Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse
When it comes to superheros, no one character has had as good of a run in theaters as SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002.. Ever since Sony released the first film in Sam Raimi's trilogy, 2002's Spider-man, the character has been a consistent, and lucrative, blockbuster hero. He's Marvel's most famous, and most popular, hero, and Sony has their fingers all over his films.
Now, in fairness, Sony hasn't always done right by the hero. They meddled too hard on Raimi's trilogy, leading to the pretty terrible third film, and then essentially chasing Raimi away before he could make a fourth film. They then produced the two Amazing Spider-man films which, while watchable in places, lack the artistic merits of Raimi's films. They were deep enough in the weeds that they had to strike a deal with Marvel to get Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. to really revive the franchise. And it worked, with the Tom Holland films being high water marks for the franchise as a whole.
Of course, then Sony had to be Sony and go off and make their own "Spider-man films without Spider-man". Venom is oddly watchable, in a terrible way, but its sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage was garbage and, somehow, Morbius was even worse. Anyone back in 2018 that heard Sony was going to make their own Spider-man film without the involvement of Marvel Studios could, understandably, have been wary. This was Sony. The same Sony that somehow had bungled their way through a decade of so-so Spidey films. Could they pull it off?
But they did. With the right creative team -- led by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (of Clone High, The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street), these guys knew how to take a property and lovingly reinvent it into a new, cool, and interesting film. And they did just that with the Miles Morales adventure, Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse. That film was a multi-dimensional, multi-versal treat (three years before Marvel did their own Spider-man multiverse crossover with No Way Home), an animated love letter to all things Spider-man, and it's great.
And yet it was still fair to be wary. Sony has a track record of ruining even their good properties (see, again, Spider-man 3 and Venom: Let There Be Carnage). Could a sequel to Into the Spider-Verse have the same impact, the same style, the same loving humor as the original. No, it doesn't, and that's why this film is better. The first movie was a comedic joy that poked fun at all things Spider-man while still telling a solid Spider-man tale. Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse, though, goes for a deeper story with more heart and more character development without quite as much humor. It's a better film that invests even harder on its multi-versal conceit, creating a film that might just dethrone it's own predecessor for the title of "best Spider-man film yet". It's that good.
Picking up a little over a year after the previous film, Across the Spider-Verse finds Miles (voiced again by Shameik Moore) working to balance his life as the "one and only Spider-man of Earth-1610" alongside his life as a "normal" student a teenager (a struggle every Spider-person has had at one point or another). His family -- Brian Tyree Henry as Miles's father, police Captain Jefferson Morales, and Luna Lauren Velez as Miles's mother, nurse Rio Morales -- wants him around more and can't understand where he vanishes to all the time. But Miles clearly can't tell his mom and dad who he is, right?
His spider-side keeps bumping up against his real life, though. We see this early with the introduction of a new villain, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a guy who was caught in the particle accelerator explosion (at the end of the last film) and was transformed into a being with white skin adorned with black, inter-dimensional pocket spots. After an early confrontation, where The Spot kicks his own ass (sending him into his own spots), Miles thinks the villain is defeated. But then The Spot realizes he can travel anywhere, along any line of the multiverse. With enough power, The Spot could literally unmake any spider-reality he wanted. Blaming Miles for his condition, The Spot starts hitting other universe, stealing power from their particle accelerators, all so he can go back to Earth-1610 and destroy everything Mile holds dear. And the only way to stop this villain will be the intervention of the Spider Society, a group of spider-people led by Miguel O'Hara / Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), along with Jessica Drew / Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), and Miles's old friend, Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld).
Going into Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse, it's important to know a couple of things. For one, this isn't just Miles's movie; despite it having "Spider-man" in the name, this is much a movie about Steinfeld's Gwen Stacy as it is Miles. Gwen gets the opening section of the film to tell her story -- how she became Spider-Woman, where she's been for the last year, and how she ended up joining the Spider Society. Much of the film follows her as she struggles with her duties to the team and balancing that against her own desires (wanting to patch up her relationship with her father, wanting to build a friendship with Miles). Gwen was a scene-stealer in the previous film, and it's great that this movie spends almost as much time with her (giving her a full arc, in fact) as it does with Miles.
If anything, I'd argue that this film doesn't have as full of an arc for Miles as it does for Gwen, but that's by design. This second film in the set is actually a two-part movie leading over to Spider-man: Beyond the Spider-Verse (coming out in 2024). Miles has an arc that begins here, but his journey won't end until the next film. That means that as much as we want the conclusion to his story here, the film ends on a moment of anticipation. That's the downside of two-part films, you always have to wait for the second-half to get your conclusion.
Despite this, though, I don't hold the cliffhanger against this film. I think splitting the movie into two halves was actually a wise idea as this film has way too much story, way too many ideas going, to fit everything into a single film. It has to do the legwork of developing Gwen further (which I loved), introducing the Spider Society (who inject much of the humor into the film), and then setting the real story into motion. There's more going on here than just The Spot (even if he is the primary threat looming over the film), much more than I can discuss without delving deep into spoilers (so go read my spoiler article once it's posted), and if the film had tried to cram all of that, plus everything the next movie has planned, into a single film, it would have felt rushed. A lot of development, and so many characters, would have had to be cut and it just wouldn't have the impact. Letting the story stretch across two films gives it time to breath and develop, and in this case I think that was the right idea.
