When it arrived in cinemas back in 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a radioactive arachnid bite to Hollywood’s throat. It crushed the arguments that superhero films had to choose between pathos and humour; it showed how easily the gap could be bridged between what lives in the pages of comic books and what’s possible on screen; and it proved that mainstream animation shouldn’t be forced to live under the shadow of Disney’s fairytale castle.
Its follow-up, Across the Spider-Verse, is another lesson taught by the coolest teacher you’ve ever met. DC, the MCU... this is how you do both sequels and multiverse storylines without breaking a sweat. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the one and only Spider-Man of his world and a mainstay in the comics since 2011, discovers that all of his interdimensional shenanigans from the previous film have started to untether the delicate web of reality. Enter Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), an absolutely hench spider-individual from a futuristic dimension, with a Type A personality and zero sense of fun. He’s taken it upon himself to start patching up the anomalies. And poor Miles is nothing but a thorn in his side.
Across the Spider-Verse, much like its predecessor, treats its multiverse premise as a genuine creative challenge. There are cameos, gags and visual references that draw from every corner and era of Spidey culture. It sprints right up the border of visual overload but never crosses it, thanks to a lightness of touch applied by its trio of directors, Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K Thompson, and its writers, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and David Callaham. This is, dare I say it, how fan service should be done. It’s far easier to overlook the usual nostalgic pandering when it’s taken a backseat to genuine creativity.
Into the Spider-Verse’s comic book style – with its split-screen panels, cross-hatches and Ben-Day dots – has since been copied across the rest of mainstream animation (see February’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish). Across the Spider-Verse readdresses its own legacy. What’s revolutionary about this franchise isn’t that it created a new look, but that it dared to push the boundaries of what was possible. As we visit new dimensions, the film reinvents its own look. The most striking of these is the homeworld of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Miles’s fellow spider-person and closest friend. Gwen lives in a place of impressionistic pinks, purples and blues, where environments shift in tune to the emotions of characters, and which at times seems to adopt the abstract designs of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint.
Mumbattan, where we meet Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), introduces a subtle palette of primary colours that draw directly from the country’s own history of pop art; Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) is all Sex Pistols collage work. For a genre that so grimly insists on its own seriousness, the most convincing argument against the idea that “comic book films aren’t cinema” may be how casually Across the Spider-Verse integrates itself into the wider, cultural landscape. There’s even a pop at Jeff Koons, however you may feel about that.
The film is part one of two, with its narrative set to conclude with next year’s Beyond the Spider-Verse. Its climax, admittedly, overdoes it on the cliffhangers, gorging itself a little too much when it comes to cross-cut montages of spider-characters looking very serious while Daniel Pemberton’s pulsating score reaches an ever-escalating set of crescendos. But the Spider-Verse has earned the right to a little self-aggrandisement. Out of every multiverse, this is the easiest to root for.
Dir: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K Thompson. Starring: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Oscar Isaac. PG, 140 minutes.
‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ is in cinemas from 2 June