Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Review

The comic book super hero genre has dominated the box office for the last decade and a half, but for the most part, the dominance has been represented in live action.  What we haven’t seen too much of are super hero films in the realm of animation; at least on the big screen.  Both DC and Marvel have produced a number of animated features through their respective animation arms, as well as a number of series, but those films have been relegated to either direct to video releases or straight to streaming.  But there have been some animated comic book films that have managed to make it to the big screen.  In 1994, DC released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm briefly into theaters; a film spun off from their popular Batman: The Animated Series.  Surprisingly, despite being owned by a company founded on art of animation since 2009, Marvel didn’t have an animated feature based on their comics until 2014, and it was based on one of their more obscure titles; Big Hero 6.   Despite there not being a lot of familiarity with the Big Hero 6 comic series in the general audience, the Disney animated film still managed to be a box office success and even won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, which just shows how strong the Marvel brand had become up to that point.  But, what a lot of comic book fans were wondering was if there would be any animated representation on the big screen from one of the marquee characters within the pantheon of super heroes in their library.  Though Disney has a legendary animation department at their disposal, they have mostly decided to use their Marvel brand in live action on the big screen, with the streaming arm of Disney+ being the place where they are more comfortable bringing Marvel into animated form; most notably with the What If? series.  However, a different studio which still maintains their license over one of Marvel’s premier characters is not afraid to take Marvel super heroes more into the realm of animation on the big screen.

Sony, which has it’s own animation department, sought to make the most of their legacy license over the character of Spider-Man and do so both in live action and animation.  Though their live action films have been pretty hit (Venom) or miss (Morbius), a very different result occurred with their animated attempt.  Produced by the creative team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the same mad geniuses behind The Lego Movie (2014), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) not only managed to hit well with audiences as a comic book movie; it significantly changed the market of animated films in general as well.  While computer animation has for nearly the last 30 years been following the lead of Pixar and Disney Animation, with soft edged character models and detailed environmental design, Sony Animation decided to take their film in a whole different direction.  While still computer animated, Spider-Verse’s design was far more stylized, utilizing an aesthetic that felt more hand drawn while still three-dimensional.  Every character and environment looked like they had leapt right off of the comic book page.  Not only that, but their movement on screen was very stylized, utilizing a slower frame rate that made the characters’ animation feel even more hand drawn.  Combine this with the hilarious comedic sensibilities of Lord & Miller, and Into the Spider-Verse was not just a great comic book movie, but arguably one of the greatest animated movies of all time.  It solidified it’s hit status by additionally winning the Oscar for Animated Feature; breaking a monopoly on the award by Disney and Pixar.  The graphic art style has even influenced all animation in general, as more animation studios are ditching the traditional Pixar look for something more like Spider-verse; as seen in Dreamworks’ recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Nickelodeon’s upcoming Ninja Turtles reboot.  Even Disney’s upcoming Wish (2023) is adopting a more hand painted aesthetic to it’s animation.  But of course, Sony is also keen to continue building on this franchise as well, especially since it gives them a successful Spider-Man franchise that they don’t have to share with the Disney owned Marvel Studios, like they do with the Tom Holland Spider-Man films.  And this year, we are finally seeing the next phase of their Spider-verse plans with the highly anticipated sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

The film picks up the story a year after the events of Into the Spider-Verse.  Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is trying to balance his new life as the new Spider-Man protecting the citizens of New York City.  His mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) are concerned that he is shirking his responsibilities at both school and home, unaware of his double life as a super hero.  Things become more complicated when a strange new super villain named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) has shown up on the scene.  The Spot, who gained his inter-dimensional portal opening abilities from the super collider incident that Miles thwarted in the last film, has a personal vendetta against Miles and is seeking revenge, which Miles initially ignores.  Things, however, get more complicated when one of Miles’ old Spider Friends, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) aka Spider Gwen, shows up.  She has in the past year been recruited by a team of interdimensional Spider heroes to help set things into order within the multiverse.  The team is led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), known as Spider-Man 2099, who takes the protection of the multiverse very seriously.  His second in command is Spider-Woman, aka Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), and another member of the elite squad is Miles’ old mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who now has a baby daughter named Mayday.  There are also some outsider assistance provided by Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) Pavitr Pradhakar whose fairly new to the job, as well as Hobie Brown, aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), whose rebellious instincts conflict with most of Miguel’s plans.  Miles sneakily follows after Gwen, who has been on the trail of The Spot, who’s seeking to enhance his powers.  The mayhem as The Spot leaves behind prevents what Miguel O’Hara calls a Canon Event from happening, which he tells Miles is essential to holding up the framework of the multiverse.  When Miles learns that a canon event is meant for his future, he seeks to be sent home in order to stop it, which Miguel refuses.  Miles determination puts him at odds with the team, and soon a whole city’s worth of Spider Heroes is chasing after him.  Is Miles right to determine his own fate, or is he making a selfish decision that could threaten the stability of the multiverse.

