With a few exceptions, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse refuses to rest on the laurels of its visually splendid predecessor. In 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse pushed mainstream animation so far that recent films like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem have become stylistic descendants. The 2023 spider-sequel takes a similarly thoughtful approach, blending a multitude of aesthetic influences to create vistas and backdrops that are as eye-popping as they are emotionally impactful—save for its brief detour to a dull conception of a futuristic India. Its otherwise forward-thinking artistry is in service of a powerful setup, for a tale about individual characters as well as the nature of comic book stories. The problem, however, is that the movie barely gets beyond this setup before its closing credits, setting up a sequel currently slated for 2024.
Following the multiversal adventures of various spider-people last time—primarily, Brooklynite Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who inherits the Spider-Man identity from a slain Peter Parker—Across the Spider-Verse bides its time with a pseudo-recap of events through the eyes of teenage drummer Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a.k.a. Manhattan’s Spider-Woman, a supporting character in the last film, bumped up here to a vital emotional puzzle piece. Gwen and Miles exist in different realities and they’re unlikely to reunite (let alone become romantically involved), which only adds to Gwen’s isolation, as she continues to hide her superhero alter-ego from her father, police captain George Stacy (Shea Whigham), who believes Spider-Woman to be a villainous vigilante. It’s the kind of dual identity saga typical of Spider-Man stories, only here, it takes its visual cues from Gwen’s very first comic series as Spider-Woman and the artwork of Robbi Rodriguez, turning his pastel watercolors into a living fabric.
In a departure from the first film’s visualization of Ben Day dots and motion lines—which were applied mostly to Miles’ classically comic-like world, and still recur when he becomes the narrative focus—the pink and purple hues of Gwen’s universe move and transform along with her mood. When things become particularly dire, the paint even drips around her, like rainbow-colored tears. This evocative mood is soon broken by the emergence of a villain with a wildly different, monochromatic sketchbook aesthetic, signaling that different universes with their own unique design choices have begun colliding once again. The result, for Gwen, is twofold. She’s quickly inducted into the ranks of an elite team of multiverse-hopping Spider-heroes, led by the brooding, futuristic Spider-Man 2099, a.k.a. Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), but also, having regained the ability and permission to traverse different universes, she can now finally visit Miles, her far-flung friend.
Back in Miles’ universe (one filled with thwip-smart banter), the 15-year-old hero remains torn between his academic and super-heroic responsibilities, while keeping his double life a secret from his parents. While there’s nothing novel about the visual conception of his world—it was the primary focus of most of the last movie, after all—what’s different, this time, is the way the framing and movement of the animated “camera” always seem to back Miles into a corner. It only affords him the room to breathe when his nurse mother, Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez), and his police lieutenant father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), try to talk to him and understand him, offering him the opportunity to come clean and lighten some of his emotional load. However, the luxury of honesty is seldom part of the typical superhero code, and before long, Miles gets swept up into his own adventure, involving a hilariously polite, portal-opening, multiverse-hopping villain dubbed The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who’s fun to watch, but seldom as compelling as the villain of the previous film, despite his frequent appeals to emotionally charged ideas surrounding his tragic origins.
Where Gwen and Miles’ worlds each have unique and specific comic influences, Pavitr’s is neither drawn from a recognizable art style (Indian or otherwise), nor are its aesthetics used to say anything of note about its central hero.
While on a mission to Miles’ world, Gwen ends up taking a detour to catch up with him—they’re perhaps the only two people who understand each other’s burdens—but this takes a disastrous turn, as Miles ends up making his way to alternate dimensions where he doesn’t belong, resulting in Miguel and the other senior Spider-people reluctantly bringing him into the fold of their multiverse-protecting plan (which, as it turns out, involves more than meets the eye). One of these otherworldly dimensions is dubbed “Mumbattan” (a portmanteau of Mumbai and Manhattan), an India-inspired world protected by its own Spider-Man, Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni)—though it’s here that the movie’s otherwise plentiful artistic inspiration seems to run dry. Where Gwen and Miles’ worlds each have unique and specific comic influences, Pavitr’s is neither drawn from a recognizable art style (Indian or otherwise), nor are its aesthetics used to say anything of note about its central hero. Instead, “Mumbattan” is often reduced to one-note jokes about the country’s crowded streets. The character of Pavitr—first introduced as Spider-Man: India in 2004—is at least afforded the more unique and culturally specific costume of his more recent comic appearances, compared to the basic “Spider-Man but in a dhoti and uncomfortable, pointed shoes” of his introduction, though he unfortunately retains the character’s initial purpose: Spider-Man, but with a western conception of Indianness grafted onto him.
