The original “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” was a completely unexpected but instant classic — and not just as far as superhero stories go. It has also become a classic piece of animated cinema, providing a perfect example of reinvigorated graying IPs. In an era of endless continuities, the film gave us something we had never seen. It’s hard to find a scene from the original that does not vibrantly pop with newfound energy.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” retains some of the charms of the original, especially during the first hour when the viewer’s attention is focused mainly on the character Spider-Gwen. In some ways, the film feels more like her movie than Miles’. She has a more significant character arc and experiences genuine resolution in her own subplot. Gwen keeps the Spider-Man IP fresh and interesting.
However, the last several years have been an awkward slide toward mediocrity for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The incredible heights of the “Infinity War” arc have given way to bland, boring, and bizarre.
Sam Raimi’s “Multiverse of Madness” was the first sign that something was amiss in Comic-Book Camelot. Raimi is a fantastic filmmaker, and while his “Doctor Strange” film was well made, it was an incoherent, tonal misstep. Then came Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which was thematically scattershot and humorously flat — paling in comparison to “Ragnarok.” This is not even to mention the whole scandal surrounding Jonathan Majors, who was supposed to be playing the next Thanos but ended up being a bit of a villain in his personal life.
MCU’s defenders will say “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and the new “Spider-Verse” are evidence they’ve still got it. However, while these films are making a ton of money, are they really all they’re cracked up to be? “Across the Spider-Verse” is definitely not a bad film, but its problems are systematic, not idiosyncratic — reflecting Marvel’s growing mediocrity.
Overall, when compared to the whimsy and surprise of the original film, the sequel is much too long and often shockingly dour. The infuriating lead-up to nothing more than a literal comic book “to be continued” after a second half that accomplishes so little makes the cliffhanger entirely unnecessary.
Clearly, this new Spider-Man continuity is already being forced into the franchise vortex. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the filmmakers are building up to something truly grand — maybe this movie will make more sense after the duology is complete. Nonetheless, “Across” is bloated and unresolved — anyone who sits through all 140 minutes will be desperate to see what happens next. In a way, though, this is less satisfying.
Part of the problem with reviewing films like this is that the bar was so high to begin with. “Into the Spider-Verse” was something genuinely new. It was unpretentiously self-aware and truly accessible to the whole family. (The radical visuals probably threw off older boomers and beyond, but otherwise, its entertainment value is intergenerational.) And maybe best of all, it was a film with a black protagonist and no whiff of ideology. Miles Morales’ Dad is named after the president of the CSA for crying out loud! In this era, it’s notable that this has not been called out as somehow “toxic.”
Thankfully “Across” stays within that vein — there’s no agenda messaging and no attempt at ideological “preaching.” The Indian Spider-Man makes some wonderful jokes about how cliché it is for white people to come to India seeking enlightenment. (“Don’t eat-pray-love me,” he quips.) But there is truly nothing mean-spirited here, and these jokes are really aimed at Hollywood anyway.
Rather, this film is problematic because its MCU creators were writing through green-colored glasses — they were only thinking of money. When you’ve got a product people want, it’s easy to string them along, looking for more profit. The singular charm of “Into” has now been lost in the sequel’s overt attempt at serialized storytelling. Creators know these films are going to make money no matter what, so why not make as many as possible?
The strange thing about the good films subjected to serialization in the past (from “Back to the Future” to “The Lord of the Rings” to pretty much every MCU movie) is that they gave the audience genuine resolution while still insisting on a third act. “Across” doesn’t build to anything except the fact that the climax will be in the next movie.
The cliffhanger approach to Spider-Man worked in the old Saturday matinee serials because each installment was only 10 minutes, and you only had to wait one week to see what would happen next. The follow-up for “Across” is not until next year. That’s a long time to remember an anticlimactic plot.
The timeless charm of the original “Spider-Verse” film makes it rewatchable. But I can’t imagine sitting through this sequel again. I’m not sure why anyone would want to sit through it twice, apart from feeling obliged to remind himself of the plot before the next one comes out. My hunch is when part two is released next March, it will be clear that the duology could have been a single film. And if Marvel’s trend of systematic decline continues, I don’t think I’ll be alone in wanting fewer movies from them.