It definitely has to be said that when the original Spider-Verse movie came out in 2018, it was a breath of fresh air in an animation market that felt very homogenized.  Animation really lacked variety in the later part of the 2010’s.  Because of the dominance of Disney and Pixar, all animated movies throughout the world market just copied their same style to a degree; even rivals like Dreamworks and Illumination.  Animated movies to that point were not so much judged on the quality of the animation since it was all so interchangeable, but more on the strength of their stories, which of course helped to put Pixar up at the top with their excellently written films.  Into the Spider-Verse however was not just excellent in it’s storytelling, but it equally wowed audiences with it’s wild animation style.  The movie was wall to wall creativity, with surprising details in every frame.  Not since Toy Story (1995) had an animated film challenged the established order of things in the world of animation, and it did so with a story that also tugged just as hard at the heartstrings as any Pixar film.  Suffice to say, it’s a tough act to follow, but of course anybody who knows the super hero genre well will tell you that a sequel is inevitable.  So, five years after the fact, Sony Pictures Animation has finally released a sequel to their ground-breaking hit film.  Surprisingly, the team behind the movie not only had enough story for one film; they had an idea that was big enough for two.  Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the first of a two-part arc, which will conclude next year with Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse (2024).  The question is, did Sony manage to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.  For the most part I would say yes, but I did find a couple issues with this sequel that I will point out.  On the whole, this movie does deliver exactly what you would want from a continuation of the Spider-Verse storyline.  It builds upon what we’ve already seen and even ups the ante in terms of creativity in the art style.  But, as I was watching the movie, and generally having a good time with it, I couldn’t get over this sense of maybe it was all too much of a good thing.

Here’s where I have my issues with the film.  At 140 minutes, this film breaks the record for the longest animated film ever produced by a Western animation studio.  Even Disney has never gone far beyond the 2 hour mark, with Fantasia (1940) being their longest film at 125 minutes.  Most animated films fall within the 90-120 minute mark, so Across the Spider-Verse really has shattered the record.  On one hand, this is a typical length for a standard live action super hero movie.  The longest Spider-Man movie on record is the 148 minute Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which felt appropriately lengthed.  It’s possible that the time needed to tell a story in animation isn’t as much to tell it in live action, as movement plays by different rules in each medium.  In any case, I really felt the length of this movie, particularly in the slow build first half, and it kind of robbed the movie of some momentum in the story.  While there is still a lot of moments to love in the opening half, you do feel a bit of the bloat in order to get this movie up to the epic length.  Some character moments feel like they would have been better trimmed down without loosing the essentials.  Thankfully, the movie picks up steam in the second half, and culminates in a heart-pounding cliffhanger finale, but I do wish it had kept up that level of energy throughout the film.  The original Spider-Verse was a taut 117 minutes, and it used every moment wisely.  The one other thing I feel worked against the sequel was the fact that it no longer had the novelty of the first film.  Into The Spider-Verse felt like such a discovery when we first saw it; like we were witnessing the beginning of something new in cinema.  Across the Spider-Verse gives us more of the same, which is still amazing to look at and incredibly creative, but it just isn’t the groundbreaking achievement that the original film was.  These issues still don’t ruin the movie as a whole, but I do feel like they hold the film back from truly achieving iconic status in the same way that the original did.

Still there is a lot to praise about the movie.  One of course is the animation.  The Sony Pictures Animation team clearly wanted to build upon what they already achieved in the last film.  One of the most interesting ideas that they executed for this movie was giving each new dimension of the Multiverse it’s own distinct art style.  In the original movie, the art style remained mostly the same when it came to the environments, with much of the diversity of styles saved for the character designs.  This made sense, as we were seeing the world through the prism of Miles Morales’ reality.  Here, the characters jump into multiple universes, and each one is stylized to match the characters that inhabit it.  Spider-Man India’s home world, which is cleverly named Mumbattan, is designed to resemble Indian poster art, including a change in the onomonopia text to reflect Indian lettering.  The various Spider-Man are also creatively animated in their own styles.  One of the visually creative ones is Spider-Punk, who is animated in a way to make it look like he’s made out of a collage of newspaper clippings; making him a clever nod to British punk rock artwork of the 70’s and 80’s.  The movie integrates so many different animation styles together, including having versions of the Spider-Man characters from the animated television series sharing the screen, as well as the ones from the video games.  There are even live action characters integrated in seamlessly.  All the while, the artwork is kinetic, but still services the story effectively.  There is an especially beautiful scene late in the movie with Spider Gwen where the backgrounds change in every single shot, reflecting the change in mood, and each one could be put on the wall and framed as a work of art on it’s own.  The fact that this animation team still is able to pull off a visually creative scene like that, one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream studio animated film before, this late in the game is a real testament to their commitment towards driving the capabilities of animation even further.

