Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse ★★★
(PG) 136 minutes
“Let’s do things differently this time,” our friendly neighbourhood narrator proposes at the outset of Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse. It’s a promising mission statement, though considering how many big-screen Spider-Man reboots we’ve already had in the 21st century alone, we might wonder just how different any new take on the character is likely to be.
Still, in some respects, this clearly isn’t a regular Marvel blockbuster. Billed as the second instalment of a trilogy, Across the Spider-Verse follows on directly from 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse, and like its predecessor, is computer-animated rather than live-action, placing it outside the main continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which, technically, is itself now a multiverse – after two dozen films, it gets complicated).
That means the hero under the mask isn’t Peter Parker, but his alternate-universe counterpart Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is Afro-Hispanic, rather than white, and hails from Brooklyn, rather than Queens – though none of this shifts the core premise of an unassuming teen who is bitten by a radioactive spider, acquires the power to shoot sticky webs from his fingers, and becomes the scourge of petty crooks and supervillains alike.
For the benefit of any purists still concerned about changes to the source material, it should also be noted that the Spider-Man comics, which have been running continuously since the 1960s, have depicted numerous, often mutually contradictory versions of the character. The wit of the Spider-Verse concept lies in allowing these different versions to exist within a single fiction, where they occupy separate, but parallel worlds.
Into the Spider-Verse opened up the possibility of travel between these worlds, allowing Miles to bond with an older, jaded version of Peter (Jake Johnson). Across the Spider-Verse introduces us to many more members of the Spidey club, including a British punk edition (Daniel Kaluuya), one from Mumbai (Karan Soni) with long silky hair, and one who’s a masked horse.
Some of these Spider-Men are even Spider-Women, including rock’n’roll drummer Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), an alternate version of a character who traditionally serves as one of Peter’s love interests. It’s Gwen, in fact, who pledges to “do things differently” in the hectic opening stretch of Across the Spider-Verse, where she’s recruited by an elite taskforce of Spider-People bent on ensuring that key events across all the different continuities adhere to canon.
If all this sounds bewilderingly complicated, that does appear to be part of the plan. Even the credits are hard to get a grip on: three directors are listed, Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson (none of them returning from Into the Spider-Verse, which had three directors as well).
The actual prime movers behind the scenes appear to be co-writers and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), who specialise in the kind of knowing pop culture meta-commentary where words like “meta-commentary” can be casually thrown into the dialogue.
As hardcore geeks themselves, they seize the opportunity to bring fan service to a new level: if you’re excited to hear that the 1970s Japanese TV version of Spider-Man has a cameo, this is definitely the movie for you.
Typically for Lord and Miller, the upshot is both adventurous and conformist, an outwardly bold reimagining of the material that never stops congratulating us for our brand loyalty, and which plays it safer in plot terms than the early sequences might lead you to hope.
Gwen may kick things off, but Miles remains our one and only protagonist – and while the live-action Spider-Man movies have toyed for a while with treating the hero’s secret identity as a metaphor for queerness, don’t hold your breath waiting for any of his cross-dimensional counterparts to come out.
With all that said, nobody who truly cares for animation could fully resist the movie’s smeary, saturated, near-chaotic look, a concrete illustration of the notion of separate universes getting mashed together, drawing on anime, street art, various traditional comic book styles, and the past half-century of graphic design.
When the various Spideys are hurtling around New York, the movement has a jerky quality as if our eyes were being challenged to keep up – and when they leap between universes their fuzzy, shaky outlines suggest they could shift form at any moment, even if they rarely do.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in cinemas now.
Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.