Oh, what a tangled web [they] weave…with this cacophony of story threads. The highly anticipated sequel to the Best Animated Feature Oscar-winning Into the Spider-verse opens this week, but unfortunately, it suffers from a bad case of sequelitis brought on by a gluttonous consumption of excess. Spider-man: Across the Spider-verse works in title only–and all too well, as it were. The title says it all, and that is precisely what audiences get in this comic philhar-tragic symphony in the key of overindulgence.
After reuniting with Gwen Stacy, Brooklyn’s full-time, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is catapulted across the Multiverse, where he encounters a team of Spider-People charged with protecting its very existence. However, when the heroes clash on how to handle a new threat, Miles finds himself pitted against the other Spiders. He must soon redefine what it means to be a hero so he can save the people he loves most.
Across the Spider-verse is what happens when a story idea doesn’t pass the elevator pitch litmus test (wherein an idea can be explained sufficiently enough in three-minutes or less). Quite simply, there is such a proliferation of story webs that there is virtually no plot–there is certainly no resolution before the (and this isn’t a spoiler) cliffhanger ending. Story webs lead into story webs that leads into even more story webs. Suffice it to say, it’s as if writers and producers took every incarnation of Spider-man comic series, threw them into a blender, and served the concoction o audiences. Unless you are read up on decades of Spider-man comics, you will be hard-pressed to follow any storyline. Perhaps the better expression of a collision of Spider-verses would have been in a television series that could have explored a different thread of comics each season.
Clearly, Sony took the extremely positive reception of the first one, focussed on recurring praises, and amplified those to the nth degree. Never mind that more than the visual expression of the story, plotting is crucial to structure, pacing, and coherency. The animators and artists are showcasing brilliance in animated filmmaking, but the clear evidence of screenwriting is nowhere to be found. Without a well-defined central character, a well-defined external goal, and a well-defined character of opposition between the central character and the goal, there is no plot–merely a sequence of loosely connected scenes or fragments of ideas. A fever dream, if you will.
While Across the Spider-verse suffers narratively, it certainly excels in the art of animation. The stylistic animation and editing is outstanding! Much like with the first movie, this one takes the emotive detail found in a single frame of a comic book (or graphic novel) and combines that approach with hand-drawn inspired motion picture animation. There are certainly problems with the story (or stories, as it were), but Sony Pictures Animation has demonstrably shown commitment to the boundless imagination and capabilities of animation. Across the Spider-verse, in how it is expressed in this movie, can only happen within the world of animation. In no way could this movie be expressed in a live-action way. Perhaps the writers were asleep at the wheel, but the animators gave each universe of Spider-man characters its own color palate and animation style.
Make sure to watch Across the Spider-verse in a premium format at your cinema, because the strength in this animated movie has little to do with the story as much as it does the stylistic animation. When a film, animated or live action, strikes a balance between style and substance, it can be enjoyed on the big or small screen without detracting from the storytelling; but when the movie struggles narratively but excels in form, then experiencing it on the big screen is the best approach.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.