There’s barely time enough to meet, let alone identify, all the myriad Spider-folk who leap into action in Sony’s visually rich, animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (★★★☆☆).
Diehard fans of Spidey comics, games, cartoons, and movies will have a field day trying to spot every iteration of Spider being, gathered from various storylines and product lines, some dating back decades, who pop up here. But there are far too many for our hero, Miles Morales, the bright Brooklyn teen introduced as the new Spider-Man in the 2018 animated Oscar-winner Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, to fully grasp.
Miles (Shameik Moore) is still stuck on Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a fabulous Spider-Woman from another dimension, who teamed with him and a loosely assembled squad of Spider-friends in the first film to defeat Kingpin and Doctor Octopus, and destroy the villains’ black hole-spawning collider.
A masterpiece of style and storytelling, Into the Spider-Verse ended with the sound of Gwen’s voice ringing out from her dimension to contact Miles relaxing in his room. Across the Spider-Verse — directed by Joachim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Soul co-creator Kemp Powers — picks up there, following a clever spoken-word intro by Gwen, beautifully delivered by Steinfeld, and quickly clarifies that Gwen has found a way to travel across dimensions on her own.
The universe she inhabits on Earth-65 is visualized in a gorgeously paint-streaked animation style that contrasts softly with the digital, double-image edges of every surface on Earth-1610, home to Miles and his concerned parents, Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) and “PDNY” lieutenant Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry).
They might also be concerned about which focus group led to Jeff’s surname change, since Lt. Jeff Davis in the first film is now a Morales like his wife and son, smoothing over the prior implication that Miles’ parents weren’t or aren’t married. That detail, like the Jordans on Miles’ feet, and the hip-hop on the soundtrack looked like real-life for a lot of modern kids.
Whereas the first film depicted how Miles’ real life is disrupted by getting bitten by a radioactive spider and gaining superpowers, the sequel offers the next-level, whirlwind adventure that tosses that relatable kid into wildly fantastical circumstances. One such circumstance is Miles learning of the existence of an elite Spider-Society, led by the mysterious Miguel O’Hara, a.k.a. Spider-Man 2099, voiced with authority by Oscar Isaac.
Assembled to fix the hole left in the multiverse by Kingpin’s collider, the Society pointedly is not interested in inviting Miles to join Miguel, Gwen, and fun new friends like Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), found dwelling in Mumbattan on Earth-50101, or delightfully subversive, cutout-animation Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya, who nails every joke).
But they do need his help pinning down the Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a deranged villain who’s not nearly as compelling in his motives as Kingpin or the first movie’s fearsome enforcer, the Prowler, who turned out to be Miles’ beloved uncle, Aaron Davis.
The close boy-and-his-uncle bond, grounded in the film’s lucid, textured reality, added a fresh sting to the tried-and-true tragic origin story of Spider-Man. Nothing having to do with the Spot has the same impact, but the filmmakers don’t abandon the real-life plight of a teenage superhero. Miles is still experiencing growing pains, and throughout the movie works up the courage to come out to his parents as the city’s favorite wall-crawling do-gooder.
Gwen finds herself in a similar dilemma with her father, police captain George Stacy (Shea Whigham), who pins a murder on Spider-Woman, unaware that the suspect he’s hunting is his own daughter. Their drama, well-acted by Steinfeld and Wigham, supplies the pathos this time around.
All the voice actors contribute excellent dramatic work, while Moore continues to capture the wit, depth, and personality of one of Marvel’s most loved heroes.
The movie captures that attitude as well, in its propulsive editing and the score by Daniel Pemberton, though the plot wanders at times instead of races. The movie is not exactly taut and lean. Overstuffed is more like it, with the filmmakers leaving story threads dangling, and primed for Miles’ next adventure, where, hopefully, he’ll rediscover the magic of his movie debut.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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