One hero’s journey has become the predominant popular American mythology of the 21st century.
But that doesn't mean that there can't be many versions of that hero -- especially everyone's favorite friendly neighborhood webslinger.
The Media Multiverse of Spider-Man
Since 2002, when a radioactive spider bit Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker, and he began slinging webs around Brooklyn, nearly every one of the 10 Spider-Man movies released in theaters has been a hit.
That doesn’t count about a dozen TV iterations since then, including Disney’s popular preschool-focused Spidey and His Amazing Friends, and mega-selling video games.
In fact, the character’s complicated licensing deal means that three of the world’s largest entertainment companies are all exploiting the spandex-suited webslinger in different venues: Sony (feature films), Disney (merchandising, TV rights), and Universal (U.S. theme parks east of the Mississippi River).
Perhaps the lone exception to the hit parade was Broadway’s wildly expensive Spider-Man musical featuring original U2 songs, a fascinating story even in failure.
Can there be any more untold chapters in this sprawling franchise?
Five years ago, the creative duo behind The Lego Movie -– writer-producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller –- answered a resounding yes with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a groundbreaking film on multiple fronts.
Eye-popping artistic approaches drawn from the pages of comic books thrilled viewers. But we stuck around for characters who made us feel and laugh and believe in their struggles.
Now the sequel Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse amplifies both the art and story, in what could end up as this summer’s biggest hit.
Be forewarned: this middle chapter in the animated trilogy ends on a cliffhanger, with the finale set for release next March.
It’s half a story, with twice the bang.
Whether or not you’re a bit exhausted by heroes converging from multiple dimensions, comic-book nerds have inherited the Earth.
So, here’s what to expect from the latest dazzling Spidey blockbuster, which is not as humorous as its prequel but extremely ambitious.
A story about belonging, justice and Spidey-sense
Forget all the posters with dozens of Spider-People showing up – that’s basically act three of this 2-hour-and-20-minute animated epic.
Even before getting to 200+ characters and six universes, audiences can see the artistic work that went into just two versions of Brooklyn.
Across the Spider-Verse opens by introducing dual protagonists -- with Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld from Hawkeye) hailing from a pastel watercolor-tinged universe.
She’s filled with angst over a recent loss and her police-officer dad coming close to discovering her super identity. Then Gwen gets recruited into an elite Spider Society to correct multiverse anomalies.
Which brings us back to home-base Brooklyn, where Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a high-school sophomore doing the typical neighborhood Spider-Man thing: being late for classes because he’s dealing with a pesky villain.
Only, this seemingly minor foe, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), becomes a much bigger problem as the story progresses.
Miles’ parents, police officer Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry) and wife Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) are loving and long-suffering, knowing a 15-year-old needs greater freedom. But –- in the dark about his crime-fighting persona -– they also put their foot down when Miles misses one too many family functions.
When Spider-Gwen returns to his world, Miles doesn’t stay grounded for long and enters a universe-hopping adventure to save all realities from destruction.
Can a tragic fate be changed?
Rather than falling into the sequel trap of recycling a hit film, Across the Spider Verse advances the sci-fi multiverse concept that every one of hundreds of worlds has its own Spider-Person.
Audiences will recall a similar conceit playing out 18 months ago, in the equally fun live-action Spider-Man: No Way Home.
That trilogy-ending team-up blockbuster, which put a capstone on two decades of Spidey flicks, had a blast with cameos but offered less sci-fi substance.
In this film, a violent webslinger known as Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) reveals the Spider Society’s rule that every Spidey hero must follow a set of “canon events” –- plot points such as the death of a mentor figure, like Uncle Ben.
It’s a clever bit of meta commentary and a tribute to the late Stan Lee’s work on the original comics run, but it also points to thematic depth.
Gwen and Miles journey into a Bollywood-echoing urban world called Mumbattan (Mumbai and Manhattan -– get it?), where chai-sipping Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni), the local Spidey, has encountered The Spot.
Gwen’s punk-rock comrade Hobie (Daniel Kaluuya) shows up, a rival of sorts for her affection, since she and Miles have kept their friendship only platonic so far.
As The Spot creates chaos with buildings and bridges collapsing, a local police captain –- and father of Pavitr’s romantic interest -– is caught in the middle. Miles intervenes to save his life.
Later, O’Hara, also known as Spider-Man 2099, tells Miles he violated a “canon event” with that rescue, and their job involves sacrifice. “So, we're just supposed to let people die?” asks Miles.
The future Spidey replies: “You have a choice between saving one person and saving every world. To me, that's an obvious choice.” Miles exclaims: “I can do both!”
Alive with color and big ideas
It’s rare for a comic-book movie to ponder big ideas like fate versus free will, in this case from an angle that seems to affirm the value of every life.
Audiences won’t know how this theme resolves for another nine months, with the release of Beyond the Spider-Verse.
But if ideas about causality and predestination go over some kids’ heads, they’re likely to digest the salient messages about empathizing with the experiences of an adolescent Black male.
Introduced in 2011 in the comics, Miles has a biracial ethnicity, with his father African-American and his mother, Latino.
The films have relied on three men of color as co-directors -– Peter Ramsey in the first film, Joaquim Dos Santos and Kemp Powers on this sequel -– to bring multicultural authenticity as it grapples with race-related topics on-screen.
From the Indian Spider-Man to Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who’s now a father, this flick embraces a variety of supers.
“I want people to feel like this is a world where they’re all a part of it,” said Powers in a recent interview.
But Miles faces the most peril and pushback on his identity. In a climactic moment, a group of would-be allies turn on the teen, telling him essentially: you’re not supposed to be a superhero.
It’s a potent commentary on racial discrimination.
Even with almost non-stop in-references for fans (see video below), this film never loses sight of telling one teenager’s heartfelt and scary journey into the wider world.
Animation with an edge
As an action-adventure film, Across the Spider-Verse has several violent and visceral combat scenes.
Some characters are bitten by huge spiders. And the threat of death, including of innocent children, looms in many perilous sequences.
This is hard-edged PG, and parents of kids under age eight should use caution.
A week after the film's release, a few blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments in this Spider-Verse sequel became a point of discussion online. For a few seconds, a pride flag that states "Protect Trans Kids" can be seen in Spider-Gwen's bedroom.
And Gwen's father apparently wears a pride pin on his police officer. Some parents will want to be aware of such themes introduced in a film geared to pre-teens.
Despite impossibly high stakes, audiences can hardly look away from this epic due to clear character motivations, fresh remixing of superhero tropes, and visually stunning action scenes where every frame –- crafted by a film crew of 900+ people -– is a work of art.
Image: Spider-Man/Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animations’ SPIDER-MAN™: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE. Photo by: Sony Pictures Animation. © 2023 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.