Directed by: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Written by Anna Harrison
The joke goes that no comic book character ever stays dead except for Bucky Barnes, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben, but since that adage was coined, both Bucky and Jason have come back in their respective Marvel and DC comics—it’s only kind old Uncle Ben who remains six feet under. We watched it play out on screen in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies, then again in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and while Tom Holland’s web-slinger purposely avoided showing the death, the specter hovers over him (whether the creative choice to have that specter and then kill Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May on top of that was a good call is a conversation for another time). Uncle Ben dies. That’s canon.
Uncle Ben’s death has happened so many times and in so many ways that it’s lost its impact; Peter Parker can never be happy and his life is so sad that it’s come all the way back around into one big old joke. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” gets meta about the foundational mythos of all the Spider-Men and treats it, not as the butt of a joke (at least most of the time), but as the tragedy it really is. As more and more movies—especially superhero ones—explore the concept of the multiverse and get meta with it, they have begun to poke fun at themselves and mock their own audience; here, directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson manage to have some laughs at Spider-Man’s expense while still reminding us why we’ve been drawn to him for so many years, and why, yes, Uncle Ben’s death can still be sad.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” reunites us with Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who might not have had an Uncle Ben, but did have Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who met his doom in 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”: same story, different stripes. When villain Spot (Jason Schwartzman) begins to threaten not just Miles’s universe, but the universe of the other Spider-Men, Miles finds himself back with Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), still schleppy but now a doting dad, and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), her own world’s Spider-Woman, who in turn have found themselves members of the Spider-Society, a society of—you guessed it—Spider-Men, Spider-Women, and Spider-various-animals-and-other-things, led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), a Spider-Man (but only sort of) from the future. It’s a setting ripe for self-congratulation, but Santos, Powers, and Thompson sidestep that, and the animation is so beautiful that even the exposition-heavy scenes are a feast for the eyes. Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), in particular, is a standout, full of shifting designs and animation styles to signify his disdain for getting too comfortable with one thing.
But it’s not only Uncle Ben’s death that has brought these Spider-People together, it’s the death of Captain Stacy (Shea Whigham), Gwen’s father, or if not him, then another police captain close to the web-slinger, and unfortunately for Miles, his police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry) just got a promotion. It’s one of many tragedies that Spider-Men like Peter B. Parker have had to accept, but Miles isn’t ready to accept his fate in the Spider-Man canon yet, setting off a race against time to save his father.
This being the first of a two-hander, “Across the Spider-Verse” has little resolution; it primes us for “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” in 2024, but its own narrative arc—even if beautifully animated and full of well-rounded characters—leaves something to be desired, especially as the big “twist” at the end was telegraphed from so far away that I thought the whole “mistake” was on purpose. (If we must compare it to an MCU movie, “Avengers: Infinity War,” while looking much worse than “Spider-Verse,” had a much more satisfying climax and resolution on its own than “Spider-Verse” while still leading into its immediate sequel.) When the credits began to roll, I was ready to sit there for another two-and-a-half hours, a little because I expected the movie to end on a bigger note, and a little because I didn’t want to leave that vibrant world on the screen. Bring on 2024, I say.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” Trailer