Intelligently, this film nicely ties itself into the previous film. It uses similar motifs (like the characters explaining who they are with introductory comic book drops) meaning you can flow from one movie to the next and feel like you're continuing the adventure without missing a beat. I think that also helps this movie because, when the third film comes out, the adventure will feel like it naturally stretches across all three films, a seamless and continuous story making for a unified trilogy. It's actually pretty brilliant how this middle movie was made because, in a way, it doesn't feel like a middle movie. It's a chapter of the whole, all tied together as a single unified story.
Plus, it really is just as much of a love letter to Spider-man as the first film. It starts early with the introduction of Spider-man 2099 and Jessica Drew's Spider-Woman, and then at every turn the film finds a way to inject a little does of cool Spider creativity. A nod to Lego Spider-man, a brief glimpse of classic theatrical Spider-men, the introduction of weird and wild versions of the characters. A jaunt over into Mumbattan for the introduction of Pavitr Prabhakar / Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) allows the film to stretch its creativity with a fun new character. And then, of course, once the film gets into the Spider Society headquarters, it absolutely cuts loose and goes hog wild with all the craziness. The film expects you to understand "this is the Multiverse" and it never stops to even try and explain it. "Keep up," it says, and then goes flying.
Artistically, though, I think it's even stronger. The creative directors stated that they tried to give every spider universe it's own artistic feel, with different animation styles employed at every turn. Mile's Earth-1610 is animated like a comic book (with hard lines and pointillism for its shading). Gwen's Earth-64 is does with impressionistic brush strokes and changing color and light (it's gorgeous). Spider-Punk gets to have an animation style like any-authority collage posters. Spider-man India features bright colors and flowing animation. At each turn its clear the artists saw the potential of exploring new worlds in new ways and, like with the story, they just let their creativity fly.
The story, though, really does a lot of exploration. It's not just with the weirdness of the Spider-Verse (although I love how deep the tale gets there), but also by thinking through all the implications, the cause and effect of the story from the previous film. Again, I won't spoil anything, but this film's story really builds on the previous movie in interesting ways. There are consequences and reactions based in Into the Spider-Verse that feel obvious when pointed out but, of course, in the moment with that movie you never thought about it. The writers here did, though, and that spins this adventure out into new territory.
And it's those consequences that set up the real action for the next film. This movie is jam-packed and never stops reinventing itself, and yet it saves plenty of great twists for the end that absolutely have me waiting for Beyond the Spider-Verse in anticipation. I'm very glad that these two films (Across and Beyond) were created at the same time because I think if I absolutely can't wait another five years for the conclusion of this story. This film was too good, and it promises even bigger things to come.
So, yes, I loved this film. I thought it was not only a great sequel but also a great second chapter in a greater whole. Assuming the third part will be able to send this trilogy out with a bang (and everything about this film says it will) then I think we'll have, easily, the best trilogy every committed to film. Can Sony do it? Can they actually make three Spider-man films and not fuck it up? While I would have had my doubts before now, Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse allays many of my fears. They just might pull it off and then we'll have a new high-water mark for what Spider-man can be.
Every other studio, whether they're creating animation or superhero stories, needs to stop and take notice. Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse has thrown down the gauntlet. It's time to do better. It's time to do it this way, the right way.
Bonus: "Spider-Ham: Caught in a Ham"
Published in time for the home video release of Into the Spider-Verse, "Caught in a Ham" is a short dedicated to Spider-Ham, the character voiced by John Mulaney. Spider-Ham is an odd little character -- were I to rank the various Spider-people from the first film I'd put him last on the list, largely because he was there only as comic relief, and even then didn't get a lot of screen time. He's... odd. Created as a joke character by Marvel in 1983 for their one-shot Marvel Tails Starring Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, he received a short-lived series, and then has appeared intermittently in comics since. He has his fans, and he can be amusing at times, but he's not a character you'd normally give a full story to.
In the context of "Caught in a Ham", Spider-Ham comes across as a Looney Tunes character. I haven't read a ton of Spider-Ham so I don't know enough about him to really know how far this diverges from his natural character, although considering the kinds of sight gags and line readings you can get in animation that just wouldn't work in comic books, I'm sure the characterization is different (and that's before we even get into fans and their own opinions of it). The character functions well in the context of a quick, five-minute short, I will say, but I also feel like if it went on any longer I would have gotten bored.
For the short, Spider-Ham is pulled into the nefarious plans of Doctor Crawdaddy (Aaron LaPlante). Hi-jinx then ensue as Spider-Ham plays Bugs Bunny to Crawdaddy's, well, every villain Bugs ever went up against. There's a Keystone Kops moment, a lot of non-sequitors and distracting the villain so he gets off script. It is, in short, a love letter to Looney Tunes and it's amusing, for a time, when viewed through that lens.
But it's not uproariously funny. It feels a little forced at times, and even the good gags weren't worth much more than a chuckle. It's nice that the creators were able to make this, and its amusing that Spider-Ham got his own little short. I won't watch hit again, though; it just wasn't amusing enough for that.