Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is an Instant Classic
In 1980 I remember standing in line for something like six hours to see The Empire Strikes Back with my parents on opening day. My little mind was blown. The attack on Hoth. The escape through the asteroid belt. The introduction of Yoda. Han Solo is frozen in carbonite. The Cloud City battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker — it was all glorious.
Like everyone else, the most memorable moment of them all was the revelation of Luke’s parentage. Was Vader telling the truth? Was it a ruse? Would Han be saved? Was the rebellion doomed to failure? All of these questions and more remained unanswered in one of the great cinematic cliffhangers of all time, and audiences did not care. Instead, they cheered. Loudly. Throughout at least the first third of the end credits. And it was all deserved.
What does this have to do with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse? I sat in a theater and experienced the exact same reaction from a packed audience as I did back in 1980, and it was equally warranted.
These are the only two times I can recall a crowd showering this type of enthusiastic reaction on a sequel with a blatant cliffhanger that left so many unresolved questions. Not Back to the Future Part II. Not The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Not The Matrix Reloaded. Not The Bourne Supremacy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1, or even Avengers: Infinity War. With a cliffhanger, no matter how strong the film is, no matter how beloved, this reaction does not happen. It’s an anomaly.
Roughly a year after the events of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 15-year-old web-slinger Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) misses his fellow multiverse spider friends, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) most of all. Imagine Miles’ surprise then when — not long after a battle with a freaky cow-print villain with random teleportation abilities calling himself “The Spot” (Jason Schwartzman), and only minutes after his loving parents Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez) and freshly promoted Brooklyn police captain Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) have grounded him for being impolite — Gwen pops out of his ceiling right when he needs to see her the most.
So much more happens from there. The Spot isn’t the second-tier villain he appears to be. Back in her universe, Gwen is dealing with some pretty serious parental issues with her father, George Stacy (Shea Whigham). Most importantly, Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), aka Spider-Man 2099, has created a spider-force made up of spider-heroes from across the multiverse. Their goal? To protect all universes from extinction events, the root cause of which can be traced back to the radioactive spider that gave Miles his powers.
I’m going to leave things there. Screenwriters Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Dave Callaham have simply outdone themselves, and directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson — along with their gifted team of animators — do a stupendous job of giving it life. This is a smart, literate, and emotionally intimate story, one overflowing with complex themes and multifaceted characterizations that are so vibrantly genuine that they practically leap off the screen. It’s alive in ways that every comic book adaptation strives to achieve and so few frustratingly do.
The strength of this sequel is that, while this second chapter still revolves around Miles and makes sure his story is at the center, the filmmakers do an equally incredible job of evolving Gwen’s character at the same time. Their tales are inevitably on a collision course, each teen learning valuable lessons from the other that they take with them back to their respective universes.
What’s astounding is that these dueling narratives do not cannibalize one another. Gwen’s journey is hard-hitting yet inspiring, her sadness mixed with an interior resolve that compels her to strive to be her best self. As for Miles, his journey continually evolves, the constant worry that he’ll never be his universe’s one, true Spider-Man constantly gnawing at the far reaches of his consciousness. Yet he, too, is determined to do all he can to serve and protect, discovering new ways to do so with each criminal he apprehends and every powerful supervillain he battles.
It’s not all teen angst, psychological exploration, and personal self-discovery. This is still an eye-popping action epic, one overflowing with Spider-people both new and old — the return of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), now with a pint-sized, wall-crawling bundle of effervescent joy named Mayday, is cause for celebration — and all of them get to do something extraordinary. There’s a stunning chase sequence through the streets and skies of Spider-Man 2099’s technologically advanced hometown that’s beyond belief, while Miles’ first encounter with The Spot is marvelously inventive.
I am not kidding about the cliffhanger. There are tons of unanswered questions and fates left dangling precipitously between life and death. It shouldn’t work. It should be infuriating. But the creative team does a slam-bang job of allowing Miles and Gwen to face off against their interior demons and discover truths about themselves they’d never taken the time to learn before now. Because of this, that there is no actual ending shockingly does not matter.
The audience clapped and cheered, they hooted and they hollered, and they were entirely in the right for doing so. Much like The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is an instant classic. It opens up a universe of unexplored possibilities, and I cannot wait to see how the filmmakers will continue to spin their webs.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 4 (out of 4)