Combustible Celluloid Review - Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, David Callaham, Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson, Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac, Shea Whigham, Greta Lee, Mahershala Ali, Andy Samberg, Amandla Stenberg, Rachel Dratch, Jorma Taccone (voices)
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With: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac, Shea Whigham, Greta Lee, Mahershala Ali, Andy Samberg, Amandla Stenberg, Rachel Dratch, Jorma Taccone (voices)
Written by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, David Callaham
Directed by: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements
Running Time: 140
Date: 06/02/2023

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When my daughter and I walked into a screening of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018, we had no idea that we were about to see one of the greatest animated movies of all time, with such a splendiferous array of textures and shapes and colors and movements, that there was very little choice but to describe it as anything other than "mind-blowing." My feelings toward a sequel were wary. When a movie is so good, we want it to stand on its own merits, and sequels, in some cases, serve to cheapen the original achievements.

The new Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse comes with three new directors, Joaquim Dos Santos (a storyboard artist on the series The Spectacular Spider-Man, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Invincible), Kemp Powers (playwright of One Night in Miami, co-director of Soul), and Justin K. Thompson (production designer on the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies and Into the Spider-Verse). And we have new characters, and an expanded running time of 140 minutes. But does it work? You bet it does.

Things begin with Spider-Woman, or Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), who is having trouble after finding the lifeless body of her best friend Peter Parker. Her own father, police officer George Stacy (voiced by Shea Whigham), who does not know her secret identity, blames Spider-Woman for the murder and has declared a manhunt for her. After battling a renaissance-era paper Vulture, and facing off with her father, she is approached by two Spider beings, a pregnant, motorcycle-riding Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew (voiced by Issa Rae), and the grim Spider-Man 2099, Miguel O'Hara (voiced by Oscar Isaac). They recruit her to join a team of elite Multiverse guardians.

Next, we catch up with our Spider-Man, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), as he tries — with great difficulty (though not without a sense of humor) — to balance school and superheroing. Things have grown strained with his parents (voiced by Luna Lauren Vélez and Brian Tyree Henry), who know Miles is keeping something from them. After fighting a silly villain called The Spot (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) — who has the power to use small portals to shift around in space — he finds himself grounded.

He's surprised when Gwen suddenly appears in his bedroom. They enjoy a swing around town before she abruptly leaves. We learn that, as part of her group of Multiverse Spider-People, she was never allowed to visit Miles, and she broke the rules to do so. Unfortunately, Miles follows her into another universe. Meanwhile, The Spot has learned that he has also has the power to travel to different universes, and decides to use any means necessary to increase his power. He also seems to have a personal vendetta against Miles. Miles and Gwen team up with Spider-Man India, or Pavitr Prabhakar (voiced by Karan Soni) and Spider-Punk, a.k.a. "Hobie" (voiced by Daniel Kaluuya) to try to stop him.

Those are only the basics. The movie goes full-blast into Everything Everywhere All at Once and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness territory, unleashing a whirlwind of imagination; in one sequence, lasting just seconds, a Spider-Cat coughs up a hairball, which is really webbing, and fires it at an opponent. It's also hilarious. The movie embraces that Spider-Man is perhaps the funniest of all superheroes, and it lays on sharp, tickling jokes that fly by so fast viewers will certainly need a second or third viewing to catch everything.

Things slow down and become emotional toward the final stretch, as is the case in some of the best comics stories (notably Amazing Spider-Man #121-122), where heroes have difficult choices to make between their responsibilities and their personal lives. Though it's a small complaint, these sequences, with a lot of dialogue, tend to test the pace a bit. We might feel ourselves winding down and needing a break. But the movie does not disappoint — or at least it does the unexpected — when it ramps up to its finale.

Unlike many live-action superhero movies, Across the Spider-Verse seems to truly love its medium, both the physical texture of actual paper comic books, as well as the concept of superheroes in general. As in the original, each character has their own texture. Spider-Punk looks like a 1970s punk-rock magazine smashed together out of different fonts and printed out of cheap copy machines, while Spider-Man 2099 is gleaming and shiny and futuristic. And they all occupy the same space. There's an enthusiasm here, an energy that transcends the concept of franchise-building.

Perhaps best of all, this movie shatters the concept that comic book nerds are all white males. The three directors are all of different cultural backgrounds, and the characters are, too. Miles himself is the child of Black and Puerto Rican parents. Gwen even has a "Protect Trans Kids" banner hanging in her room. And, as with everything else, the movie celebrates this inclusivity and diversity, likely enraging small-minded, right-leaning viewers. Watching with my daughter, who is trans, and witnessing her excitement at everything the movie had to offer, left me with a sense of its true superpower.

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