Avengers: Infinity War ended on a cliffhanger, with the promise of a second half coming the next year. And I said “It’s okay, for half a movie.”
Dune ended on a cliffhanger, with a Part Two that wouldn’t be publicly announced until just after opening weekend. And I said “It’s okay, for half a movie.”
Fast X ended on a cliffhanger, with the promise of a resolution that won’t come out for another two years and hasn’t even started production yet. And I said “It’s okay, for half a movie.”
Then came Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which ends on a cliffhanger with the promise of a resolution when Beyond the Spider-Verse comes out in nine months. And I said “That was fucking incredible, for half a movie.”
To start with, everything that was awesome about the first movie is even bigger and more awesome here. The art styles are ingenious and expressive and eclectic beyond description, the animation is fluid, the action sequences are mind-blowing in their choreography and presentation, the humor and visual gags are great fun, the themes are heartfelt, the shout-outs and references and in-jokes are all deeply rewarding… the list goes on and on. There are so many reasons why the first movie was an industry-shaking masterpiece, pushing every boundary farther than anyone at the time had thought possible, somehow delivering the “superhero multiverse” conceit in one movie more gracefully than the entirety of MCU Phase Four. And the filmmakers somehow kept finding ways to push the boundaries even further. Astounding.
And then we have our villains for this go-round.
In the comics, Spot was typically a mere footnote in a the long and iconic Spider-Man rogues gallery, without much of any personality or anything interesting about him aside from his superficial “portal” gimmick. (No joke, he once joined a villain team-up called the “Legion of Losers”.) And here in the movie (as voiced by Jason Schwartzman), Spot starts out as a petty nitwit with a massive inferiority complex and delusions of supervillainy, the kind of idiot who demands to be taken seriously above everyone else’s riotous laughter. But there are a few crucial points here to consider.
First of all, Spot’s gimmick of opening up holes in space and time makes for some dazzling and innovative action sequences. Secondly, as with the comics, Spot starts out as a scientist working for Wilson Fisk. In the case of this film series, that means that he was working on multiversal R&D when Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) caused the collider explosion that unknowingly led to the lab accident that created Spot. To my knowledge, this is the first time Spot’s origin has ever been directly tied to Spider-Man, and it’s a good sensible touch well in keeping with the best of Spidey’s villains.
More importantly, this means we have a villain whose power set is built around opening holes in space-time, and he’s powered by multiversal technology. To repeat, Spot is a petty self-centered idiot who only wants to be a supervillain so he’ll be taken seriously for once in his life. God-tier power in the hands of someone who isn’t remotely interested in using it well or wisely — truly, the antithesis of Spider-Man and everything he stands for.
Which brings us to the other main antagonist of the film. How to put this as simply and spoiler-free as I can…?
Remember the TVA from the first season of “Loki”? You know, the ruthless bureaucracy that slaughtered people and even entire universes in the interest of making sure events happen as they’re supposed to and any unwanted “anomalies” are contained and executed? Imagine that, but with Spider-heroes. A Spider Society across the infinite multiverse, featuring Spider-heroes of every conceivable shape and size, all working together to keep each individual universe intact and every timeline on course.
On the surface, it makes sense that the Spider-heroes would seek each other out. Obviously, any superhero would want to seek help or backup for dealing with anything as huge as a multiversal threat. Perhaps more importantly, crippling pathological loneliness has always been a hallmark of the Spider-Man brand. Every hero to wear the spider has gone through some sort of trauma, so of course they’d seek counsel and company from someone who’d know about that, and who better than another Spider-hero?
However, that comes with an unfortunate downside: Precisely because Spider-Man tends to work solo, pushing away his friends and loved ones by nature, it’s an open question as to how or whether a Spider-hero team-up could possibly function. Moreover, every Spider-hero inevitably and repeatedly has to make an impossible choice between the few and the many, between their loved ones and the greater good. Given the infinite number of different Spider-heroes out there, it stands to reason that not every one of them would make the same impossible choice in the same heart-breaking scenario.
For that matter, how many times has any particular Spider-Man tried to do the right thing only to unwittingly make everything somehow even worse? Imagine that, but if the other Spider-heroes had to come in and clean up their comrade’s mess.
