When Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse swung into cinemas in 2018, it proved something startlingly obvious, but stubbornly unchangeable till that moment: not every major studio animation needs to look like Toy Story to be successful. This epiphany has been widespread and keenly felt since, but COVID-19-delayed sequel Across the Spider-Verse proves that this trendsetting series remains Miles ahead of the copycat competition.
A supremely confident, ravishingly rendered follow-up, Across the Spider-Verse dazzles out of the gate with a bravura 25-minute pre-title sequence featuring multiverse-hopping Spider-folk from the future, a Da Vinci-world Vulture constructed from parchment, and a formative tragedy for Gwen Stacy. It only raises the stakes from there.
Since becoming "the one and only Spider-Man", Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has been slipping at school as his Spider-duties get in the way of his studies. The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) is one such nuisance – an inept villain of the week turned threat to the multiverse, who has major beef with his arch-nemesis. Pursuing The Spot to Mumbai-inspired, alt-dimension mega-city Mumbattan, Miles teams up with Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) and Hobie 'Spider-Punk' Brown (Daniel Kaluuya) to stop The Spot. But after meeting Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) – the humourless leader of the Spider Society, "an elite strike force dedicated to the security of the multiverse" (a line so po-faced the film won’t allow him to finish it) – Miles learns a truth that threatens to tear his world apart.
It’s almost redundant to say that a sequel to Into the Spider-Verse looks incredible. But this thing looks incredible, stylistically and technically outstripping even its groundbreaking predecessor. Hobie, for example, is rendered in punk visual-art style, giving him the appearance of a walking scrapbook, while hundreds of Spider-people (some not even people) appear on screen for a gleefully chaotic chase sequence set-piece – no wonder three directors are credited. The 'living comic book' aesthetic has been refined and advanced exponentially, the action thrillingly dynamic and acrobatic. It may not benefit from the same thrill of discovery, but it still has the capacity to wow despite sky-high expectations.
Co-written by tonally totemic creatives Phil Lord and Chris Miller (alongside Shang-Chi’s Dave Callaham), neither is this a safe bet, lightly remixed sequel. "Let’s do things differently this time," says Gwen; it’s a mantra that could apply to the film as a whole. As a multiverse story, it delivers on the broken promise of so many live-action efforts, in that it actually takes us to radically different, beautifully realised and incredibly fun new worlds – one of the most noteworthy being the Spider Society’s futuristic home base of Nueva York. Though the crux of the story takes a long time to come into focus, the eventual reveal plays into Spidey lore in smart ways and effects deeply personal stakes. It also loses none of the irreverence and humour of the first film – even The Spot’s supervillain origin story is a hall of fame-worthy callback gag.
Made simultaneously with threequel Beyond the Spider-Verse, there are inevitable part one problems to reckon with – half-complete character arcs, massive dangling plot threads – so brace for a lack of resolution. And whether the story set up here will pay off in Beyond the Spider-Verse remains to be seen, though given that film is (optimistically) scheduled for release in less than a year, there’s not long to wait. For now, Into the Spider-Verse has the edge over this wilder, webbier, half-complete sequel double-bill, but swings this ambitious and accomplished don’t come along nearly often enough. If Into the Spider-Verse heralded a new era for animation, Across the Spider-Verse is evidence that the adventures of the one and only Spider-Man were far from a one-off.