At the beginning of the year, when we brainstormed our most anticipated movies of 2023, there was one clear winner: Everyone at Polygon was feverishly awaiting Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a game-changer for everyone who loves animation or superheroes. It brought a bold new visual style and storytelling method to American animation, and a wild, kinetic new way of looking at your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to cinema. Naturally, we all wanted to know: Does the Spider-Verse sequel measure up to the original?
But how to limit Across the Spider-Verse to a single reviewer, when it’s a movie about multiplicity? The sequel boasts more alternate universes, more Spider-Mans, more villains, more parallel storylines, more shifts in visual style, more everything. Could our review be just as fractal and shifting?
The first movie’s theme is “anyone can wear the mask,” and we decided to embrace that philosophy and say that everyone could review Across the Spider-Verse. So we sent the whole crew to the theater to get everyone’s impressions. Here’s how Across the Spider-Verse stacks up to the first Miles Morales movie.
The hero: Miles Morales, multiversal problem child
It’s easy to talk about representation like it’s the end of the story. Like, Look: Spider-Man is Black and Puerto Rican now. (Or a woman, or a little kid, or anyone else.) We did it, everyone! What’s up, danger?
Trouble is, that’s only where the story starts. That’s only where Miles Morales’ story starts. Across the Spider-Verse is about what comes next after you’ve made it, after you’ve proven you belong. And the truth is, what comes next sucks: You have to prove it again.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” bellows Oscar Isaac as Miguel O’Hara, the alt-universe Spider-Man who has taken it upon himself to maintain order in the multiverse. He’s a big believer in enforcing what his rules say is supposed to happen, even if it’s horrifying. Even if it means embracing atrocities, or fighting fellow Spider-Mans.
Miguel tells Miles how his story is “supposed” to play out, and tries to take away his power of choice. It horrifies Miles. It makes him indignant. It makes him reckless. I, too, have seen how things are “supposed” to happen, and felt that indignation. I, too, have been reckless.
Early on in Across the Spider-Verse, Miles and his parents sit with a school guidance counselor who says his great “story” as a talented kid from a marginalized background will look good on his college applications. She tries to reshape him into a pat struggling-immigrant anecdote, while suggesting that cramming himself into that box would be a huge asset for his future, a win for the team.
“Having a story sounds gross,” Miles mumbles in protest. That line doesn’t get a direct follow-up. But much later in the film, when Miles is confronted by the idea that his story is somehow the wrong one, and needs to be reshaped, he figures out how to continue that thought.
It’s one thing to “have a story.” It’s another thing to live a life — to exercise the freedom to buck the established order, to do something unruly. To be reckless. To be Spider-Man. I don’t know if Miles will stick the landing. I don’t know if I ever will, either. That’s the point, isn’t it? We’ve got to try. —Joshua Rivera
Also the hero: Gwen Stacy, going up
Of all the characters from Into the Spider-Verse, the one most likely to step up and become the deuteragonist of the second movie was always going to be Gwen. Not just because she’s a Love Interest™, while Spider-Ham and Spider-Noir are the Comic Relief, Peter B. Parker is the Mentor, and Peni is the Tagalong Kid, but because out of all the Spider-People from the first movie, Gwen’s story works best in parallel to Miles’.
Part of Across the Spider-Verse hinges on the fact that all the Spider-People across the multiverse share certain defining moments beyond the spider-bite that gave them superpowers. But the link between Gwen and Miles goes deeper. They’re both very early in their Spider-journeys compared to most of their AU alt-heroes. They’re also much younger than most of their counterparts, who have already aged out of the teen-hero phase. That part of their story is a quintessential part of the Spider-Man arc: not just the personal loss and the heroic origin story, but the coming-of-age process.
Across the Spider-Verse starts by establishing Gwen as just as much a central character as Miles: The first 20 minutes or so are entirely devoted to her world and her point of view. She and Miles both struggle with balancing their day-to-day lives and their heroic duties. And they both struggle over whether to tell their parents — particularly their rigid, overbearing cop fathers — about their secret lives. Gwen kicks off the movie, and the choices she makes and the ways in which they play out cast a dark shadow over Miles’ conflict. Her arc is a constant reminder of what he could lose if he’s honest with his own parents.