Speaking of which, why does every Spider-hero have to suffer? Yes, our losses and traumas are a significant part of who we are, but that doesn’t mean it’s to be celebrated or welcomed. In that way, Miles almost makes a kind of meta-commentary on the brand, arguing that no real hero would willingly let Uncle Ben die, even if the greater good supposedly depended on it. Spider-Man — hell, any respectable superhero — would at least try to find a third option to save everyone.
The point being that this whole Spider-Verse co-op was destined to fail. This whole thing was built to foment schisms and in-fighting, turning Spider against Spider. And Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), with his overzealous — dare I say tyrannical — commitment to maintaining the multiverse at literally any cost, is paradoxically the only thing keeping this whole mess together while also being the most likely reason this whole thing will ultimately blow up.
And what of Miles Morales? Well, of course he’s struggling to find some way to keep on superheroing while maintaining his personal life and secret identity. Yes, it’s kind of stupid for Miles to keep his big secret away from his parents, but Miles is in the process of growing up and finding his own way and figuring out his own life. It’s perfectly and painfully standard that he should have his own little world that his family can’t really be a part of.
But then comes the aforementioned Spider Society and their steadily unraveling dysfunction. Does he really belong with them either? Do they even want him? And if they reject him, then what?
What’s even better is that Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) gets a character arc with her own father to parallel what Miles is going through with his parents. Thus the two of them help and complement each other in a way that makes their (friendly/romantic/professional/whatever) relationship really gel. Meanwhile, we’ve got Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) who comes on board with his own infant Spider-Girl, Mayday Parker. So it is that while Miles and Gwen are struggling with their parents, Peter tries to help them with his own perspective on the other side of the equation.
The plot depends heavily on selling Miles’ relationships with Gwen and Peter. It works significantly better in Gwen’s case. That’s mostly because the film spends so much more time telling us about Gwen and letting her bond with Miles. By contrast, Peter doesn’t even show up until halfway through, he can only talk with Miles in the middle of a huge chase sequence, and he spends every second competing with Mayday for screen time.
Even at two and a half hours, this is a crowded movie. We’ve got a whole multiverse populated by every conceivable Spider-hero, rendered in every conceivable art style. There’s something thrilling or funny or heartfelt in every frame. Only a handful of characters register as more than plot devices or inside jokes, but the returning voice actors are still great, the new voice actors came to play hard, and even the smallest cameo appearance sells the joke.
So of course it has to be a two-parter that ends on a cliffhanger. With no credits stingers.
Naturally, the big question will be how this all ends. Ideally, it would end with the Spider-Man rights going to Marvel full-time so Sony can quit churning out mediocre off-brand tie-ins and there’s no more confusion about where any of this fits in the greater MCU. Sadly, that’s not happening anytime soon. Sony still has a Kraven movie incoming, and a third Venom offering in development, to say nothing of their ongoing Spider-Man video game franchise with Insomniac. And no way will the Spider-Verse movies and spin-offs stop coming while this iteration is still profitable. I might add that if Sony was even rumored to sell off their film holdings and scale back to focus on electronics (knock on wood) in time for the third film next March, such a deal would’ve made international headline news by now.
No, it’s in Marvel and Sony’s best interests to find some way for the both of them to stay out of each other’s way and keep making money. What will that look like? Time will tell. Because I seriously doubt they would have started this project or seen it through before figuring that out.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is exhilarating spectacle and comedic genius in a way that could only be done in animation, could only be done within the superhero genre, and could only be done with Spider-Man. This might just be the rare sequel to improve upon its predecessor, building on everything that made the first movie great — without diluting any of it — on the way to an epic trilogy that serves as a monumental celebration of all things Spider-Man and all the fans who’ve ever loved the brand.
But that’s if — and ONLY if — the third movie sticks the landing. Luckily, these filmmakers have more than earned the benefit of the doubt. I have no fucking idea how Sony — of all studios! — ended up with the single greatest superhero franchise on offer right now, miles ahead of anything the MCU has offered post-Endgame, but here we are.
I wouldn’t blame anyone who wanted to wait until the dust clears on the third movie. But whether you see it now or later, all that matters is that you see this movie.