Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is as feverishly inventive in its visual presentation as it is slapdash and anemic in its storytelling.
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
It engages with and empowers the worst instincts of comic book fanatics while only offering them and the rest of us a sliver of a story, one that at more times than it should feels like little more than a shining silver platter of Easter eggs. Yet it does this with bold and painterly digital animation that is so imaginative, purposeful, and evocative that you barely notice or care.
This is the Instagram filter that’s way more exciting than the vacation in the photos you posted; the gala gown that swallowed the starlet. The follow-up to 2018’s Oscar winning box office behemoth Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not merely a triumph of style over substance; it is a 50-point drubbing so brutal that you feel compelled to give up your allegiance and root for the other team.
It helps immensely that team style has Miles Morales as its star player. Voiced again by Shameik Moore, an actor who is every bit as versatile as the sandboxes in which he plays, Miles serves as both protagonist and emotional anchor for the film. With his desire to live up to the faith that dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) place in him constantly sabotaged by his responsibility to keep deranged supervillains at bay and countless universes from imploding, Moore’s Miles hits the iconic Spider notes masterfully.
But even here, the script from Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and David Callaham (Lord and Miller also serve as producers) undercuts essential aspects of his character.
One of the facets that allows Spider-Man to be more nuanced than other superheroes is the complex manner in which he negotiates his terrestrial relationships both in and out of costume; in this film, he has no connection to his own world outside of his parents. (He is shown occasionally changing out of his Spider outfit in the room of a friend voiced by Pixar animator Peter Sohn, but they barely interact.)
His love interest is the same off-world Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman from the first film, once again voiced by a game Hailee Steinfeld. While she still carries a torch for Miles, her attention is given primarily to her duties as a member of the Spider-Society, a squad of Spider-People from different worlds tasked with protecting the multiverse and led by the brooding and humor-free Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099, voiced with many worlds’ worth of weary grit by Oscar Isaac.
Not unlike the current U.S. Supreme Court, this Spider-Society takes a radical originalist view on Spider stories. They hop to different universes to make sure the stories maintain the “cannon events” (an uncle is killed here; a police captain is killed there) to ensure nothing original happens lest the fabric of the multiverse unravels. Rather than a superhero group defending truth and justice, this is an elite force of internet reply guys obsessed with making sure that any new iteration of the oft-told tale maintains the continuity of the one they first read in middle school.
But the Society members themselves, like the manner in which they are presented, are a thrill to behold; unlike the plot points they are racing to uphold, most of them are actually a surprise.
While the hangdog Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) returns (this time carting a baby), the exciting newcomers include a pregnant, Afro-blazing Jessica Drew (Issa Rae) who jumps worlds on a souped up motorbike, and Spider-Man India (Deadpool’s Karan Soni), who patrols Mumbattan with glorious flowing locks and Spider powers imbued by magic. The film’s boldest invention— and the only one who cares not a toss about ensuring “cannon events” — is Hobie Brown, aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya, charmingly laconic), a mohawked cockney punk who fights bad guys with a guitar and inhabits a world where Margaret Thatcher’s regime seems to never have relinquished power.
Every character changes the texture of the film’s form when they enter the story in a manner utterly unlike any other superhero film, including its predecessor. Directors Justin K. Thompson, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Kemp Powers (Thompson and Dos Santos make their directorial debut while playwright Kemp Powers served as a co-director on Pixar’s Soul) use a muddy ’60s palette to emphasize the domestic drama of Gwen’s world, while Spider-Punk threatens to slice up the screen into a ’90s style zine. It is a dizzying smorgasbord of eye candy and the troika of directors show considerable command in not letting the anarchic approach overwhelm the viewer.
But does all of this film form gymnastics serve the story? It is hard to tell because the movie isn’t concerned with telling a complete one.
In keeping with the economic imperatives of the superhero industrial complex, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse is merely a setup for the next prepositional installment Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, currently scheduled for release in March of next year. As thrillingly rendered and technically innovative as it may be, the current Spider-iteration is little more than a gorgeously ornate two-hour-and-twenty-minute comma in a run-on Spider-sentence.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.