In a year where so many blockbuster films are showing the strain on writers and visual effects artists, and the shine has gone off some of the tentpole franchises, Across the Spider-Verse arrives to save everything. The praise lavished on the film so far has been rightly effusive, and partly I imagine because it’s such a relief to see a work of art which feels so loved – in which the writing, the animation, the direction, the performances, all feel intentional and crafted and precise, and all contribute to a dizzying, intoxicating whole. It’s a film that offers to restore faith in blockbuster filmmaking, realising the potential of multiverse storytelling to reflect on human concerns that Everything Everywhere All at Once opened up, bringing an indie sensibility to massive-budget studio pictures.
Following the multiversal incursions of Into the Spider-verse, Gwen finds herself in her own universe fighting a Renaissance paper version of Vulture (the creativity of universe-hopping here putting Doctor Strange to shame). She’s helped out by the arrival of a team of Spider-people who are tasked with keeping the parallel universes on track and dealing with incursions, who she joins after her father – who has been pursuing Spider-Woman for the murder of Peter Parker – realises who she is and wants to arrest her anyway. But as Gwen joins the multiverse Spider-Squad, she’s also barred from ever visiting Miles in his own universe – for reasons that are at the heart of this film’s big crisis.
Miles, meanwhile, is missing his multiversal pals and living life as Spider-Man. His ‘villain of the week’ is The Spot, a scientist who developed the curse/ability to create holes in space following an accident. One of the film’s pleasures is that Spot (voiced hilariously by Jason Schwartzman) is self-aware of his own place in the story, insisting on becoming Spider-Man’s nemesis rather than a passing conflict, and that desire to be important – and in doing so, his successful quest to become a multi-verse threatening villain – reflects Miles’s own sense of insignificance within the wider universe. Spot’s gradual transition from comic aside to genuinely terrifying threat is skilfully done, and it aligns beautifully with Miles’s own desire to be included in Gwen’s new fraternity when he finds out about it, even if no-one else wants him.
The thing is – Miles both is and is not special. He’s one in an infinity of other Spider-people, but he’s also Ground Zero for multiversal infractions, because the spider that bit him had actually been transported from another dimension, and thus he was never ‘meant’ to become Spider-Man. And as a fifteen-year-old kid wrestling with feelings for a girl, with what he wants to do with his future, and with the desire to live up to his parents’ expectations but also to be his own person, the existential crises of his superpowered self fuel his own adolescent battles. It’s a deeply human film, with both of Miles’s parents enjoying a lot of screentime. The fact that the film’s big climax is an emotional one – full of reunions and consolidations and personal chats – rather than yet another big fight is itself groundbreaking. Miles’s sense of trying to find where he needs to be is paralleled with Gwen’s return home to the father who rejected her, with Peter B. Parker settling into his family life, and even with Spot realising his true purpose. The emotional story is not a series of tacked-on beats to try and give action meaning; it is the whole story.
But it’s told amazingly. Words can’t do justice to the visual inventiveness, with each dimension given its own distinctive art style (Gwen in washed-out watercolors whose palette evokes the trans flag, giving added metaphorical significance to her coming-out to her father), and so many Easter eggs and side jokes that the film demands immediate rewatching. Core universes include the Escher-like void in which Oscar Isaac’s driven, serious Miguel O’Hara presides over the multiversal Spider-team, a void contained within a future that includes a space freeway on which the Spider-folk fight; the Indian-dominated world of Pavitr Prabhakar which fuses New York and Mumai and where Miles causes another canon-threatening event by saving Pavitr’s girlfriend’s father (borrowing from What If? and Loki, the premise of this multiverse is that core events have to happen); and the crime-ridden universe 42 to which Miles returns at the end of the film – the universe that his spider came from, and which never had its own Spider-Man.
Aside from the core universes, though, the constant creativity is breathtaking. A brief glimpse into a LEGO universe is especially fun; a Donald Glover cameo is welcome; the references to both the MCU and the Sony Spider Universe do important work tying together the franchises; the existence of dinosaur, automobile, cat, baby, gunslinger versions of Spider-Man is very funny; the editorial inserts to explain jokes and give footnotes; Pavitr’s hilarious education of Americans in why you can’t say ‘chai tea’ or ‘naan bread’; and the continual scene-stealing performance of Daniel Kaluuya’s Hobie Brown; all add up to a film which packs in so much that it’s hard to take stock. And yet, it’s cohesive and coherent. The laughs always feel earned, but never take away from the severity of what is at stake; and indeed, Peter B Parker even reflects on the fact that the humor of Spider-Man is precisely to make the serious stuff bearable. Everything set up here depends now on Beyond the Spider-verse to stick the landing, but even on its own terms, Across the Spider-Verse makes an early claim for film of the year.