Just as you did when its predecessor hit the big screen, you stare in wonder at the visual mastery on display in the new animated film, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”
Like 2018’s acclaimed “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the second chapter is more than a comic book come to life. It’s akin to a million lovingly create paintings being mashed together in the world’s greatest flipbook.
And it’s constantly changing its visual vibe — brilliant but somehow subtle color combinations giving way to striking black-and-white sequences without a moment’s notice.
And that’s just the tip of the animated iceberg, as this somehow manages to be an improvement on an already incredibly impressive visual formula.
Fortunately, this middle “Spider-Verse” chapter — it is to be followed by the trilogy-closing “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” in March — offers more than jaw-dropping eye-candy. It tells a compelling, emotionally rich story, one accentuated by terrific vocal performances from a star-studded cast and topnotch music and sound work.
To use a couple of well-worn Spider-Man-associated adjectives, it is spectacular and, to be sure, amazing.
Co-written by the prolific producing tandem of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”), along with David Callaham, and helmed by the trio of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, “Across the Spider-Verse” is a second film packed with Spider-People, each from a different universe.
The two that matter most, however, are returnees Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a Spider-Man and Spider-Woman, respectively, with much in common, most notably they’re high schoolers with cop fathers.
The film’s prologue centers around Gwen, on her Earth, where she keeps her super identity secret from her dad, Capt. George Stacy (Shea Whigham), who believes Spider-Woman murdered Gwen’s best friend, Peter Parker. We are treated to an action-filled sequence culminating in a highly emotional moment between father and daughter before the film begins to tell its main story.
Following a mind-blowing credits sequence, we are reintroduced to Miles, the 15-year-old half-Black, half-Puerto Rican friendly neighborhood patrolling the Brooklyn, New York, of his universe. Miles has maintained good grades, but he has a way of consistently frustrating his parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez). For instance, he’s late for a meeting with them and a school counselor as Spider-Man tangles with a seemingly low-threat villain, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who’s causing, lets say, a “holes” lot of problems in a neighborhood store.
However, The Spot has big, multidimensional plans for himself — and for Spidey — that should help him shed his “villain of the week” status.
A grounded Miles soon is visited by Gwen, who has missed him as much as he has missed her — even if, unlike him, she doesn’t have a notebook full of drawings suggesting as much. Although both are spiderly gifted, each, ultimately, is a struggling teen wishing he or she could be closer to the other. This is punctuated by a gorgeous scene as they look out at the New York skyline, sitting upside-down together.
Gwen, Miles learns, has joined the Spider Society, a team of Spider-People dedicated to preserving the existence of the multiverse. Miles wants to enlist, as well, but she tells him it’s a very small group, clearly hiding something from him.
Soon enough, he’s jumped through a multidimensional portal and quickly among a cluster of Spider-People, including Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), a highly capable, very pregnant Spider-Woman; Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni), an Indian Spider-Man who protects the metropolis of Mumbattan; Hobart “Hobie” Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), a British Spider-Punk who’s anarchist leanings mix pleasantly with a laid-back attitude; and Miles’ mentor, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who has passed on his abilities to his adorable baby daughter.
The Spider-Society is led by Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Issac), a big, ninja-like hero from a universe set in the future. He is furious when Miles shows up at the group’s headquarters.
While The Spot is being set up to be the big bad of “Beyond,” Miguel is Miles’ immediate problem.
As with any story involving a multiverse, “Across” eventually becomes too unintentionally silly for its own good, the meta-heavy concept of a “canon event” becoming of paramount concern.
Set that aside, though, and this is a virtually perfect movie — or at least a perfect middle chapter. “Across” very much is the “Empire Strikes Back” of the “Spider-Verse” saga, delivering high-stakes thrills and leaving us wanting more — as our hero is left in a not-so-great place.
The film’s astounding density goes beyond its rich visuals, baking in well-thought-out thematic work and surely enough Easter eggs to keep YouTubers busy for weeks.
On top of all that, it is constantly good for a laugh. Returning to the topic of the prologue, after Gwen and some other Spideys save folks at an art museum from being crushed by a falling helicopter, someone remarks, looking up at the web-suspended machine, “I think it’s a Banksy.”
The talented Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) regularly adds to the laughs with his chill line reads as Hobie — just one example of the excellent voice work on display throughout the affair.
“Into the Spider-Verse” deservedly won the statuette for Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards in 2019. With apologies to all the animated movies still to come, it honestly feels like this year’s race for that Oscar is already over.
‘SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE’
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating:: PG (for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements)
Running time: 2:20
How to watch: In theaters Friday