Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Columbia Pictures, PG)

You’ve probably noticed that lately, multiverses have been going through as monumental a moment as we’ve ever seen a single plot device go through. Superhero films and Best Picture Oscar winners alike are using the concept left and right. In this context, it’s extraordinarily fun to return to the franchise that really kicked this craze off.

The 2018 instant classic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was an animated marvel (no pun intended) and was influential even outside of the multiverse concept for its truly groundbreaking visual style. Its new sequel — officially announced as the “part one” of a connected duo-logy that will seemingly complete this trilogy — is just as visually stunning, if not more so. As a story unto itself, however, its ambitious reach sometimes exceeds its narrative grasp.

Before I get to my slight qualms with their script later in this review, I have to praise the prolific and proven comedic genius of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Over the past several years, they have crafted some of the most memorable, quotable, and remarkably intelligent mainstream action-comedies around, in both animated and live-action varieties. Their masterpiece The Lego Movie proved they could bring the perfect blend of satire, genuine admiration, and depth to what would be nothing but a stale corporate product in lesser hands. Thus, it made perfect sense for them to write these Spider-Verse films. They have an innate sense of how to maintain comedic and dramatic credibility at breakneck pace, and how to tailor their tone to whatever they work on while still making it unmistakably theirs. Across the Spider-Verse is no exception.

Lord, Miller, and third co-writer Dave Callahan now find web-slinger Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore) reuniting with alternate-universe Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (voice of Hailee Steinfeld) to track down The Spot (voice of Jason Schwartzman). At first glance, the Rorschach look-alike seems like an incompetent and innocuous portal-based villain, but his backstory ends up informing Miles’ potential future. The young heroic duo also encounters a new crew of spider-people whose presence expands the multiverse in clever and surprising ways.

Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Kemp Powers, along with their team of brilliant animators, maintain the visual sensibilities of the first film while throwing several new tricks at us. In expanding on Gwen’s universe, the animators’ taste for the slightly avant-garde shines through. Every time a scene in her world gets still and emotional, the backgrounds behind the characters morph into various forms of watercolor abstracts, becoming more vague and more expressive at the same time. It’s the first time in years that I’ve noticed backgrounds in a computer-animated film, and I very much appreciated the boldness of that choice. As the action ramps up, the new spider-people we meet have unique styles of their own that were not attempted in the first film. When all these styles collide, Across the Spider-Verse becomes one of the few superhero films I can accurately call a groundbreaking work of art.

What doesn’t break new ground is the film’s clunky plotting in its last act. As story points converge and we thunder towards a conclusion, the movie starts to feel its length because of how much has been packed into two-and-a-quarter hours. Frustratingly, the story grinds to a halt and then continues for another twenty minutes or so after perhaps the best scene in the entire film.

Regardless of that issue, Across the Spider-Verse is just as unique and meticulously crafted as its predecessor. The comedy works, the concepts and action are outlandishly fun, and the new worlds Miles goes to are worth the ticket price. Animation was invented for movies with this kind of incredible energy. | George Napper

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