How wrong I was about 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” When I saw the first trailer, I remember groaning about starting a fourth big-screen Spider-Man continuity when we were still in the middle of the Tom Holland version, hadn’t had a proper conclusion for the Andrew Garfield version, and weren’t far enough removed from the Tobey Maguire version. The live-action continuities eventually sorted themselves out, but more importantly, the animated “Spider-Verse” quickly became the best continuity of all. And with “Across the Spider-Verse,” it continues to be the best continuity.
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The new movie takes place about a year after the original. Miles “Spider-Man” Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen “Spider-Woman” Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) have not seen each other since returning to their respective universes. Both struggle with family drama, namely the decision of whether or not to reveal their alter egos to their parents. Miles wants to tell his mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and police lieutenant father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), but that would mean admitting that he’s been lying and putting himself in danger with no intention of stopping. Gwen wants to tell her police captain father George (Shea Whigham), but that would mean admitting that she’s been lying, endangering herself, and responsible for the death of close friend Peter Parker (who in her universe was The Lizard).
Gwen tries to take her mind off things by joining a band (in an opening sequence that’s equal parts pulse-pounding and head-bopping) and stopping villains that hop over from other universes. There’s still a big hole in the multiverse that nobody can close, so villains can get through, but so can other Spider-People, like the pregnant Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), anarchist Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), and the humorless Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). The latter is the leader of the Spider-Society, which employs Spider-People across all universes. He reluctantly lets Gwen join the organization, though he’s concerned about her relationship with Miles, who is about to have a very important role to play in the fabric of the multiverse that can’t be compromised.
Miles is stressed with juggling school, his father’s upcoming promotion to captain, and Spider-Man business. Still, he’s delighted when Gwen pays his universe a visit, even though she’s there for other business and can’t stay for long. Her business ties into a new villain called The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), whose gimmick is that he can create portals through space at will, a complex power that he doesn’t quite understand himself, but makes for a great stream of visual gags. Still, he’s destined to go from bumbler to serious threat in a real hurry, though the Spider-Society can’t stop him just yet for reasons that tie into that great responsibility for Miles.
I’m just skimming the surface of the story, which includes the return of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), now married with a baby, and a lengthy trip to a universe where NYC and India combine into the city of Mumb-hattan. The action is exciting, the jokes are funny, the animation is stunning, and the pace is frantic. Plus there are literally hundreds of secret goodies hiding in every corner of the screen that are easy to miss on a first viewing, but if any movie this year is worth seeing more than once, it’s this one.
The movie ends on a cliffhanger and a setup for a future movie, much like the recent “Fast X.” But unlike that movie, I don’t feel like this movie was “sacrificed” to set up a more exciting movie down the line, it’s an entire feature in and of itself. That said, I’m actually skeptical of the upcoming “Beyond the Spider-Verse” because the ending of this one sets up some twists that represent some of my least-favorite conventions of comic book movies. “Across the Spider-Verse” never officially loses its footing, but it ends weirdly, by giving me the feeling that this series is about to plummet in quality.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is rated PG for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements. Its running time is 140 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.