I also want to spotlight the talented voice cast of this movie, who again bring so much life into these characters.  Hailee Steinfeld is given much more to do here as Gwen Stacy, with the character becoming something of a co-lead alongside Miles Morales this time.  She really brings a sense of gravitas to the character that helps to build her journey across the multiverse.  Of course Shameik Moore once again does a brilliant job of voicing Miles Morales.  His performance definitely reflects the growth the character has gone through between films; finding him in a far more confident place.  Once Miles Morales makes his live action debut eventually, it will be a hard act to follow, as Shameik has done such a good job capturing the infectious exuberance of Miles so far in this animated version.  Though his role is smaller this time around, it’s also good to see a welcome return of Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker.  This time around he has traded in the dad bod to become an actual dad, and Johnson hilariously plays up this Spider-Man’s new domestic situation.  Of the many new characters, the one who stands out the most is Oscar Isaac as Miguel O’Hara.  While Isaac did make a first appearance in the post credits scene of the first Spider-Verse movie, that cameo was played mostly for laughs, poking fun at the “Pointing Spider-Man” meme.  Here Oscar Isaac really gets to chew into this character, and you really feel the weight of his tragic paste playing out in the portrayal of the character.  Miguel O’Hara isn’t exactly cast as the villain of this movie, but his contrasting worldview clashes in a harrowing way with Miles Morales, and Oscar Isaac carries those scenes with ferocious power.  I also liked Daniel Kaluuya’s heavily accented Spider-Punk, which matched the art style that he’s personified with.  As far as the villain goes, Jason Schwartzman does an interesting thing with The Spot, where he’s played off as a bumbling joke of a bad guy in the beginning, but as he builds his power over time, Schwartzman begins to voice him in a much more menacing way, and it’s effectively done.  It’s good to see that in terms of the art style and the voice acting, Across the Spider-Verse is continuing to keep the standards high and giving us the things we really want the most out of this series.

It certainly looks like Sony Animation is pulling out all the stops when it comes to creating these Spider-Verse films.  I definitely love the collection of art styles used throughout the film.  I feel like I’m going to need a few more watches in order to catch every little detail found on screen.  My issue, however, is that I feel like the movie was a good twenty minutes too long.  It takes almost an hour just to get to the actual multiverse jumping that the movie promises.  Once we finally get there, the film definitely gets rolling, but I wish that it had that same kind of energy throughout the film.  A tighter paced first act might have helped with giving me a more satisfactory experience, but at the same time, there are quite a few things to love in that first half of the movie.  The cast of characters namely helps to make the movie an engaging experience.  The film still makes us fall in love with Miles Morales and his journey, and it also helps to flesh out returning characters like Miles’ mother and father, as well as Gwen Stacy, who gets the most additional character development in this film.  I also loved the new characters introduced here, with Spider-Punk being an easy new favorite.  Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara is also a fascinating new addition to the series, and I’m very interested in seeing where the series takes his arc in the next film.  One thing that I wonder if it had a possible impact on my viewing experience is that this film is the middle chapter in a planned trilogy.  There are certainly many great examples of brilliant middle chapters on the big screen like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), but I wonder if I may like this movie better once I have the full context of it’s story which will conclude with Beyond the Spider-Verse next year.  I do think I may like this movie better once the trilogy is complete, but for now my first impression is one of admiration, but with a reservation for some uneven pacing.  For now, I would put it under the original film slightly, though there are some individual scenes that I do think exceed the brilliance of the first movie too.  I hope that once the trilogy is complete that the full scope will be seen in all of it’s brilliance.  The thing I appreciate the most is that Sony Animation with this series is really shaking up the animation world and holding it up to a higher standard.  Especially coming off of the stale storytelling of The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023), this kind of film with it’s bold brushstrokes in both art and storytelling is so refreshing to see, and my hope is that the other animation studios, including Disney and Pixar, continue to up their game in order to compete.  You got to appreciate a game-changer like the Spider-Verse series, and it’s definitely the hero we deserve right now.

Rating: 8/10