Marvel Explained is our ongoing series, where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. In this entry, Brad Gullickson reviews Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and considers the meta-commentary at its center.
I was nervous walking into Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse. The original film, Spider–Man: Into the Spider–Verse, is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s utterly perfect; a complete gem, no notes needed. A sequel could not replicate the astonishing sense of discovery that occurred during my first watch of that film. Attempting to do so creates automatic disappointment. The new movie knows this, worries less about wowing you with its innovation, and just delivers on what Into the Spider–Verse did by pushing it further. Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse is gloriously additive, and the result is the best comic book movie ever made…or it will be once the sequel arrives in theaters in 2024.
So, yeah. Originally, Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse was called Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse Part I, and its 2024 sequel was supposed to be called Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse Part II. Now, Sony Pictures Animation has dropped the numbers and rebranded next year’s follow-up Spider–Man: Beyond the Spider–Verse. However, these films are incomplete when viewed apart from each other. And that might cause some in the audience to experience distress.
Yes, Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse is half a movie. But that half-a-movie is phenomenal. I wasn’t mad when it ended, and I was left dangling. I was exhilarated. Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson, along with producers extraordinaire Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, celebrate the infinite possibilities capable in animation and expose the banality of live-action. When their movie was over, I found myself wishing animation would dominate cinematic storytelling. Who wants to be bound by physics and human biology? Not me!
Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse creates one impossible shot after another and embraces visual metaphors in a way that only its medium could. We witness the characters’ worries and imaginations bleed in and out of their reality. Their surroundings shift with their mood, and the ease with which the filmmakers communicate emotion shames their live-action cinematic siblings.
You will find no better action movie this year, either. And yes, of course, I saw John Wick: Chapter 4. When Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) arrives in Mumbattan, having sneakily followed Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) through her dimensional portal, and tangles with The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), the web-slinging battle is dizzyingly kinetic. Dos Santos, Powers, and Thompson throw an enormous amount on the screen, and much of it fails to register, but the action never confuses. Rather, I’m eager to return to the theater so I can train my eyes on different parts of the screen. The movie is made for home viewing obsession.
The references are equally chaotic and seemingly never-ending. If you’re the type of viewer who enjoys nudging your movie date and whispering who so-and-so is swinging in the background, you’ll tire yourself out pretty quick and certainly annoy the hell out of your partner. My advice? Simply sit back and enjoy the recognition. The film’s beauty, after all, is that those references are merely narrative textures, and the who’s and why’s don’t matter to the plot. So, relax.
The comic book parade and radically avant-garde animated action elevate Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse to a degree. Ultimately, you love the film because you love and care for the characters. Miles Morales is at that point in his Spider-Man career where juggling crime-fighting with life stuff is proving paradoxical. Unlike other members across the Spider-Verse, he hasn’t realized how this sensation will never diminish; he must learn to manage it.
Being Spider-Man invites conflict and breeds catastrophe. Miles didn’t have an Uncle Ben, but he had an Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). He understands “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” What doesn’t quite register is how Uncle Aarons are ever-present. Danger will always come for your loved ones, and loss is reoccurring. Spider-Man canon demands sacrifice. You can’t be Spider-Man without it. At least, that’s what Spider-Verse supervisor Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) would have Miles believe.
What is and is not Spider-Man beats at the very center of Across the Spider–Verse. There is a meta-conversation happening that Spidey fandom should pay strict attention to. Certain people want to protect the canon. An Uncle Ben has to die, or it’s not Spider-Man. A Captain Stacy has to die, or it’s not Spider-Man. A Gwen Stacy has to die, or it’s not Spider-Man. Miles Morales says F that, “I’m gonna do my own thing.” The decision brings him into direct combat with his friends, Spider-people defined by their tragedy and who can’t imagine a version of themselves without it. To protect their self-image and legitimate pain, they will force it upon others who don’t require their definition.
As he did under Marvel’s Ultimate Comics line, Miles Morales redefines what it means to be Spider-Man. Five years ago, shortly after Into the Spider–Verse came out, I asked Miles’ co-creator, Brian Michael Bendis, “What is key to the character?”
“Well, it’s ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It’s that phrase. From that phrase, from wherever you are in the world, whatever your perspective is, whatever your experience is, that phrase can mean different things as applied. And different actions can be applied to it. I have studied this phrase and written about it under more than Miles and Peter, under other characters as well. I can tell you that you can base a whole religion on this idea and be very successful. It is an idea that is so pure, and bulletproof and applies to everybody.
That’s it. Don’t worry about designing the costume; everyone is always worried about that. I see all these Spider-Personas, and they’re awesome. They are awesome! But when you’re developing your character, it’s how they react to the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” that will tell the story of that character.”
The details don’t matter. We spent years worrying about Uncle Ben and his relation to Tom Holland’s MCU Spider-Man. We kept waiting for the dead guy to get mentioned, wondering if Tony Stark was his Ben. After Spider–Man: No Way Home, we considered Aunt May his Uncle Ben. Some used the lack of Uncle Ben to dismiss the Holland iteration. But those MCU Spider-Man flicks constantly re-up Peter Parker’s relationship to “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.” According to Bendis, all you need is for your Spider-Man to be in conversation with that classic Amazing Fantasy #15 moment, iconically realized by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. And I’m not here to argue with Bendis.
The people who tell Miles/you what can and cannot be are the enemy. Only he/you should determine his/your path. Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse is bold enough to transform heroes from the last film into antagonists. Miles Morales clings to the great power/great responsibility principle, not the specifics of the canon. Miguel O’Hara and Gwen Stacy lose sight of that principle and therefore invalidate their story specifics or the lessons they supposedly learned from them. Miles Morales reminds his friends why they put on the mask in the first place, not in response to their tragedy but in their desire to prevent similar tragedies. Allowing canon to dictate their principle is a gross offense to their Uncle Bens.
Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse concludes before their canon clash is resolved, injecting another wrinkle into the conversation, and the unanswered argument leaves the audience wanting. The dangle doesn’t frustrate, but it does induce anxiety. We’ve experienced this agitation before. Remember the long wait between Back to the Future II and Back to the Future III, between The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, and between the various Lord of the Rings? Heck, some of you might be feeling it after Fast X.
The waiting only bothers us while we’re waiting. Afterward, once all sequels exist on the shelf together, the anxiety fades, and you’re left with your feelings for each chapter. As long as Spider–Man: Beyond the Spider–Verse delivers the way Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse delivered, this trilogy will go down as one of the best, and certainly the best superhero trilogy. That’s a lot of anticipation and pressure. Anticipation and pressure that the filmmakers have already hurdled with this entry.
Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse is now playing in theaters everywhere. Watch the film’s trailer here.