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Across the Spider-Verse is an animated masterpiece that upends Marvel’s Spider-canon

Sony’s Into the Spider-Verse sequel is a bigger, bolder, more ambitious film than its predecessor — and a powerful deconstruction of Marvel’s Spider-Man mythos.

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A tight shot of a boy hanging upside down and looking forward solemnly. Behind the boy stand an array of masked people.
Miles Morales and multiple members of the Spider Society.
Image: Sony / Marvel

The concepts of multiverses and people traveling from one reality to another existed long before Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But the 2018 animated feature did such a tremendous job of using those ideas to define Miles Morales and deconstruct the very idea of Marvel’s iconic webhead that it almost single-handedly got the whole of Hollywood hell-bent on producing as many genre-bending multiversal epics as it possibly could. Save for Everything Everywhere All at Once, few of these other parallel dimension narratives have really been able to hold a candle to what Sony and Marvel managed to achieve with Into the Spider-Verse — a movie that told one of the most powerful Spider-Man stories of all time.

Similar to the way Into the Spider-Verse never felt like it was explicitly trying to stunt on any of Sony’s previous Spider-Man movies, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse — from co-directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson — always feels like it’s thoughtfully drawing upon the stories that came before it in hopes of tapping into some deeper, fundamental truth about what it takes to wear the spider-mask. But rather than simply using Miles to expand upon and celebrate Marvel’s 60-year-old Spider-Man mythos the way Into the Spider-Verse did, Across the Spider-Verse is much more focused on artfully blowing the webhead’s canon so wide open that it’s almost hard to believe as you’re watching it.

Like Into the Spider-Verse, Across the Spider-Verse’s story revolves around one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the one and only Spider-Man operating on Earth-1610 after the untimely (but cosmically fated) death of his reality’s Peter Parker. As an experienced savior of the multiverse, Miles has every reason to think of himself as hot shit and one of the more impressive Spider-People thwipping around in any universe. But as the sole costumed hero working to protect his New York City from its supervillains, Miles can’t help but feel profoundly alone in his day-to-day civilian life, where he’s surrounded by normal people like his mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry). 

Much as Miles’ parents love their son, Miles knows that they’d never be able to understand how being bitten by a radioactive spider turned his entire world upside down the way Gwen “Gwanda” Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Peter B. Parker could. Miles also knows there aren’t many ways to just pop over into someone else’s universe without trouble ensuing. When Gwen appears in a glowing vortex one afternoon with the promise of adventure, though, not only can he not get his super suit on fast enough but he also can’t pick up on the complicated web of secrets she’s hiding.

Though Across the Spider-Verse is undoubtedly a Miles Morales story, one of the more immediately noticeable ways the film differs from Into the Spider-Verse is in the amount of time it spends showing you what the world looks and feels like from other people’s perspectives. To Miles, both his loneliness and newly romantic longings for Gwen are emotions unique to him and his (relatively speaking) sunny, brightly lit universe that’s rendered in an array of warm, highly saturated tones. But Across the Spider-Verse takes care to establish up top how reciprocal those feelings actually are — not just to frame itself as a love story but also to help showcase how differently and imaginatively the common narrative threads shared between Marvel’s various Spider-people can be realized.

Across the Spider-Verse doesn’t just give Gwen more screen time; it commits itself to making you understand why it’s difficult for her to talk about her past and how truly thorny a Spider-hero’s personal and professional relationships with the police can be. Even if it were simply prose, the nuance Across the Spider-Verse digs into Gwen’s character with would make it a tremendous piece of superhero storytelling. What ultimately takes Across the Spider-Verse’s handling of Gwen and other characters to the next level, though, is the way the movie uses a wide range of character / dimension-specific design languages to explore ideas that are more impactful when depicted visually as opposed to verbalized through dialogue.

As has been the case with all of Marvel’s recent projects touching on the multiverse, Across the Spider-Verse’s story quickly becomes something of a curious nightmare for its hero as Miles’ reunion with Gwen puts him on the radar of an interdimensional body of Spider-folks known as the Spider Society. Though Across the Spider-Verse also features a very interesting take on the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) as its central villain, it’s really Miguel — a hulking Spider-Man from the future — who brings the most menacing energy to the film as the embodiment of a militaristic order that runs counter to everything that makes Miles who he is.

It’s often discomfiting to see Miguel, Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), and swarms of other Spiders ganging up on and chasing after Miles as Across the Spider-Verse starts to make good on its title. Every single one of the movie’s masterfully produced fight sequences is designed to emphasize how, in a multiverse overfull of Peter Parkers and variations of him, Miles’ differences — his Blackness, his Puerto Rican cultural roots, the fact that he was never a Silver Age comics dweeb — make him so unique that it’s easy for people to question whether he actually belongs. While Into the Spider-Verse touched on something quite similar, Across the Spider-Verse takes a much more pointed, meta approach with its commentary about Miles and, in doing so, encourages you to think very critically but meaningfully about who Miles represents and what it means when people dismiss the very simple fact that he is Spider-Man.

Across the Spider-Verse is a bigger, bolder, and more ambitious project than its predecessor in almost every way — so much so that its entire story doesn’t at all fit into a single movie with an especially satisfying ending. Across the Spider-Verse leaves little question that Sony’s forthcoming follow-up, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, is going to bring this whole thing home and solidify the studio’s status as being the architect of one of Hollywood’s most successful takes on the multiverse. But Across the Spider-Verse also lands on a cliffhanger so delicious that waiting for the next sequel to drop next year’s going to be absolute hell.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse also stars Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch, Jorma Taccone, Shea Whigham, Andy Samberg, and Amandla Stenberg. The movie hits theaters on June 2nd.