Across the Spider-Verse tackles a lot of different themes, storylines, and ideas. And sometimes, amid all the gorgeous visual flexes and multiversal superhero conflicts, it loses sight of the more grounded personal tensions that made the first movie soar. Gwen’s arc gets lost in the multiverse muddle of it all. But ultimately, she transcends her status as Miles’ love interest. She’s her own character with her own strengths and flaws, a deeply lonely girl who just wants to connect with someone. Throughout the movie, she takes control of her story — and it’s very much her story, even as it’s intertwined with Miles’.
As Gwen herself says in Across the Spider-Verse, in every other universe but hers, Gwen Stacy falls for Spider-Man, and it always ends badly. So it’s especially satisfying that instead of falling, this Gwen is on the rise. —Petrana Radulovic
The animation: An unparalleled palette of expression
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was a bonafide “before and after” moment when it hit theaters in 2018. The film set the bar for a new standard of personality-driven, computer-animated storytelling, reinvigorating the Spider-Man franchise and jolting the American animation industry like a venom blast to the nervous system. At the time, you could feel a generation of audiences and aspiring artists hold their collective breath with a single collective sentiment: “Wow— you can do that in an animated movie?”
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, like nearly every other animated film released since 2018, lives in the shadow of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but at once broadens and deepens the palette of possibilities its predecessor first broke open. The film draws from a wealth of inspirations that are as dizzying to behold as they are difficult to encapsulate in mere words. Like Miles himself, the film’s visuals and animation bounces across a multiverse of different styles and approaches, from the scuzzy cut-and-paste collage aesthetic of grunge rock posters and the vertigo-inducing cityscapes of Jean “Moebius” Giraud to the sleek neo-futurist abstraction of Syd Mead. From expressive watercolor pastels to Renaissance-inspired pencil work to frickin’ cubism, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s range of inspirations is simply awe-inspiring to behold.
That’s to say nothing of the actual animation itself. Miles and his pals leap and bound across the screen with force and speed, each movement and posture as distinct and recognizable as their own respective personality. From Spider-Man 2099’s brutish physicality to Gwen Stacy’s high-flying grace to Mile’s own relaxed and improvisational fighting style, each action and chase sequence emphasizes the uniqueness of each of its characters and reconciles those clashing personalities into a masterful composition of movement. To use a hip-hop metaphor, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is “The Low End Theory” to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse’ “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” a follow-up that builds on the foundations of its predecessor, surpassing them in execution yet indebted to those foundations. Across the Spider-Verse can’t possibly be to American animation what Into the Spider-Verse was by sheer dint of the latter’s very existence, but watching it should still inspire a generation. —Toussaint Egan
The music: Everything everywhere all at once
Music elevated Into the Spider-Verse from great to transcendent. Woven into Daniel Pemberton’s score were original songs written for the film — and even a few licensed tracks, too. Songs like “Sunflower” and “Scared of the Dark” kept the film’s mood focused and centered the story directly in Miles’ emotions, no matter what multiversal madness was going on around him.
Across the Spider-Verse, on the other hand, only has a few original songs, and they’re often poorly mixed to feel like they’re defining the scenes they’re in. The film looks gorgeous, and the three-director team (Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson) knows it. But in leaning so far into visual storytelling, they lose the rhythmic dexterity that gave the first movie its flow. Into the Spider-Verse’s speciality was that its bag of tricks felt limitless. It threw out one amazing-looking scene after another. But the original directing team (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman) also had the confidence to let the pain of Miles’ rejection by his fellow Spider-people be communicated almost entirely through Juice Wrld’s “Hide,” with the visuals playing an understated support role.
Across the Spider-Verse’s directors go in a different direction. The visuals play every role in the story, the kind of white-knuckle grip that limits the characters’ ability to emote. Those visuals are spectacular enough that they really can communicate the characters’ lowest moments and biggest feelings, but it leaves their downturns feeling too one-note to each hit uniquely.
Even Across the Spider-Verse’s orchestral score feels hemmed in by the ubiquity of its predecessor’s score. Huge sections of Pemberton’s new work are derived from his tracks for the original movie in a way that sometimes feels reminiscent of those soaring moments they achieved, but more often feel like a hollow replacement for the inventiveness and jazziness of the first movie. Maybe least surprisingly, there’s no moment even close to the emotional high of “What’s Up Danger” kicking in just as Miles fully comes into his own power and jumps into action. Everything musically feels like a do-over. —Austen Goslin
The conflicts: Raising limitless stakes
Across the Spider-Verse launches viewers so high to clear the original movie’s bar, one can see the whole multiverse from its apex. And it’s a little much.
