‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ is an experience unlike any other

(Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Let’s do it differently this time.

Hi, I’m Jess.

For a few years now I have been Pop Mythology’s one and only film reviewer. In fact, I’m the only contributor remaining, the only voice left for anyone who comes to this site. It can be lonely sometimes feeling like I’m writing into the void, but more than that, it means that the every opinion expressed here is mine. When readers agree with my opinions, great, glad you enjoyed the film. When readers don’t, then it’s me they complain about. That’s my power and my responsibility. The thing is, like anyone else, I have my personal preferences, my tastes, and my limitations. There are many things, many films, that I am simply incapable of experiencing the same way as others will. This can be a problem.

Case in point, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. While I loved this film, giving it a 4.5 which in retrospect should’ve been a 5 and calling it the best film of 2018, there were certain elements of the film which my scope of personal experience didn’t allow me to feel as profoundly as others did. That’s what it’s like being one person. Even with communal activities, such as watching a movie, processing that experience will always be through our preferences, our tastes, and our limitations alone.

The film’s sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, has the unenviable task of expanding upon what was already a perfect film: a beautiful balance of humor and sadness, joy and loss, dizzying heights and excruciating depths, a love letter to science in a time when basic science was under attack (and would be far more so in the years following), and a landmark visual achievement that has already reshaped animated cinema. Clearly knowing how daunting a follow-up would be, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and the rest of the Spider-Verse crew have packed so much care into the worlds of Miles, Gwen, Pavitar, and Miguel that every word, every frame, every visible brush stroke is done with a purpose. Across the Spider-Verse becomes an even greater achievement simply by meeting if not surpassing its near-impossible expectations.

The characters in ‘Across the Spider-Verse’ are as expressive as anything in the real world. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

To put it simply, Across the Spider-Verse is breathtaking. I mean this literally as it can at times be hard to keep up to speed of the film’s jokes, sadness, and beauty. Individual frames are so packed with delights that time spent marveling at one inclusion likely means missing another. The solution of course is to watch the film more than once, and Across the Spider-Verse both demands and earns repeat viewings before fully grasping its feats of imagination. As a person who is more often impacted by success – be it characters succeeding at their dreams or filmmakers succeeding at their creative visions – I watched an hour of Across the Spider-Verse through watery eyes. Between moments of joy, sadness, and beauty, I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by this film, even if only for that moment.

What truly sets Spider-Verse, both Into and Across, apart isn’t only what’s presented on screen, but the ideas behind that presentation. In a beautiful subversion of the film’s astronomical expectations, Gwen Stacy emerges as our protagonist and her opening ten minutes alone would be worth the ticket price. The shifting nature of her world, with its abstract backgrounds and alternating color palettes, reflects her own emotional fluctuations. From a pulse-pounding and Easter Egg-packed drum solo to a hilarious and creative battle with a Renaissance-era Vulture to two emotional encounters with her father, one culminating in a cathartic explosion of color, Gwen’s narrative frame typifies the sheer amount of care placed in every aspect of Spider-Verse‘s dizzyingly expansive cast.

Picking up a year and some change after Into, Miles has grown physically, emotionally, and heroically. He is a better Spider-Man. He is also a lonelier Spider-Man. Just like all the others. While distinct, Miles’s journey parallels that of every other Spider person in the same way that our real life experiences will parallel and differentiate from each other. We will all experience joy. We will all experience loss. We will all fail to meet expectations just as often as we will rise to them. But none of us will experience these same things in the same way at the same time in the same order or to the same extent. It’s this individualistic phenomena in which Across finds the basis of its central narrative. Even watching the same movie doesn’t mean we will have the same experience.

Gwen Stacey’s world is beautiful, and sad, and beautiful. (Also, this single image got the film banned in China.) / (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Hi, I’m Sook, and for a long time I’ve worked in the animation industry. I must say that Spider-Verse has brought the biggest changes in the last decade. Before the first Spider-Verse film was released, the industry was all about achieving the Pixar look. Disney made a lot of money with this 3D animation style, so that’s what the industry pursued. We artists thought that’s what we wanted too, creating everything with excessive details and striving for perfection. Now I can say that we suffered without realising it. Well, at least I suffered with my own creativity being halted and becoming obsessed with perfection. I was trapped in my own prison.

Then, suddenly, the first Spider-Verse film was released and shocked everyone in the industry. It was a huge gamble for Sony to present a completely different look from the norm, but it turned out to be more successful than any other film. This opened a new era for the industry.

Now the second Spider-Verse film is here for us with even more powerful, crazy, and utterly exciting visuals. Of course, everything looks beautiful, but it’s more than that. In experimenting with several visual styles, some subtle like Ben Reilly’s 90’s-style hatching and some radical like the Spider-Punk’s independent ‘zine inspiration, I can see that instead of trying to be perfect, they embrace imperfections and let their creativity flow through the mood of the scene and the characters. The creativity truly connects with the audience, and the screen feels like a festival of artists. My only concern is reports of exploitation of these artists. As much as I love the Spider-Verse films, I oppose unsustainable work culture and hope the producers can change to make the film as much fun to animate as it to watch. Across the Spider-Verse reminds me, and surely many other artists in the world, to love our own creativity, keep it alive, and thrive through our work for life.

