Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse review: a spectacular superhero sequel that delivers on its big swings

 Miles Morales dives with his right hand outstretched to save someone in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Miles Morales dives with his right hand outstretched to save someone in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Four and a half years have passed since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse reinvented the comic book movie genre. Its ground-breaking visuals, exploration of a superhero-based multiverse – beating Marvel and DC to that particular punch in the process – and wholly original, multi-award winning take on the webslinger's big-screen adventures distinguished it from its peers in spectacular fashion.

Needless to say, the pressure on Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse to perform as well as, if not better that, its predecessor is palpable. Sony Pictures' next Spider-Man movie is certainly ambitious, with its 1,000-plus strong cast and crew pushing the boundaries of what's possible for an animated movie, both visually and narratively, even further than before. Such lofty goals, though, are fraught with the potential for failure, including the possibility that Across the Spider-Verse could collapse under its own aspirational weight.

It gives me great pleasure, then, to report that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse exceeded all my expectations. The next chapter in Miles Morales' silver-screen journey is as gorgeous as it is dramatic, as funny as it is action-packed, and as shocking as it is awe-inspiring. It's a narratively and visually busy flick – overwhelmingly so, on occasion – but one that delivers on its lofty ambitions with aplomb.

Okay, let's do things differently this time

Miles Morales poses as he flips through the air in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Miles Morales poses as he flips through the air in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Across the Spider-Verse picks things up one year and four months after Into the Spider-Verse. The now-teenage Miles (Shameik Moore) is a more capable webslinger than before, but struggles to marry his superhero escapades with his other duties. Namely, being a grade-A student and devoted son.

When the Earth-65-hailing Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld) – Miles' interdimensional Spider-Friend and love interest – unexpectedly reappears in Miles' universe, aka Earth-1610, he's roped into a mission to save the multiverse once more. However, when Miles butts heads with Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), the leader of an interdimensional protection squad known as the Spider Society, a Spidey civil war brews. And, with multiverse-traversing villain The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) threatening the safety of all realities, Miles and company can ill afford to be divided.

Across the Spider-Verse's truncated final moments take the shine off its well-structured tale

As the movie series' protagonist, Miles is understandably the focus of Across the Spider-Verse's sweeping narrative. It's the next installment in his coming-of-age story, after all, so his position as the film's central character comes as little surprise.

And yet, this is as much Gwen's story as it is Miles'. In fact, it's Gwen who we spend the movie's first 25 minutes with – a lengthy sequence that cements Gwen as Across the Spider-Verse's co-lead.

It's a gratifying opening that fills in sizable gaps in Gwen's backstory, which was only hinted at in Into the Spider-Verse, and acts as a primer to explains her motivations throughout Across the Spider-Verse and its forebear. It's a sequence that contextualizes who she is and what she fights for, and juxtaposes the fraught duality of her father-daughter relationship with the close-knit dynamic Miles shares with his parents Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez). That it does so in a visually gorgeous, mood ring-style, watercolor-inspired palette – the unique art style of her universe – only adds to the emotion-fueled experience.

Spider-Gwen slings a web at an enemy in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Spider-Gwen slings a web at an enemy in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Seeing our primary heroes interact with their respective parents adds a substantial layer of familial drama that was slightly lacking in Into the Spider-Verse. Such scenes carry far greater weight than before, with Miles and Gwen's older and more rebellious (but not much wiser) personalities clashing with their elders' protective instincts. It's an absorbing push-pull that intensifies themes only briefly touched on previously, adding a more mature tone to this relatively darker tale.

Fascinating as it is to observe Miles and Gwen's complex personal lives outside of the superhero game, it's no substitute for the grin-inducing, adorably playful reunion between the pair in the movie's second act.

From their flirtatious city-swinging montage to the intimate, upside-down chat they share minutes later, their tangled relationship is the beating heart of Across the Spider-Verse. It propels the movie's plot forward (The Spot's multiversal threat aside) in scintillating, and eventually heart-breaking, fashion, keeping us on 'will they, won't they' tenterhooks from the moment they meet again to the movie's jaw-dropping climax that, without spoiling too much, separates them once more. Full credit to Moore and Steinfeld for capturing Miles and Gwen's multifaceted bond in an emotionally engaging manner.

Spinning a larger yarn

Miles Morales fights The Spot in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Miles Morales fights The Spot in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

This is more than the Miles and Gwen show, mind you. As Across the Spider-Verse's official trailer, multiple TV spots, and other teasers have revealed, the animated flick is a who's who of Spider-People that charmed and excited me in equal measure.

From deep-cut characters including Web-Slinger and his Spider-Horse named Willow, to fan favorites like Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman (Issa Rae) and the Andy Samberg-voiced Ben Reilly/Scarlet Spider, Across the Spider-Verse is packed with wallcrawlers galore. There's even the odd live-action individual – don't worry, I won't ruin any of those absolutely brilliant cameos here – and plenty of callbacks to Spidey's rich big-screen and small-screen history, with multiple nods to the live-action films and animated TV shows that have come before.

