We feel like we’ve strayed into an alternate reality. Somehow, we’re more excited about the animated adventures of Marvel characters than their live-action counterparts. It wasn’t long ago when animated superhero movies were straight-to-DVD fodder, and Avengers: Infinity War was blowing our minds. But now? The MCU feels aimless, while the Spider-Man animated films feel essential. How did we get here?
The answer, or at least half of our answer, is that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse was just so kick-ass. From the constant, insistent soundtrack, to the barreling momentum, to the almost pop-art stylistic touches, it crackled with a kind of energy. I find it impossible to skip past it on telly, or when the kids are watching it: it’s so dynamic that it feels like it thwips me and then I get dragged along in the slipstream.
The question with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was always going to be whether lightning could strike twice (with a third film in the trilogy planned, could it do it three times?). For the worried, the answer is an enthusiastic ‘hell yes’. It’s a little baggier, and it’s got some second-in-a-trilogy issues, but the craft is unmatched and it has a notch more confidence. It’s a slam dunk.
It takes the bold step in starting not once, but twice. We get reintroduced to Spider-woman, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), but with some backstory filled in. She was adopted into the Parker family, but her version of Peter turned into the Lizard, and she had to put him down. That act was seen by her father, a cop, who wants to bring Spider-woman to justice. Awkward. Meanwhile, she’s moping about being a dimension away from Miles Morales, who she may have feelings for.
Stop, rewind, and we’re over to Miles Morales for the second intro. Miles has been struggling to keep a work-life balance, with the ‘life’ being punching villains in the face. His parents haven’t a clue what he does with his time, but his grades are failing and he keeps letting them down. That problem increases when a self-professed nemesis enters Miles’s life in the form of the ‘Spot’: a naked portal-thrower who has a bit-part in the comics, but gets the stage here. Meanwhile, he’s moping about being a dimension away from Gwen Stacy, who he may have feelings for.
An interdimensional, portal-hopping nemesis is a perfect method for bringing Miles and Gwen back together, and so it goes. But there’s a complication, as a Loki-like agency of Spider-men are policing the various anomalies and breaks from ‘canon’, and they’re not entirely happy with Spot and Miles Morales’s antics. Led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), they’re vigorously defending the canon of the multiverse, which leads to some unexpected tensions in the web.
It sounds convoluted, likely to lead to plot fumbles and dry exposition. But Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse gets away with it – by a deft thread. It leans into your understanding of other Spider-man media to explain how the Spider-verse works. We’d love to know if it works for people who know nothing about the character. For us, it was rather clever, and only led to a slight dip in the action.
But the glory of the Spider-verse movies is that, even when the story’s getting baggy, there’s still a shot to the senses. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse looks gorgeous, better than any animated movie we’ve encountered. The first film looked so good that we wonder whether we’d be in an animation golden age without it – would we have Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, Arcane or TMNT: Mutant Mayhem? Somehow, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse looks better. Occasionally dabbling in the impressionistic, it’s more ambitious, more kinetic than before. The joy of home streaming: we rewound and rewatched certain bits because we wanted to relive them, or to spot detail.
A huge shout to the music, too. It never stops. From Gwen Stacy’s drums to the slick hip-hop of Miles, the soundtrack is perfect and relentless. The character signatures are as good as ever, too. In the first movie, Prowler’s discordant roooowwwwrs always made us jump, and now we have something similar with Miguel O’Hara. The whole audio collage is so, so good.
Does it falter? Yeah, a little. This is the second of a proposed trilogy, and that could always have gone one of two ways. It could stand alone, and not leave much material for the third movie: basically the Last Jedi approach. Or it could suddenly end, a cliffhanger to thwip from and then pause. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opts for the latter, and it might be unsatisfying for some. It certainly robs the movie of some gratification, and we questioned why they chose that precise point. But we suspect that, in a few years time (if the writers’ strike ever gets their demands met), once the trilogy is complete, people will look back on Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse with fondness. They’ll have the satisfaction of knowing where it leads, for a start.
We’re also not sold wholly on the Spot. He strays too close to being a walking punchline, with a motivation that never quite feels true. He also disappears for whole swathes of the movie without any real explanation of why. But there’s room in the third movie to fill him out, which is ironic considering the holes.
But when Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-verse arrives, we will be at the front of the queue. Because there’s nothing in film, let alone the chasing pack of animation, that comes close to what it does with action, music and spectacle. There’s a web between them all, with Miles in the middle, holding them together.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse makes us excited for the future of the medium, while also sending a surge of adrenaline through our body. It jams fangs into our skin and pulses into our bloodstream better than any radioactive spider.