Every once in a while, an animated film comes along that propels the medium to a new frontier. Snow White, Toy Story, and Spirited Away are a few titles that come to mind. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is another example with several subsequent films replicating its style. With Into the Spider-Verse being such a game-changer and trendsetter, Across the Spider-Verse seemed destined to live in its predecessor’s shadow. Against every conceivable odd, this team has made a follow-up that makes the Oscar-winning original almost seem like a dress rehearsal. While Into the Spider-Verse remains a masterstroke, the sequel elevates the artistry, drama, and stakes. It not only deserves to be in the Best Animated Feature race, but the Best Picture conversation.
Shameik Moore’s Miles Morales remains the story’s heart, but Across the Spider-Verse belongs just as much to Hailee Steinfeld’s Gwen Stacy. We spend a good portion of the first act in Gwen’s universe, which looks like a watercolor painting gradually melting. It’s a poignant visual representation of Gwen’s world falling to pieces as she balances her duties as Spider-Woman while clashing with her father. Miles is also at odds with his parents, who are still in the dark about him being a web-head. Although this sounds like standard Spider-Man stuff, Miles’ conversations with his parents are so relatable that they’d work just as well in a coming-of-age drama without superheroes. Of course, superpowers make for a far more exhilarating experience.
Miles crosses paths with a villain known as The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), whose body opens portals to various dimensions. He’s initially seen as a “villain of the week,” but The Spot quickly establishes himself as big bad material. However, the true antagonist is the notion of fate. In most origin stories, destiny is often presented in an inspiring light. Since Spider-Man’s story is shrouded in so much pain and loss, though, fate can feel more like the enemy. The death of a parental figure might define one Spider-Person, but must it define all of them? Miles attempts to write his own story in Across the Spider-Verse. In doing so, Miles goes up against not just his universe, but all universes.
To list every cameo and Easter egg would spoil the film’s most applause-worthy moments, but standout new additions include Issa Rae as the feisty Jessica Drew, Daniel Kaluuya as the rock punk Hobie Brown, and Oscar Isaac as the no-nonsense Miguel O’Hara. Every Spider-Person looks and moves as if they were drawn by a different artist, giving various scenes the essence of a comic collage brought to life. The highlight is a chase sequence involving all of the Spider-People, which packs in so many ingenious details that you need a pause button to dissect every frame. Watching it unfold is a pure adrenaline rush, surpassing almost every action set piece the MCU has given us.
Across the Spider-Verse assembles a new trio of directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson. Their backgrounds are on full display here. Dos Santos directed some of the most rousing episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, including the second half of Sozin’s Comet. Powers was a co-director and co-writer on Pixar’s Soul. Thompson was a production designer on the previous film, winning an Annie for his work. The three strike a perfect balance of visual splendor, heart-pounding action, and humanity. Phil Lord and Chris Miller also work plenty of their signature humor into the script, which they co-wrote with David Callaham.
Seeing how the film was originally titled Across the Spider-Verse (Part One), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that not every storyline is resolved. In a lesser film, a cliffhanger could come off as gimmicky. Like The Empire Strikes Back or Infinity War, Across the Spider-Verse leaves you with an elated sense of dread and heightened anticipation. There may be more to tell, but walking away, it doesn’t feel as if you’ve only watched half a movie. It’s more like you’ve absorbed several movies and you need a breather before the next round. Until then, I’ll gladly settle for rewatching Across the Spider-Verse multiple times. Juggling so much without being overstuffed, it’s a film that has its cake and eats it too… with room for seconds.