Review: No sophomore slump for spectacular ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’

A cartoon Spider-Man strikes a pose in the air above the New York City skyline.
Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) as Spider-Man in the movie “Spider-Man: Across the Universe.”
(Sony Pictures Animation)

It’s an overused and hyperbolic phrase online, but in retrospect, it seems that 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was a true cultural reset, especially when it comes to comic book movies. The dazzling Oscar-winning animated feature evolved what a comic book movie could be, both visually and narratively, using the animation medium to create an immersive cinematic experience that felt like jumping into the rapidly flipping pages of a comic book, with an addictively propulsive rhythm that only digital technology could create.

The film also pushed mainstream animation style into something more sophisticated and artful, drawing on the style of traditional comic book illustration and melding it with digital aesthetics and modern art to create a wholly unique piece of work that still managed to center the story of Spider-Man Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) while self-reflexively satirizing the long and rich lore of the many other Spider-People.

The sequel, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Dave Callaham, contains every element of what made the first one so compelling — not just the characters but the eye-popping production design of Patrick O’Keefe and perfectly calibrated music by Daniel Pemberton — while evolving the aesthetic and story into a darker, edgier place. Drawing from inspirations beyond the comic book world as diverse as Abstract Expressionism, storybook illustrations, ballet and punk, “Across the Spider-Verse” is a stunning blend of artistic traditions with a gleefully disruptive attitude. It’s essentially a cyberpunk text, “The Matrix” of animated comic book movies, in which Miles has to decide if he will determine his fate or adhere to the stories that have already been written for him.


Animated shot of Gwen Stacy in white super suit, hanging upside down as Miles Morales hangs nearby in black suit.
Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in the movie “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”
(Sony Pictures Animation)

“Across the Spider-Verse” is also the story of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a.k.a. Ghost-Spider, the superhero with a dancer’s grace who befriended Miles in the previous film. Gwen gets a lot more screen time here as she leaves home to join the Spider-Society, an elite strike force led by the glowering Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), tasked with keeping the multiverse in order, booting anomalies and preventing “canon-disrupting events.” Miles, stretched thin from leading his secret double life as Brooklyn’s favorite superhero, misses his friend Gwen, and ends up following her into the multiverse. Canon disruption ensues.

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Even at two hours and 20 minutes, the run time evaporates in a blur of color, characters and comic book cameos, but the writers hammer home the pertinent themes and messages — growing up and finding yourself is hard, and so is parenting, especially letting go of your kids when they need to find their own way. There’s also an argument that a religious adherence to a text can quickly become not just violently ideological but even fascistic; just because a group of people has a shared experience doesn’t mean everyone must fall in line — resisting dictatorial ideology and daring to imagine another way is in fact, a radical act of self-determination.

A breathlessly beautiful achievement not just in animation but also comic book movie storytelling, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is willing to shred the lore from top to bottom and weave it back together again in new, surprising and wildly entertaining ways. It’s simply spectacular.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.


‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse'

Running time: 2 hour, 20 minutes

Rating: PG, for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements

Playing: Starts June 2 in general release