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film review

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

  • Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers
  • Written by Phil Lord, Chris Miller and David Callaham
  • Featuring the voices of Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld and Oscar Isaac
  • Classification PG; 140 minutes
  • Opens in theatres June 2

Critics Pick

In 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had me wondering whether a movie could be too much fun. I mean, it was kind of exhausting.

The spectacular animated take on the friendly neighbourhood web-slinger(s) – which refocused the narrative from Peter Parker to Miles Morales – came out swinging, hitting us with dazzling sights, a wicked (spidey?) sense of humour and the boundless energy of a restless teenager throwing everything they’ve got at you fast and furious. We’d be so busy giggling about a brilliant sight gag, or stunned by some beautiful composition, that other moments would just fly by undetected.

Into the Spider-Verse was almost a chore to keep up with, albeit a joyful one. Its superb sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, keeps up that momentum, goes further with the artistry and is perhaps even more rewarding. Like any great sequel free from the legwork of setting things up, this one is more contemplative and soulful.

Once again, The Lego Movie duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (serving here as co-writers and producers) and their team of directors and animators build a thrilling and affectionate ode to comic book visuals, throwing down inky sketches, hip-hop flavoured graffiti, impressionistic water colours and even dynamic renaissance drawings, often within the same scenes. The diversity in looks matches the expansive story, which sees the filmmakers spinning an even bigger and more intricate web of characters who get tangled up in each other’s dimensions.

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Shameik Moore returns to voice Miles Morales, the misunderstood Afro-Latino teen who hit a growth spurt after he was last visited by Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and Gwen Stacey, a.k.a. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), not to mention Spider-Noir, Spider-Ham and the other multiverse Spider-kin. Miles is reintroduced in action, snacking on a Jamaican beef patty while jostling with a teleporting would-be villain who calls himself the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) as his parents await his arrival at a school meeting with a guidance counsellor. Miles texts his parents during that frantic, physics-defying wrestling match through Brooklyn to say, “Inaminit.” The perfectly succinct collision of words matches both the character and the movie’s tendency to cram so much into tight windows.

Miles is also yearning for Gwen. The awkward boyish crush that was adorable in the first movie matures into something deeper in the sequel. The tempo slows down as Gwen crashes Morales’s universe (again), inviting him on a lovely web-slinging version of a stroll through skyscrapers, which ends with them sitting upside down on a Manhattan ledge as only Spidey-types can do. It’s a romantic image, the two of them in their own world, on a whole other plane, her hair elegantly floating upwards thanks to gravity. Sure, it’s just animation, but it feels like these two characters fill that scene with more pheromones than Disney’s sexless Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) could conjure over two dozen movies put together.

That Across the Spider-Verse even has a pulse makes it stand apart from most recent comic book movies and franchise fare, for that matter. Here’s a mild spoiler warning: If the first movie was about Miles being a refreshing new voice who – like anyone – could don the mask, the second is about him fighting to forge his own individual path and find his people.

The plot has Miles colliding with the society of Spider-people, whose variations come in everything from Bollywood to Blade Runner flavours. They’re led by Oscar Isaacs’s beefy and humourless Miguel O’Hara, the Spider-Man from the 2099 comic series glimpsed in Into the Spider-Verse’s post-credits sequence. Miguel takes on an interdimensional-enforcer role, making sure that the multiverse Spidey-population sticks to “the canon,” repeating well-worn moments like Uncle Ben dying (what’s a Spidey movie without that?). If they don’t follow the formula, their universes collapse.

Miles, like Across the Spider-Verse as a whole, is a break from that rigid canon. That’s why he’s subsequently hunted down by the Spidey-horde, who you might compare to an online mob protecting their coveted properties and upholding what the MCU formula has essentially become. All they want are the same stories over and over with mild variations in colour, design, casting and quippy humour.

It’s a slick meta jab at the fandom that will devour and prop up this movie. But it’s also a heartfelt story beat for Miles, who struggles with meeting people’s expectations, in a movie that has no problem exceeding our own.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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