In this era of hyperbole, it’s easy for the actual superlative works to not receive their proper acclaim. The lack of nuance in online discourse that has led to people having to pronounce everything in terms of absolutes has hampered reasonable discussions about films that are truly exceptional (and those that are genuinely heinous). Acknowledging that such proclamations are far too common and watered down, I am still very comfortable in saying that “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is one of the greatest achievements in animation history and easily this year’s best movie (so far). Bold approaches to visuals, an inventive use of movement and color, astounding storytelling, a terrific score and more all come together to somehow improve upon 2018’s already amazing “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” There are some very minor elements that aren’t as perfect as every other aspect of the movie, but ultimately, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is an absolute revelation of cinema.
It’s hard not to write this without simply devolving into a list of everything awesome, but “Across the Spider-Verse” is one of those pieces of art that’s infused with a giddy enthusiasm about what was accomplished. That’s not to say that the movie itself is all happiness — there’s actually a fairly dark undercurrent to the narrative — but it’s executed so transcendently that it’s difficult not to gush about it. Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson figure out ways to inject every sequence with something special so there’s never any lull, and yet it never feels overwhelming or like some sort of cinematic onslaught.
It’s been one year since the events of “Into the Spider-Verse,” with Miles (Shameik Moore) getting more comfortable in his role as his universe’s Spider-Man. There’s a tension between Miles’ life and Spider-Man’s duties (isn’t there always?), but mostly, it makes him feel alone and pining for the people that understood him best: his fellow Spider-People. Meanwhile, in her dimension, Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) also feels the sting of isolation and friction between her two selves. She’s granted an escape from these feelings when she’s introduced to Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), the Spider-Man from 2099, and Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a Spider-Woman from yet another universe. It turns out there’s a whole society of Spider-People that range in all sorts of ways from all sorts of realities, but Miles isn’t one of them. However, the two cross paths again when Gwen goes to Miles’ universe to observe his latest rogue, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a seemingly pathetic villain-of-the-week who may be a lot more dangerous than suspected. As Miles meets these other Spider-People, he begins to realize that someone is trying to control his life by dictating how his story unfolds.
The visual language in “Across the Spider-Verse” is so impressive because it all feels seamless, even though it shouldn’t. Colors change in expressionistic ways, textures alternate depending on characters and background, and the fluidity of motion is a bit different for each person to help them stand out. “Into the Spider-Verse” was a genuine game-changer for animation, with its styling and approach to frame rates adopted by multiple animated projects since. “Across the Spider-Verse” not only matches that innovation but exceeds it by adding novel approaches that trust the audience to follow along with artistic detours and breaking of rules.
These beautiful visuals are enhanced by an amazing story fueled by terrific dialogue and characterization. Not only does the animation establish who these figures are simply through their movements, but the script solidifies it through actions and dialogue. For nerds of varying degrees, there are countless nods to Spider-Man comics, films, TV shows and all sorts of media. But these winks are meant as an additional layer and not the totality of the insertion itself. This is something that many films (“The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” for example) forget in their insertion of Easter eggs: References should enhance something and not be the whole of the moment. In “Across the Spider-Verse,” a live-action actor makes a cameo. For those who know why that actor is showing up in that moment, it’s an opportunity for commentary and connection. But for the many who don’t know, it’s just another joke and simply an impressive cohesion of combining the real-world actor with his animated surroundings. “Across the Spider-Verse” is so multilayered that it’s strengthened by these moments, not hobbled by them.
The few drawbacks to the film are minuscule compared to its achievements. “Into the Spider-Verse” boasted a soundtrack full of strong pop songs weaponized to great effect, but while Daniel Pemberton’s score for the second movie is once again excellent (somehow exceeding its predecessor), the soundtrack feels forced and not nearly as expressive or naturally incorporated. The other issue with “Across the Spider-Verse” is that it’s very much the middle part of a story. This means that, while it does a good job of catching everyone up to speed, some of those revelatory moments don’t land as well if you haven’t seen the previous movie. It also means that this film ends on a couple of cliffhangers, which makes the story difficult to fully assess without knowing how (or if) they’ll stick the landing. With the third part, “Beyond the Spider-Verse,” coming in March 2024, it lessens the climax by essentially hitting pause for 10 months. But again, these are very minor elements that barely mar the movie.
Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is ever too long, and no bad movie is ever too short. In this current age of bloated runtimes, 140 minutes has never passed so quickly as it does in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Even though the filmmakers supply audiences with all manner of sensory stimulation and innovative approaches, viewers will constantly crave even more from it. This is the type of movie that can be revisited repeatedly, always picking up some new background joke, subtle nod or visual touch that adds to the tremendous experience. “Across the Spider-Verse” differentiates itself from all the other recent multiversal stories through its exceptional filmmaking and wonderful storytelling, and that elevates it above most other movies as well. It’s hard to overstate just how amazing this experience is, but it’s truly a film that more than lives up to its superlative acclaim.
Starring: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar Isaac, Jake Johnson, Issa Rae, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Shea Whigam, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Samberg
Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson