Briefly featuring a sentient, talking automobile named Peter Parkedcar, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is somehow both goofily absurd and sneakily profound. A splash of Dadaism, a dollop of Nietzsche, and an oil tanker of super-shenanigans are shaken into a comically oversized martini that is garnished with an existential olive. A billion different art styles collide, with impressionism bleeding into pop art, all set to a punk-hip-hop backbeat in pursuit of asking America’s current defining question: What do we need to do to get more Spider-Cat?
That question is, of course, about violent tragedies of the past and whether we are doomed to forever be defined by them or whether we can do the dangerous, difficult work of unmaking them as best we can. In a moment, the plot description of “Across the Spider-Verse” is going to sound like typical superhero silliness. It very much isn’t. It also isn’t (just) about the obvious themes of isolation and personal identity that burden its central characters. No, it is about how coping with those isolating personal identities threatens the status quo (or “canon” here), and why some “good” people will stop at nothing to preserve things as they are.
Gloriously, “Across the Spider-Verse” starts with Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld). She is given her own style, story, and significance. After the events of the last film, she longs for the community she built with the Spider-People of other worlds who understood her plight, especially Miles (Shameik Moore). While romance isn’t off the table for the pair, it (thankfully) also isn’t the main course. She pines for his compassion and empathy first and foremost. As she flees from her police captain father, she encounters Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) and Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), Spider-Man 2099 and Spider Woman, respectively.
Gwen is reluctantly brought into a secret society of multidimensional Spider-People, whose job is to protect all of reality. It turns out that undoing “canon” moments, which are basically horribly tragic deaths that happen to each world’s Spider-Hero, unravels the tangled web of all life. Against explicit advice, Gwen reconnects with Miles, who has become a more confident web-slinger. He’s still a teenager though, so he’s an emotional, hormonal mess. But he’s figuring it out. Kinda.
A villain named Spot (Jason Schwarzman), who can generate and throw around interdimensional portals, is furious at Miles for having accidentally turned him into a human quantum doorway. His quest to smite Spider-Man threatens to unmake everything, which is compounded by Miles’s determination to undo at least one specific canon event. Before long, everything devolves into massive spider-on-spider action, as “friendly neighborhood” is dropped from everyone’s spider-branding.
“Across the Spider-Verse” requires forgiving one fundamental misreading of the Spider-Man ethos. Miles is pit against virtually every other incarnation of his heroic totem. All of those others stand on the side of allowing people to die for the greater good. Nope. Not buying it. Spider-Man is defined by his stubborn unwillingness to give up on a single soul ever. Every single person bearing that mantle would refuse to accept so much as one innocent life lost, even if it was to preserve countless trillions. That’s who the character is: Empathy incarnate, compassion magnified.
Setting aside the plot-necessary disregard of this central tenant of spider-philosophy, “Across the Spider-Verse” is perfection. Almost. Sorry, one more thing… It’s fine that we’ve decided to start doing multi-part “finales” to film franchises. Cliffhangers are lazy. There is a way to both leave things unfinished and provide some conclusive moment that feels like a natural intermission. Everyone always points to “Empire Strikes Back” for this because, well, it’s about as textbook as how to do it for a major blockbuster franchise.
So setting aside the Spider-Man mission statement misread and the wall-crawling cliffhanger ending, “Across the Spider-Verse” is a potent pop culture masterwork. It may not yet have resolved the central conflict about “canon,” but its willingness to identify that as a reality-murdering evil is already inspired. Apologies to Obama, but Spidey was thwipping out audacious hope first. Here he is literally saying that he refuses a world that hangs on pain, in which some are left behind to die because saving them will be painful, because undoing the damage will make everything around us so new as to be unrecognizable.
Hilarious, relentlessly creative, visually reckless in the kindest way, “Across the Spider-Verse” is so good we haven’t even had time to discuss Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya) or the slew of giddy meta-jokes with which the film is packed. If the final installment is as good as the first two, and what reason do we have to believe it won’t be, this may be the superhero trilogy we put in the time capsule to remember the best parts of this cinematic era.
BRB, gonna go watch it again.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Omar Holmon at Black Nerd Problems says “It’s so hard to describe how good this film is. I know what I saw, but I keep thinking to myself, ‘What the hell did I just see?’ Isn’t that the mark of a great movie tho?”
Jeffrey Zhang at Strange Harbors says “Always on the verge of overload without frying your brain and paradoxically profuse and legible at the same time, ‘Across the Spider-Verse’ deftly walks a tightrope as a candidate for 2023’s best-looking movie: It’s a monumental work of art that stands out in a sea of sludgy, featureless blockbusters that have sadly become the industry norm.”
Cristina Escobar at Latino Rebels says “This a different story than the typical white-male exceptionalist one, and it’s more interesting because of it. Here the question isn’t what Spidey is willing to sacrifice to protect the many, but rather the nature of fate and destiny, free will versus canonical tropes.”