Movie review: Brilliant “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” triumphs

In the grand scheme of superhero movies, 2018’s “Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse” swings the highest. It’s one of those flawless films whose casual brilliance belies dozens of open-hearted, risk-taking decisions we’ll never know about, but that translate fully to the screen.

In telling the jaw-droppingly animated story of Brooklyn teen Miles Morales and his self-realization as the alternate-universe Spider-Man (on what’s known in Marvel as Earth 1610), it also centered Black and brown lives in its narratives, music, and eclectic, hand-drawn art style. That’s something that’s still hardly ever seen in superhero movies, or action movies in general.

The long-awaited sequel, “Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse,” leans even harder on the multiverse angle as a metaphor for identity crises and elusive self-knowledge. How should Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore) react when people tell him he doesn’t belong somewhere? As a biracial teenager that’s a near-constant in his life, despite the unflinching support of dad/police officer Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry) and bilingual mom Rio Morales (Lauren Vélez).

Picking up a few years after “Into the Spider-Verse,” first-time feature directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson revive not only the first film’s gorgeous visuals, but also the aching family dynamics of its characters. As with the original, the clever, funny script and influence of executive producers Chris Lord and Phil Miller (“The Lego Movie”) are complemented by an eclectic, hand-drawn and thoroughly dazzling animation style that layers meanings and textures.

Instead of picking up right where we left off, the story starts with a peek into the life of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a.k.a. Spider-Gwen, who befriended and guided Miles in the first film when she traded her own universe for his. She misses him and feels guilty for lying to her own police-officer dad (Shea Whigham) about her superhero identity. That parallels Miles’ messy reality, but also the canon that outlines most Spider-Man characters, who share tragic backstories and crime-fighting concerns in flashy urban milieus.

These Spideys have been adapted in real-life by international fabulists in their native languages. The rich world of possibilities opens up again thanks to these depictions, particularly the eye-candy metropolis of Mumbattan (Mubai + Manhattan) inhabited by Indian Spider-Man Pavitr Prabhakar, who’s as cheekily arrogant as he is withering in his quips and critiques.

Gwen and Miles must navigate a range of realities as they battle The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a scientist transformed by the first film’s particle-collider explosion who wants only to fill the world with holes (literally). A motley Spider-Society must decide how to defeat a villain who’s everywhere and nowhere. Never does the meta-commentary, including some art in-jokes and capitalist critiques, devalue the earnest designs.

Nor is the movie ever shy about its comics roots, or the wild suspension of disbelief often required to understand the head-spinning plot. Literally hundreds of Spider-Man variations, led by the growling Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac as Spider-Man 2099), show up throughout, including a truly excellent Issa Rae as Jessica Drew, a Black, pregnant Spider-Woman who jumps motorcycles as well as she kicks butts.

The ensemble-driven movie is so natural in its representation of, say, people in wheelchairs playing basketball, or its diverse and bumping soundtrack of soon-to-be hits. Everything clicks, right up until and including the cliffhanger ending that reminds us that this is just part one of a two-film sequel.

It’s going to be a long wait for March 2024.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Rated: PG
Run time: 140 minutes
Where: in theaters
Score: 4 stars (out of 4)

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