Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse Movie Review: A Superhero Who Breaks the Canon

The sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is beautiful and ambitious, but also messy
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse Movie Review: A Superhero Who Breaks the Canon

Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson

Writers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, David Callaham

Cast: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac

Long before Marvel took the cinematic concept of a multiverse down a predictable route of nostalgia bait, endless cameos and the definitive end of any sense of finality, there was Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. This 2018 animated film swung us into a version of the multiverse, one filled with the dazzling promise of possibility instead of the threat of never-ending corporate IP churn. While encompassing whole new universes, it also gave us a heartfelt, intimate story, in which unique versions of the same hero banded together over shared grief and loss. In having a has-been Spiderman mentor a Spiderman who was not quite there (yet), it was a tale of growing up and growing old, who you're supposed to be and who you should've been all along. Consequently, in an era of unimaginative superhero saturation, if any movie was going to fight back against the very idea of what a standard superhero story should be, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, with its ambitious, unrestrained canvas, was always going to be the one.

In this sequel, teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is struggling to balance being a perfect student and good son with the demands of his crimefighting alter-ego. Meanwhile, in another universe, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) has teamed up with the Spider Society, to clean up the aftermath of the aftermath of the collider incident of the previous film. She, Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) and Spider-Woman (Issa Rae) capture characters stranded in the wrong universe and send them home again.

Like its predecessor, Across The Spiderverse is beautifully shot and strikingly composed, with the kind of head-spinning, world tilting sequences that are only possible in animation. It isn’t just that the vibrant colours pop off the screen or that the varied animated styles contrast and play off each other exquisitely, it’s also the little textural details – a parchment-style Vulture (Jorma Taccone) makes an appearance early on – that make the film such an immersive experience. A shot of Miles and Gwen perched atop a building upside down, the city skyline inverted behind them offers a stunning moment of serenity amid the film’s frenetic energy.

Like the first movie, a sense of loss permeates this one too. Miles misses his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) and his multiversal friends, all of whom have returned to their dimensions. Unlike the first film, he doesn’t have the guidance of a mentor. Gwen is still reeling from the death of the Peter Parker from her universe. While Miles isn’t certain his parents will accept his alter-ego, Gwen knows her dad won’t. Even so, writers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and David Callaham cut through the tragedy with a sense of humour that ranges from sharp observations about clichéd third-world country tourism trips to juvenile jokes that will still make you giggle. The zingers fly fast, especially during action sequences, and it’s a delight to watch the film marry its punches with its punchlines.

Across The Spider-Verse builds on its predecessor in meaningful ways, but it also spins a larger and much messier web this time. When the movie moves from its protagonists’ personal problems to larger ‘fate of the world’ stakes, it gets more convoluted and harder to follow. Despite its universe-sprawling shenanigans, this is a movie that’s at its best when it narrows its focus to two characters having a conversation. What’s important to them here and now is much more compelling than the promise of what the future in a different universe might hold. There are times the excess begins to get overwhelming and the film’s two-hour 20-minute runtime is felt. There are cameos and callbacks to other Spider-Man movies, which feels like the movie tiredly giving in to the very trend it had so far subverted. There aren’t any nifty needle-drops like in the first film (remember ‘What’s Up Danger’?). And the film’s abrupt cliffhanger ending makes Across The Spider-Verse feel like a launchpad for future adventures in retrospect, rather than a fulfilling journey in its own right.

Still, the film refuses to adhere to the idea that every hero's journey must follow the same arc, and in doing so, insists on breaking the canon at a time when other superhero movies are trying to establish it. Where the multiverse represents the exhaustion of infinite variation in other franchises, in Across The Spider-Verse, it’s a comfort. Its many stories continually remind the characters, and us, that we’re not alone, and someday, somewhere, there will be one we can see ourselves in.

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