Spider-Punk is a revolution in animation. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Hi, I’m Brendon, and I’m the creator of the BlerdUp podcast, a show that analyzed nerd culture from a Black perspective. I lauded Into the Spider-Verse when it first came out and yelled from the rooftops to get others to see it. I literally crossed the ocean from my home in Seoul to see the movie again through my then teenage brother’s eyes. It is one of those films that I am always excited to watch with people who have never seen it. My hype for a sequel was through the stratosphere.

Incredibly, Across the Spider-Verse exceeds my expectations. I laughed, my jaw dropped, and I nearly cried. It’s unbelievable that the studio that brought us the Venom movies and Morbius has given us, arguably, the greatest superhero movie of all time (take several seats, James Gunn and The Flash).

What I didn’t expect was how hard the movie would hit its dramatic moments. The themes of isolation, hiding who you are, loss, connection, regret, and the failure to meet expectations impacted me deeply. As an expat, I’ve been the only Black male teacher at a number of my schools (even in the U.S., Black men account for just 2% of teachers!) and in my Korean neighborhood in general. Since the pandemic, even though I have helped bolster my students’ skills and confidence and have inspired them for years, my sense of isolation has only increased. I, in a sense, put on a mask when I teach my students every day and hide my pain.

Miles’ relationship with his mother, Rio, is lovingly expanded and became my favorite dynamic in the movie. Rio is loyal, hardworking, caring, and funny. Even though she’s Puerto Rican, the looks on her face when the men in her life upset her are looks that every Black child who has a Black mother knows. Her monologue about asking Miles not to forget that he is loved and where he comes from nearly brought me to tears, as I had to break the news to my own mother recently that I wouldn’t be able to visit home because of astronomical plane ticket prices. It was compounded with me remembering that so much of the good in me – what I share with my students and overall community – come from her. It motivated me to stay strong during a tumultuous chapter in my life.

Across The Spider-Verse is a radiant example of why representation matters in media. I not only saw myself in the characters but I was heavily moved and inspired. I cannot wait to see this movie again and share and talk about it with as many people as I can.

Far from finding strength in what he’s lost, Miles finds his strength in what he keeps. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Hi, my name is Elizabeth Griffin, and I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York. I’ve never been a fan of shallow representation of Hispanics in Hollywood that only extends to color and stereotypes so I’m ecstatic that just like Disney’s Encanto, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse subverts my low expectations.

Coming from a family with an overprotective mother, I was immediately able to connect with Miles’ mom in this movie. She is just like mine! They want to lock you in a cabinet and keep you safe, but at the same time encourage you to take on the world and forge your own path. We see in this film that Miles has to balance his time between being a hero (doing what makes him happy) and living up to his parents’ expectations. This tears him apart and it’s hard to watch, but the film does a great job in subverting the expectation that being a hero must mean sacrificing the people we love or isolating ourselves. Miles’ upbringing rooted in the respect for parents and God (something that has fallen by the wayside in Hollywood’s productions) is characteristic of people from Puerto Rican and Dominican cultures and it goes to the heart of why Miles is so unwilling to give up on his family. Unlike the other Peters and Spiders, his strength, kindness, and heroism don’t come from his family’s loss. They come from their love, guidance, and unending support. We can see that without it, Miles’s path would never be the same and the world would be worse off for it.

No one can tell you your story. (Image: Sony Pictures Releasing)

The staggering genius of Across the Spider-Verse (and Into the Spider-Verse before it) is that whether you look at it as example of individualistic interpretations of common experiences, a festival for artists, an examination of identity and the importance of representation, a subversion of common stereotypes and superhero mythos, or just a fun, colorful, hilarious, action-packed superhero cartoon, you’re right. It is all of those and everything in between. While the little delights – be they images, words, sounds, ideas – are constant, Across the Spider-Verse never becomes overwhelming. There is so much happening at every second, and yet we… okay, I… never want it to end. Even with its heartaches and dangers, our world would be a better place with more of the hope, the inspiration, the promise, and the love of the Spider-Verse. And we don’t need heroes to make this happen. We only need ourselves.

Across the Spider-Verse reminds us that we, however we choose to identify, are capable of heroism. Far from being limitations, our differences are our power. We bond through common experiences, unite through sharing experiences, and grow through listening to, appreciating, and protecting those whose experiences differ from ours. It’s telling and brave that the true antagonist of Across the Spider-Verse isn’t the villain of the week but the self-professed “hero” demanding that for the sake of unity every other individual live according to his order. At a time when a large segment of American society wants to demonize, diminish, and even destroy those different from them, Across the Spider-Verse is a proud proclamation that no one can ever dictate our stories.

We are the heroes.
These are our stories.

Rating: 5 / 5

Huge thank you to Sook Lim, Brendon Spencer, and Elizabeth Griffin for their contributions. You expressed ideas in ways I never could.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.