‘Across the Spider-Verse’ contains multitudes
A super-sized sequel is the only sane follow-up to an Oscar-winning superhero movie like 2018’s animated wonder Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—especially one that unleashed multiple versions of the wall-crawler to share the silver screen together. But that film’s comic coterie numbered only a half-dozen or so, including love interest Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and chillaxed mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson). This dazzling, disorienting, daunting second installment in the wildly wonderous series makes room for literally hundreds. Stan Lee’s webhead contains multitudes.
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
Written by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, David Callaham
Starring: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Kara Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac
Running time: 140 min
Joining Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) are deep-cut iterations like Spider-Woman, Spider-Punk, Spider-Bitch, the tyrannosaurus Spider-Rex, and virtual-reality Spider-Byte. Some even have genius variations on that alter-ego Peter Parker name, like Spider-Man India’s Pavitr Prabhakar and Spider-Mobile’s Peter Parkedcar. You think No Way Home had a lot of sentimental callbacks? Across the Spider-Verse practically bursts at the seams with all the blink-and-you-miss-it references to Spidey flicks and graphic novels from the past few decades. Die-hard fans will revel in the arachnoid arcana; everyone else, prepare for the firehose.
Information overload is the best way to describe Across the Spider-Verse, the latest production from pop-savant writer/producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who always manage to stock their projects with a spitfire delivery of rich plot points, hilarious zingers and quicksilver side references. But this animated epic is also a feat of such majestically manic cartooning that its heady integration of visual storytelling, razzle-dazzle drafting styles and expert kinetic flow makes Marvel’s patented live-action CGI sleight-of-hand seem positively primitive. There’s an expressionistic fluency here that not only builds on the original film’s eye-popping originality but also—believe it or not—exceeds its predecessor’s high-wire display of virtuosic craftsmanship. Bold evocations of alternate-universe cities, like Nueva York and Mumbattan, inspire a rash of diverse color palettes, from gorgeous pastel stains to oversaturated monochromes.
But all the world-building also feels like force-feeding, a chronic strain in the growing, groaning library of Marvel-based movies and TV shows that share an ever-expanding, ever-exhausting multiverse conceit. Across the Spider-Verse is so aware of how overwhelming its encyclopedic cornucopia of characters can be that it conjures zippy on-screen IDs and editor’s notes to clear the air. It’s a necessary evil in a film that features Earth-42, Earth-65, Earth-1610, Earth 13122—that’s the Lego one, for all you fans of Lord/Miller’s Lego Movie—and Earth-50101. One super-serious web slinger from Earth-928, Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), otherwise known as Spider-Man 2099, even cops to the all the rampant exposition by conjuring his cyber-pixie majordomo named Lyla (Greta Lee) to do “the information explainy-thing.”
Miles gets a kick out of Miguel, some sort of ninja vampire hybrid he nicknames “Dark Garfield.” But Miguel is the linchpin of Across the Spider-Verse, being the self-appointed ringleader of an elite society of Spideys who police the multiverse for anomalies and keeping it from collapsing. Sounds a lot like the Time Variance Authority, but I digress. Apparently, the Alchemax collider explosion that helped turn Miles into Spider-Man also shot random villains into disparate alternate universes, which threatens the stability of all life everywhere as we know it. No biggie.
Compounding the issue: a faceless bone-white humanoid covered in black splotches. Cow or Dalmatian? Asks Miles. Neither: he calls himself The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a former Alchemax lab worker who fell prey to the collider’s destruction and now insists on calling himself Miles’ nemesis. He’s covered in orifices that allow him, like Dr. Strange and Rick Sanchez, to open up pocket-sized entry-and-exit points almost like mini-portals. “My holes can take me anywhere!” he exclaims. “Will you stop talking about your holes?” an annoyed bystander yells back.
But wait! There’s more: a 20-minute pre-credit sequence establishes Gwen Stacy’s emotional undertow as Spider-Gwen, the tortured daughter of a cop who, in her universe, has a tragic relationship with her own version of Peter Parker. “It doesn’t end well,” she confesses to Miles, who technically isn’t Peter Parker in his world but also, as Spider-Man, kind of is. Gwen and Miles are multiverse-crossed lovers who can’t seem to live without each other but also don’t quite know how to get together without all those glitches and quantum-shredding instability.
And in the center of it all is Miles, the overwhelmed 15-year-old high school student who’s constantly disappointing his parents and lying to the people he loves in order to balance his secret identity and save the universe from doom. Which is also more or less the challenge for all the Spider-People in their respective worlds: honoring what the film might call The Canon, the unifying formative moments that define the variant characters’ essence across all time and space. The Spot may or may not threaten this tightly woven harmony—is he Villain of the Week or a Canon-Killer? And that’s a question that of course won’t have an answer until the next mega-installment, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse.
Meanwhile, I still find myself hung up on what Miles’ mom Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) asks him when she finds out about his secret identity. “Do you shoot silk out of your culito?”