Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
Writers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, David Callaham
Cast: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Oscar Isaac, Jason Schwatzman, Daniel Kaluuya, Karan Soni, Issa Rae
Producers: Avi Arad, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Amy Pascal, Christina Steinberg
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Art Direction: Dean Gordon, Araiz Khalid
Editor: Mike Andrews
Running time: 140mins
What’s the story: When Miles Morales (Moore) enrages bizarre supervillain The Spot (Schwartzman), the multiverse is put in danger. Miles teams up with a gang of Spider-Persons, led by the intense Miguel O’Hara (Isaac) and including Gwen Stacey (Steinfeld), to prevent worlds from collapsing.
What’s the verdict: Back on episode 77 of The Movie Robcast, this reviewer revealed his no.5 of the 2010s was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. That 2018 movie was a commentary on the superherofication of pop culture, whose gorgeous visuals were a much-needed tonic to balance the drab palette of the MCU. It also delivered the blockbuster goods.
Oh yeah, and by mixing in a whole bunch of cross-dimensional alternate Spider-Mans, it kickstarted the modern take on the multiverse in movies. No Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, no Spider-Man: No Way Home, no The Flash (which treads some plot ground traversed here). Arguably there would also be no Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and even no Everything Everywhere All At Once (an Oscar winner, like the 2018 film).
Quite an act to follow then, and five years later is the sequel. At least, the first part of a sequel, Spider-Verse now doing the whole Matrix (or Fast X, or Harry Potter) thing with its follow ups. The good news is Across the Spider-Verse is a dazzler. Although you may detect follow-up performance anxiety early on; the opening set-up does not hold onto its disparate story strands as confidently as Miles grabs that slung web.
And there is a lot of story here. Arguably enough to warrant two separate movies and deliver a more traditional trilogy. But Spider-Verse isn’t about the traditional. As briefly as possible… just over a year into being Spider-Man Miles Morales still pines for Gwen Stacey. Problem is, she literally lives a dimension away.
A more immediate concern is mad scientist turned human Rorschach test Jonathan Ohm, aka The Spot. A villain whose very body is a portal to other realms, or across town if he’s fleeing the scene of a crime. Flustered at juggling school, parental expectations, adolescent anxiety, and crime fighting, Miles dismisses this monochrome bizarro as a “villain of the week.” Much to Ohm’s chagrin, and he vows to become a far more formidable foe…
Miles also worries he’ll become a supervillain to his parents (Vélez and Henry), his secret life making him unreliable and moody. So your friendly neighborhood typical 15-year-old then.
Shaking everything up is the sudden arrival of Gwen. Dr Ohm has literally put the multiverse in a Spot of bother, and brooding sci-fi Spider-Man Miguel O’Hara leads a team of Spideys charged with capturing the bad doc and restoring balance.
Into the Spider-Verse was a masterclass in elegantly unfolding a story and introducing a bundle of bizarre characters unknown to most audiences. Spider-Ham first appeared in 1983, but audiences didn’t need to know that. Same with Spider-Man Noir, introduced in 2009.
Here, the frenetic introduction of O’Hara, aka Spider-Man 2099, and fellow teammate Jessica Drew, aka Spider-Woman (Rae), feels like Into the Spider-Verse played at the wrong speed. Coming as it does minutes into the movie during what feels like a recap of Acts 2 and 3 from a Spider-Gwen film.
The hecticness of these opening ten minutes, and the next fifteen odd, suggests the three directors (different to those who helmed Into the Spider-Verse) wrestled with quickening the pace of an initially much longer Spider-Cut. A rewatch will reveal if this is less a problem second time around, but on first viewing the eye-popping visuals do a lot of heavy lifting. As does the all-round first-class voice work, particularly Shameik Moore as Miles and Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen. Plus quick-fire humour courtesy of original Spider-Verse writer Phil Lord, joined by regular collaborator Christopher Miller, and Shang-Chi co-writer David Callaham.
The plot eventually finds the right tempo (fitting for a film that opens with a drum solo). Then the movie marries mood and emotion with said breathtaking visuals, and the animation is no mere eye-candy. The fluid visual designs enhance the dramatic heft during major emotional moments, while underscoring character psychology. In the action set-pieces shows up most modern blockbusters for how unimaginative they are content to be.
Indeed, it is little short of a miracle that this $100m movie is allowed to look as radical as it does. CGI, meets faux-cell animation, meets expressionist art, meets impressionism, meets pop art, meets Da Vinci’s notebook. We’re being serious on that last point; one classic Spider-villain has had quite the makeover. Classic anime Akira and Neon Genesis: Evangelion also receive dutiful homage. Along with the Lego Movie, and even a possible nod to Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.
Daniel Kaluuya’s agit-prop artist-cum-musician-cum-superhero Spider-Punk is a treat of snotty attitude, his look seemingly based on the cut-and-paste Pritt stick and 10p photocopies aesthetic of 1970s punk fanzine Sniffing Glue. Pavitr Prabhakar (Soni), lifted from 2004’s Spider-Man: India, is another triumph, as is Mumbattan, a megalopolis mishmash of Mumbai and New York and a splash of London.
In true sequel style, this goes Empire Strikes Back darker, Miles embarking upon a Skywalker-like journey of doubt and discovery, uncovering dark secrets about his place in the world. Like Episode V, this too ends on a massive cliff-hanger, but only after multiple plot climaxes and one killer reveal.
Phew. Phew. What a movie. What a thrill to bang on about it for almost 1000 words. What a joy it will be to freeze frame this on 4K Blu-ray and look at all those Easter Eggs (the trailer promises plenty of Spider-Variants to relish).
The only real problem? Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse is not due to arrive until 2024.