2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was an absolute gem of a movie thanks to its heartfelt storyline, diverse characters, and breathtaking visuals and animation. Needless to say, when the inevitable sequel was announced, it immediately jumped to the top of my “most anticipated movies” list. Originally scheduled for a 2022 release, Across the Spider-Verse was pushed back a year due to COVID.
So here we are, in the summer of 2023, and Across the Spider-Verse is finally swinging its way into theaters. Does the sequel, which was directed by a trio of directors (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson) live up to its predecessor’s dazzling style and emotional storytelling? Or does it fall short and disappear amidst the neverending glut of superhero movies? Read on for a selection of critic reviews.
In addition to expanding the series’ visual artistry and offering some amusing new characters (the snarling, anti-establishment Spider-Punk, voiced with Cockney-inflected attitude by Daniel Kaluuya, is a standout), Across The Spider-Verse retains the rapid-fire wit and thrilling action of its predecessor. That it falls short when it comes to matching the emotional impact of Into The Spider-Verse is further exemplified by a surprisingly abrupt cliffhanger conclusion that instead of sending the viewer out on a rousing high just makes one wonder why such an otherwise sharp franchise is going the route of weaker MCU entries in shortchanging its effectiveness as a stand-alone film to tease a future installment.
Into the Spider-Verse was astute and funny, complicated and emotional, unique and daring, and its sequel only grows and expands on those aims. If the first film showed what superhero movies could be, Across the Spider-Verse goes even further: It shows what they should be. In a genre built on the literally super and special, these films are unafraid to stand out and do something truly different, something that pushes the limits, to show the genuine range available to this subset of stories and feel damn good in the process (and look, dare we say, even better).
Sony solidifies the series as one of the best film franchises of all time. Joaquim Dos Santos (The Legend of Korra), Kemp Powers (Soul) and Justin K. Thompson (The Angry Birds Movie) direct the movie from a script by Phil Lord, Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie), and David Callaham (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings). Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is phenomenal from start to finish, raising the stakes, emotion and heart with beautiful artistic animation.
This is the most stunning animated movie I’ve ever seen, combining so many stylistic flourishes that never feel out of place. The ethnic diversity of Miles’ Brooklyn is a colorful, kinetic place with animation that largely reflects the previous film. The vibrant aesthetics never stop and reflect the personalities of each character; the darkened, sketchy inks of Miguel’s scenes give way to a supernova of colors in Gwen’s reality. Other skips through the multiverse reveal an even more imaginative palette, some mimicking the art of the greatest Spider-Man pencilers ever, and others that bring more of a meta flavor. It’s truly extraordinary how good this film looks. There’s never been anything like it before.
As the credits rolled on Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, it felt like waking up from a dream. In this dream, something impossible happened. A team of talented filmmakers made a sequel to one of the, if not the, best superhero films of all-time that was not just worthy of that original film, it actually made the original better. Truly, this couldn’t be real. How could it actually be possible that a sequel to a basically perfect movie could, itself, be so incredible?
Its climax, admittedly, overdoes it on the cliffhangers, gorging itself a little too much when it comes to cross-cut montages of spider-characters looking very serious while Daniel Pemberton’s pulsating score reaches an ever-escalating set of crescendos. But the Spider-Verse has earned the right to a little self-aggrandisement. Out of every multiverse, this is the easiest to root for.
As this or that Peter Parker or Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Spider-Punk or Hello Spider-Kitty skids across the screen, one can’t help but wonder if the comic books embraced this wrinkle in scientific theory, decades ago, when they ran out of villains and other ideas. And maybe the myriad multiverse movies are doing the same thing just to avoid committing to a coherent plot with real stakes, real pathos, and a narrative that doesn’t rely on periodic bursts of distraction and applause as each iteration of the character, the more obscure the better, makes her or his bow to swooning fans.
Not every theme and plot and moment in Across the Spider-Verse lands, particularly with the other part of this story still most of a year away. But in the end, the theme of the Spider-Verse movies is shaping up to be a story about people trying to be bigger and bolder themselves, trying to reach beyond what they’re told they’re capable of, and do more. It’s no wonder that every part of Across the Spider-Verse is an attempt to outdo the first movie. The idea of growing, of surpassing and ignoring everyone else’s limits, is the heart of this series’ heroes and their individual journeys. It looks like the movies themselves are designed to follow suit.
Similar to the way Into the Spider-Verse never felt like it was explicitly trying to stunt on any of Sony’s previous Spider-Man movies, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse — from co-directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson — always feels like it’s thoughtfully drawing upon the stories that came before it in hopes of tapping into some deeper, fundamental truth about what it takes to wear the spider-mask. But rather than simply using Miles to expand upon and celebrate Marvel’s 60-year-old Spider-Man mythos the way Into the Spider-Verse did, Across the Spider-Verse is much more focused on artfully blowing the webhead’s canon so wide open that it’s almost hard to believe as you’re watching it.
Embracing cell-shading and ben-day dots and even melding in live-action elements, Across the Spider-Verse is a visual symphony that never feels chaotic when multiple animation styles are on-screen at once. Character artists will receive worthy praise, and in that praise, the background and environment artists should also be recognized. Every detail of the background and environment art that builds the emotional atmosphere as much as the score or dialogue has to be admired as well. There is not one frame that doesn’t showcase the power of animation storytelling. Even when the film is cramming in Spider-Man after Spider-Man and endless references, it somehow never feels overstuffed.
Setting a new benchmark for diverse, agile, breathtaking animation, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is as striking as non-live-action films come, mixing and matching patterns and palettes to create an awe-inspiringly expressive tapestry of designs and hues. Its models ranging from CGI-traditional to hand-drawn sketchy to cut-and-paste raggedy, directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson’s sequel is a multifaceted wonder, and that also goes for the interaction between its foreground figures and background environments, which vary in fashion, vibrancy and focus, frequently assuming a form (say, a dripping watercolor technique for a moving conversation) to match the tenor of a given scene.
Like the work of a young artist who refuses to be restrained by the borders of the frame, Across the Spider-Verse is loaded with incredible imagery and fascinating ideas. It is a smart, thrilling piece of work that reminded me of other great part twos like The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back. Like those films, it leaves viewers anxiously anticipating the next chapter (which will come in March 2024), and it earns its cliffhangers by grounding them in a story of young people refusing to submit to a concept of what a hero’s arc needs to be.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse will arrive in theaters on June 2, 2023. Watch the trailer below.