Across the Spider-Verse is unmissable high pop art
It sounds ridiculous to have to say this, but did you know that animation is art? Yes, it’s also a form of entertainment featuring goofy characters your kids can laugh at, with exaggerated features and physical abilities no worldly being actually possesses. However, as the best-animated films remind us, animators can create whole worlds, express characters’ inner feelings, and play with styles in ways live-action films can’t always accomplish. It can be beautiful, impressionistic, evocative, and strange.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a masterpiece of visual storytelling and comic book adaptation that does all the things listed above, while also building on the already-impressive legacy of 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This long-awaited sequel lets its team of animators play with every tool in the sandbox, experimenting with multiple visual forms and styles and creating stunning images while wrapping the whole thing up in a raucous and thoughtful story about identity and the struggle for acceptance.
In the last movie, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) inherited the Spider-Man mantle when he was bitten by a genetically engineered radioactive spider from another dimension and got a crash course in superheroism from a group of alternate-universe Spider-folk. Now, Miles has improved exponentially at using his powers for good and taking down various criminals. One such baddie is The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist whose genetic makeup got scrambled from his proximity to the first film’s giant supercollider, essentially turning him into a human black hole. That ability has him skipping around the multiverse trying to make himself stronger to take down Miles, his self-styled nemesis.
At the same time, Miles’ interdimensional pal Gwen Stacy, AKA Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) has been recruited to an elite strike force of Spider-beings who keep the multiverse free from anomalies that threaten the delicate balance of reality. Her compatriots include the first film’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson)—now with an adorable Spider-Tot in tow — Spider-Punk Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya) and the strike force’s ultra-serious leader, Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac). When Gwen pops into Miles’ universe for a visit, he follows her to take down The Spot, ultimately endangering the web of existence Miguel monitors so obsessively.
Into the Spider-Verse introduced different aesthetics for each of its multiverse characters that reflected the look and feel of the comics and/or cartoons from whence they came. Across the Spider-Verse takes that idea even further. British Afro-punk Hobie, for example, is one of the film’s most incredible visual creations, human in shape but changing color and sometimes even texture as he moves and emotes, like a walking collage. On the villain front, as The Spot becomes more unstable, he’s depicted in an increasingly abstract, hand-created style, becoming a blur of lines, vortexes, ink, and paint that looks more akin to a Dave McKean drawing than a comic-book character.
Miles’ eventual visit to the strike force HQ is crammed with delightful easter eggs and details. Recognizable versions of Spider-Man from other incarnations appear, with appropriate fealty given to those characters’ original look and feel. Other alternate takes on Spider-Man play with the details and functionality of the character, including a South Indian Spider-Man (Karan Soni) whose webs emanate from a yo-yo-esque bangle and a Spider-Cat whose webs shoot out like hairballs. You can expect crossovers, obscure references, in-jokes and, yes, meme nods.
As if all this weren’t enough, Across the Spider-Verse continues its commitment to Miles exploring his identity as Spider-Man, and seeking community while also paving his own way and proving his worth. Across the Spider-Verse addresses feelings of isolation and impostor syndrome that speak to the character’s journey but also make an effective allegory for the experiences of marginalized people and Miles’ unique position within the Spider-cannon, as Charles Pulliam-Moore eloquently unpacks in his review for The Verge.
Across the Spider-Verse is thoughtful in its storytelling and delightfully ambitious in its form. It’s a love letter to Spider-Man, yes, but more than that, it’s a love letter to comics and animation that shows off the visual diversity of the medium and acknowledges its core elements in inspiring ways. It makes animation look fun. It’s all too easy to think of some wide-eyed young audience member seeing this movie and immediately deciding to pursue art as a career (apologies in advance to that young audience member’s parents, who probably hoped their kid would grow up to be a doctor or lawyer, or something that…you know…pays). See it on the biggest screen possible, and have your world rocked.