound itself. Upon doing some research, I discovered others had similar issues, though at different parts of the film. If there had been no one else in the theatre, it may have been less noticeable, but as it was, it hampered the opening moments of the film for me, if only slightly. My only other major negative criticism of the film comes at the end. Though I knew it was coming, it’s still a bit annoying to see a “To Be Continued…” with a wait time of a year. Most of the plot points aren't wrapped up when all is through.

Despite a major cliffhanger that introduces a new plot line in the film’s last ten minutes, the themes that the film set out to explore are done well and reach great heights with satisfying exploration and discovery, the allegory is subtle and accurate, and the characters all grow in unique ways. This is the continuation of Into the Spider-Verse and an amazing setup for Beyond the Spider-Verse (coming March 2024). Exhilarating action scenes, tender character sequences, and near-flawless humor put Across the Spider-Verse among the best films of this year, and definitely above many other superhero films. Every person who worked on this film should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. Not only do I want to see this again in theaters, but I look forward to having it in my BluRay collection so I can share it with friends for years to come. This isn't just a great animated film; it's a great film, period. It's an example of what this specific medium can achieve with the proper vision.

March 2024 can’t come soon enough.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 9/10

Bonus: +1 for phenomenal animation and writing, +1 for living up to the first film.

Penalties: −1 for audio issues, −1 for the cliffhanger ending.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.