The film has its own distinct angle on the multiverse, a meta play that teases apart the very nature of what we expect from Miles’ story. But with a universe that big, it’s a lot of ground for just one movie to cover — and even an enjoyable “part one” can only do so much. The stakes are astronomically high after Into the Spider-Verse, and the characters are saddled with a lot of explanation about what we’re dealing with. So the world around the film’s imaginative visual set-pieces feels too full of exposition to make enough time for all the stories behind the forces at odds with Miles.
The threads do come together at the end, just in time for a “to be continued...” mere moments later. (We get part two in 2024.) That feels like its own leap of faith. This movie introduces many more worlds than the creators could hope to contain in a single film, but the incomplete nature of the villains’ arcs and the story as a whole makes it hard to know whether any of this will really pay off.
Truth is, the question almost every character is asking in Across the Spider-Verse is the same as in most sequels: Why did this happen to me — and what do I do now? As they wonder, each of these characters desperately grasps for some connection, trying to provide some sort of answer. And within the story, those answers often come too late.
At its heart, multiverse fiction is about helping heroes (and audiences) cope with being so small in such an incredibly vast, infinite universe. It can be hard to feel like such a speck in the boundless continuum of life, until you remember that when nothing matters, everything matters equally.
Across the Spider-Verse volleys that idea into the air, but how it lands will be left to next year’s Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse. At one point, initial villain The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) says Spider-Man made him feel “empty, like I had a hole inside me.” His answer to that feeling is to create more holes in himself. That’s how Spider-Verse 2 feels at times — not necessarily full of holes, but so eager to create a new dimensional portal that dark matter starts to become the true mortar of the world. What that does to the foundation, we’ll just have to wait and see. —Zosha Millman
The rest: Infinite choice makes every choice matter
There’s plenty to pick over and talk about in Across the Spider-Verse, to the point where roughly half the movie seems constructed specifically for the eventual frame-by-frame home viewing experiences. Viewers watching at home will at least have some chance of parsing every pop-up visual gag, reference, callback, onscreen-text joke, ridiculous AU Spider-Man design, and so forth. For viewers in the theater, a lot of this movie will zoom by in a gape-inducing pastel sugar rush, with each person grabbing onto a different element that makes an impression amid the incredible rush of speed and sensation.
But the grand uniter in this film may wind up being Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), the hipshot, guitar-wielding, Cockney-slang-slinging alt-Spider-Man who struts through the middle act of the film, playing everything too cool for school. In a film that’s sometimes revved up to frantic speed, he seems to be operating at a different frame rate that makes him move slowly and more deliberately than the other characters, out of sync with them in the best ways. And he’s designed with a Sex-Pistols-album-cover-meets-’70s-London-music-zine look that has him carrying a bit of his universe in a kind of hazy glow around him at all times. In a movie packed with an entire living galaxy of Spider-Mans, he’s a supernova.
Focus in on other characters in this movie, though, and you’ll see the same level of thought-through commitment to the bit, the same puckish sense of humor about design, the same glee put to work on giving everyone on the screen their own unique look and feel. The screen is often crammed with characters, but it’s easy to believe that if you went through Across the Spider-Verse frame by frame with a magnifying glass, you’d find that each of them has their own clear story told with design, movement, and visual style.
That’s how joyously nerdy and granular this movie feels, and how limitlessly ambitious it is as an artifact of digital animation. Every individual element picked out of that Pixy Stix rush is its own tiny reward for paying close attention, from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to past Spider-Man media to the pop-up captions that add little silent text jokes to otherwise dialogue-free scenes.
Not every theme and plot and moment in Across the Spider-Verse lands, particularly with the other part of this story still most of a year away. But in the end, the theme of the Spider-Verse movies is shaping up to be a story about people trying to be bigger and bolder themselves, trying to reach beyond what they’re told they’re capable of, and do more. It’s no wonder that every part of Across the Spider-Verse is an attempt to outdo the first movie. The idea of growing, of surpassing and ignoring everyone else’s limits, is the heart of this series’ heroes and their individual journeys. It looks like the movies themselves are designed to follow suit. —Tasha Robinson
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens in theaters on June 2. Its story will continue in Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, currently set for release on March 29, 2024.