Some character inclusions, though, stand out more than others. Isaac's anti-heroic O'Hara bristles with a brooding intensity and snarling venomousness, while Schwartman's Spot – the physical embodiment of how Miles, or any of us, create our own demons – is imbued with equal parts goofiness and unpredictable menace, the latter of which comes to the fore once he dials his superhuman abilities up to 11.

Miles and Gwen's relationship is the beating heart of Across the Spider-Verse

Elsewhere, Karan Soni's endearing Pavitr Prabhakar/Spider-Man India steals every scene he's in, and Daniel Kaluuya's Hobie Brown/Spider-Punk – a music-loving, anti-establishment British Spider-Man who plays a more significant role in the movie's primary plot than I expected – refreshingly exudes charisma and indifference in a manner unlike most other Spider-People.

Throw in the returning Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) – with toddler May-Day Parker in tow – and Across the Spider-Verse is fully committed to outdoing its predecessor in every aspect. That includes Daniel Pemberton and Metro Boomin's thumping, rousing, and emotive score and original soundtrack, which audibly accentuate the sequences they're built around.

Gwen and Peter B Parker looking sad in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Gwen and Peter B Parker looking sad in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

That determination to improve on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse extends to the movie's multiple breathtaking and vivid universes.

Into the Spider-Verse was innovative enough in how it incorporated each Spider-Person's unique animation style into Miles' universe. The scale and scope of its sequel, though, is unfathomably huge. This time, Miles and company visit six different dimensions, including Mumbattan (Earth-50101), Nueva York (Earth-928), and two secret dimensions – one of which elicited the biggest laugh from me and many others in our screening for its unexpected appearance. Add in the seemingly infinite number of Spider-People, all of whom possess in a signature aesthetic – Spider-Punk's paper-clipping/scrapbook-esque animation style is a stunning technical achievement – and Across the Spider-Verse is an overwhelming visual experience that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

It's the staggering scope of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse's ambition, however, that's its biggest problem. Characters that deserve more screen time, particularly those with obvious and arguably villainous motives, such as The Spot and O'Hara respectively, don't get the scenes or in-depth character development they merit. Their backstories are covered in lightning-quick fashion – a creative shorthand solution to Into the Spider-Verse's 'Okay, let's do this one last time' character introductions, sure, but such exposition dumps cheat them out of the screen time and, The Spot's growing power level aside, evolutionary character arcs they deserve.

Other expectedly important individuals including Margo Kess/Spider-Byte (Amandla Stenberg), the virtual reality-based Spider-Person who oversees a Matrix-style machine that plays a big role in this animated film series, and Rae's Draw feel underutilized, too. The expectation is that they'll have greater roles to play in Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, which is currently slated to arrive in March 2024. Even then, it's hard to imagine how great a role such characters will play in the film, which will need to dedicate time to the character growth of its protagonists, and wrap up Miles and Gwen's stories.

Miguel O'Hara looks at someone off camera in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Miguel O'Hara looks at someone off camera in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Given that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse's two hour and 20 minute runtime makes it the longest animated movie in history, its ending – your fan theories about how it concludes are way off base, by the way – also feels a bit rushed and abrupt.

Okay, its dramatically sudden climax is born out of splitting Across the Spider-Verse into two films – Across and Beyond's stories were originally pitched as a single tale. And yes, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse's cliffhanger ending sets the stage for its Return of the Jedi-style follow-up – with Across the Spider-Verse having been described as the Empire Strikes Back of this Miles-led animated film trilogy. Just like 2021's Dune, though, Across the Spider-Verse's truncated finale takes the shine off its well-structured tale. It might leave some viewers wanting a more finite conclusion that allowed Across the Spider-Verse to tell a complete story in the same vein as similarly positioned films, such as Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War or the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back.

My verdict

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is one of the best Spider-Man movies – if not the best – of all time. Considering the competition for that title, notably Spider-Man: No Way Home, Spider-Man 2, and Into the Spider-Verse, that's some statement to make, but the movie deserves such recognition for making good on its wildly ambitious vision.

There are moments where Across the Spider-Verse walks a fine line between technological brilliance and visual overload, but its faults will seem relatively minor and potentially inconsequential to most movie lovers. And, while they're noticeable blots on its metaphorical copybook, Across the Spider-Verse's issues didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of its thrilling, highly entertaining, visually striking, and emotion-filled package.

Thanks to its delicate balance of comedy and drama, and spectacle and substance, Across the Spider-Verse is a theatrical triumph. It's a film that's mind-bogglingly massive, distinctly heartfelt, and eye-poppingly beautiful – one that finds complete freedom to swing into new animated frontiers – and confirms Miles' second big-screen adventure as one of the best best new movies of 2023. Thwip your way to a theater near you as soon as you can, and it won't be long before you're in full agreement with that sentiment.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse swings into theaters worldwide on Friday, June 2.