Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse can’t quite recapture the magic of the original

3.5 out of 5 stars

Unquestionably, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the best superhero film of the past decade. Colourful, dynamic and heartfelt, the animated feature breathed new life into Marvel, highlighting everything the live-action movies had missed. Five years later, the much-anticipated sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse — the second part in an eventual trilogy — is finally in theatres. Can it capture the magic of the original? Quick answer: Sorta?

Set in the aftermath of the first film, Miles Morales, aka Spiderman (Shameik Moore), has grown up. He’s still in high school and feels his parents’ increased pressure to do well in school as he struggles to balance his studies with his duties as a friendly neighbourhood superhero. He misses his friends he met travelling across the multiverse, in particular Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), whose face fills his sketchbooks. While encountering a “villain of the week,” Morales awakens a dark rivalry with a universe-bursting nemesis who will threaten the safety of the entire multiverse. 

Embracing the more is more principle of the first film, the animation in the sequel jumps off the screen. Each frame is rich with allusions, colour, information and dynamic excitement. Everything is in motion without being nauseating or ill-conceived. In a cinematic blockbuster universe with so little care for framing, this film uses it abundantly, taking full advantage of animation’s limitless scope. Why are we even attempting to capture the comic book world with stiff live-action players when the textual and aesthetic possibilities of the animated form are overflowing with so much potential? 

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Most of what you loved about the first film (assuming you loved it) works here. The characterizations are solid, fun and playful. The movie has a strong heart, and though it pushes and embraces imagination, it finds roots in family, responsibility and friendship. For comic book and superhero fans, the movie takes full advantage of the multiverse concept and brims with easter eggs and allusions. It’s funny when it needs to be and tugs at your heartstrings.

Yet, overall, the film lacks the same excitement as the first movie. Though only about 20 minutes longer than the first, that extra time lags. The pacing feels uneven as if the storyline was overstretched. Unlike the first movie, which easily stands on its own, this one suffers from middle-child syndrome and only somewhat holds up. Particularly the ending, which sets up the third movie in the trilogy, ends up feeling undercooked. While it does leave you wanting more, it’s more frustrating than exhilarating. 

Though in some ways one of the film’s strengths, the overtly self-referential style is more grating here with huge plot points focused on meta-narrative, particularly the concept of “canon” — basically, the fixed rules/facts of a specific universe that can be “proven” via the text itself. One of the better examples of meta-style is a somewhat tiresome approach in movie-making, overly relied on in 21st-century American cinema. In particular, the references (including live-action images) from the previous Spider-man films feel entirely out of place, embarrassing and unnecessary fan service. 

Despite these quibbles, the animated multiverse trilogy-centred Miles Morales still stands among the best superhero content we can hope for. A lot of the new additions, in particular, voice work by Daniel Kaluuya and Oscar Isaac, are really spectacular. It might not live up to the incredible heights achieved by the first film but Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse still stands head and shoulders above nearly anything else you’ll find at the theatre. ■

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers & Justin K. Thompson)

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens in Montreal theatres on Thursday, June 1.

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