There is, to some degree, a narrative justification for this culturally reductive approach, in that the emerging plot is soon revealed to surround the tropes and familiar ideas that bind each Spider-Man story—from dual identity, to the sense of loss driving each Spider-person—and the ensuing tension caused by the desire to break this familiar mold (Pavitr is just one of many variations on a theme). However, the introduction of other secondary Spider-people proves just how little thought is put into styling Pavitr through a lens any wider than racist caricature. Take, for instance, the anarchic Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), a rebellious British comrade of Gwen’s whose physical form in any 3-D space remains two-dimensional, since he’s composed of literally cut and pasted paper elements, as if he emanates not from a comic book, but from a D.I.Y. underground ’zine.
Miguel, similarly, is defined by the artistic lens applied to him: one of broad, seemingly incomplete pencil sketches that outline his strong, square, stereotypically superhero jaw. He’s an archetype, it’s these familiar outlines that drive his mission to protect the web of parallel universes—each with its own Spider-person—by ensuring the flow of canonicity, i.e. the idea that events, even tragic ones, must transpire in specific order to maintain the integrity of each Spider-hero’s continuity. It’s here that the film’s central tension emerges, albeit quite late into its 140-minute runtime. According to Miguel, it’s grief that defines the story of Spider-Man (as we, the audience, have seen numerous times, through the deaths of countless Uncle Bens and their equivalents). Superhero comics have long focused on orphan characters defined by tragic backstories, including the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. However, Miles represents a new crop of Marvel heroes (like Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan) who diverge from this path in their comics and screen adaptations, and more strongly represent another key element of the Spider-Man mythos: the idea of isolation and un-belonging, which becomes magnified in the context of Miles being rejected by an entire team of Spider-themed heroes who insist that, in order for him to be worthy of the Spider-mantle (and in order for his alternate universe to exist at all), there needs to be a tonally “dark” and tragic defining element to his life.
It’s a riveting conception of a real-life artistic debate. The tonal dourness of ’80s and ’90s Marvel and DC defined the modern comic book boom, to the point that plenty of readers and even artists from the era often refuse to accept any other, potentially more hopeful forms within the superhero genre (Spider-Man 2099 was created in 1992, during the peak of this aesthetic norm). This sets Miles on a meta-textual quest of sorts, one in which resolving this tension between “typical” and “atypical” superhero storytelling modes manifests not only as sci-fi plot, but as deeply personal character conviction as well. This conflict makes Miles the quintessential outsider—the ultimate Spider-Man, as it were, representing the “everyman” rather than a predestined “chosen one”—despite every other Spider-Man in the movie insisting he conform to their “dark and gritty” mold.
However, this battle for identity and artistic lineage is cut tragically short, when—during a Gwen-centric moment that feels like it ought to kick off the climax, courtesy of Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score—the movie simply ends, with a “To be continued” title card standing in for any kind of character-driven or even plot-driven resolution. A crescendo cut short. It’s a dazzling first half of a film, leaving its story in suspended animation thanks to an unsatisfying conclusion that feels less like a cliffhanger, and more like someone accidentally sat on the remote just as things were getting interesting.
It’s a dazzling first half of a film, leaving its story in suspended animation thanks to an unsatisfying conclusion that feels less like a cliffhanger, and more like someone accidentally sat on the remote just as things were getting interesting.
Across the Spider-Verse being the first of two parts has always been Sony’s plan (the second installment is titled Beyond the Spider-Verse), but the best forms of serialized storytelling in comics and movies—like this film’s own predecessor, which sets up future adventures after wrapping up its story—generally strike a balance between self-contained sagas and puzzle-pieces to a larger whole. Across the Spider-Verse is undoubtedly the latter, between its numerous references to other media, and its own narrative being cleaved in twain. But as an individual work, it leaves a sour taste—one of incompletion, rather than anticipation. For all its ingenious artistry, it can’t help but feel unsatisfying by the end, as if a vital section of the movie had been put aside for separate purchase.
Published on June 3, 2023