Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse delivers a dazzling visual experience that celebrates the craft of animation

Miles Morales’s Spider Man returns into what’s now a crowded field of multiverse movies, but this innovative, style-switching animated feature brings new meaning to modern franchise storytelling.

1 June 2023

By Michael Leader

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) © Courtesy of Sony
Sight and Sound

If 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse aimed to blow the cobwebs off the increasingly formulaic superhero movie genre and reinvigorate mainstream American animation at the same time, this supercharged sequel, the second of a proposed trilogy, attempts to go even further. Once more focusing on the character of Miles Morales, a teen Spidey still new to the job, Across the Spider-Verse turns a coming-of-age crisis into a parallel dimension-hopping rollercoaster. After its predecessor pulled disparate Spider-folk from far-flung corners of comic book history into Miles’s own friendly neighbourhood – such as the hardboiled, monochrome Spider-Man Noir and the porcine toon Spider-Ham – this film sends Miles, and the viewer, on a kaleidoscopic tour of the multiverse itself.

Multiverse stories, once the preserve of ‘What if’-style spin-offs and specials, have recently become a staple of genre cinema, encompassing billion dollar-grossing blockbusters (Spider-Man: No Way Home, 2021), middling Marvel Cinematic Universe jaunts (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, 2022) and Best Picture-winning surprises (Everything Everywhere All At Once, 2022). And with DC getting into the game with The Flash (2023), it’s a crowded field, but one where Across the Spider-Verse finds sparks of innovation and meaning.

It is an overwhelming visual marvel, and a consummate celebration of the craft and graft of the production’s thousand-strong crew. Each unique character and their habitat are conceived and animated in wildly distinctive styles, from the vibrant colours of Mumbattan, the stomping grounds of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), to the jagged, impulsive design of Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), who looks like a photocopied and Pritt-sticked ‘zine collage come to chaotic life.

To see a commercial animated feature on this scale move away from cosy consistency and embrace polystylism and even abstraction feels remarkable. In one of many such dazzling moments, the painterly backgrounds of returning character Gwen Stacy’s (Hailee Steinfeld) home drip and mingle into deep shades of pink, purple, orange and blue, eventually engulfing the characters as emotions run high.

Elsewhere, the film’s narrative rails against expectations in a similar fashion to Rian Johnson’s fandom-splitting Star: Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). Where previous parallel-dimension stories have revelled in presenting alternate versions of familiar characters – perhaps sporting a moustache, a different hairdo, or elongated, floppy sausage fingers – here the adage that ‘anyone can wear the mask’ is followed through to both logical and illogical conclusions. Pregnant Spider-Women, doting Spider-Dads, Spider-Lego minifigures, Spider-Dinosaurs: countless characters jostle for screen time, turning the Everyman first introduced as Peter Parker in 1962 into a flexible figure fit for a more fluid, post-modern, diversity-conscious era.

These are all kept in check by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), leader of the Spider-Society and self-appointed custodian of ‘the canon’, a sprawling spider-diagram of origin stories and formative life experiences that bind these various, innumerable heroes together. It’s also, perhaps, a not-so-subtle nod to the corporate culture that has come to define and confine modern franchise storytelling. That Miles ultimately opposes Miguel and rejects his dogma makes the core message of Spider-Verse clear: shake off the stranglehold of convention, and a whole universe of possibility awaits.

 ► Spider Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in UK cinemas now. 


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