“Anyone can wear the mask.” Such was the rallying cry of 2018’s spectacular Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which alighted in an increasingly drab and soulless subgenre like a miraculous bolt of crackling energy. Sony Animation’s Oscar-winning, multi-dimensional romp wasn’t just a great Spidey flick, but one of the greatest superhero films of all time and a singular, dazzling feat of animation. Or maybe not so singular: The sequel Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse aims to one-up its predecessor in almost every way imaginable, from its audacious, frenetic style to the sheer quantity and diversity of Spider-People it throws at the viewer.
Initially, we’re back to just one web-slinger: Brooklyn teenager and part-time neighborhood Spider-Man Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has grown a little in the 18 months since the events of the last film, but he’s feeling the hole left by the departure of his multi-versal Spidey comrades, who scuttled off to their home realities. Okay, he’s mostly missing charming bad girl Gwen Stacy a.k.a. Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld). He’s also struggling to find some work-life balance in his harried crime-fighting routine, even as his parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez) attempt to navigate their son’s moody, secretive emergence into adulthood.
An unexpected crisis arises with the appearance of the Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a third-string villain who blames Spider-Man for his space-warping portal powers, which he sees as more of a curse. While the Spot initially comes off as a bumbling wannabe, his desperate shenanigans begin to make a glitchy mess of the multiverse. This draws the attention of a sprawling interdimensional super-team of Spideys, led by the terse, hard-edged Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), who hails from the distant future. It turns out that Gwen has already been recruited by this team, and she’s not only been patching up the cosmic leaks left over from the previous film, but also tracking the Spot’s increasingly perilous moves. Miles, for his part, is just a little hurt about being excluded from this secret Spider club.
Things get complicated very quickly, as they are wont to do in inter-dimensional comic-book stories. Suffice to say that Across the Spider-Verse has the courage of its convictions: It takes its predecessor’s wild sci-fi conceits to their reductio ad absurdum endpoint and turns its all-inclusive ethos inside out. Anyone could wear the mask, but there’s always just one Spidey for each version of Earth, which means that the Spider-Man super-group is both infinite and ultra-exclusive. Miles’ dizzying plunge into the multiverse’s limitless potential turns into a hard-knock lesson in the allegedly ironclad constraints placed on those possibilities. He has always imagined himself as a bit of a rebel, and the disillusionment sets in quickly once Miguel starts talking about all the cosmic rules that must be enforced. (Rick and Morty fans already know that nothing good happens when a few thousand versions of the same person become a self-appointed inter-dimensional authority.)
Like its predecessor, Across The Spider-Verse is jaw-droppingly dense with jokes, allusions and assorted Spider-Man deep cuts. Yet, just like Into the Spider-Verse, the new film does not require viewers to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of each character’s comic history in order to savor its more immediate pleasures. The formal radicalism of the 2018 feature is here cranked up to psychedelic levels as new co-directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers marshal a breathtaking array of animation styles and techniques. Perhaps most impressively, Sony’s animators push the film towards a greater degree of visual abstraction in many sequences, trusting that viewers will follow along. It’s the closest that contemporary mainstream animation has come to capturing the sensibility of indie filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow trilogy. (Note: This is high praise.)
That Across the Spider-Verse proves to be an ecstatic experience on a purely sensory level is both thoroughly unsurprising and deeply gratifying. In an era when studio animation giants like Disney, Pixar and Illumination have refined their house styles to the point of ossification, the 2018 film felt like a vitalizing thunderbolt. Across was practically obliged to up the ante, creatively speaking, and it unquestionably delivers (and then some). Relatedly, the new feature also expands and complicates the thematic scope of the original, while still managing to keep the story focused primarily on Miles’ evolving understanding of himself and his superheroic identity. That said, this outing sees Gwen receive more screen time, a mentor in the form of a motorcycle-riding Spider-Woman (Issa Rae) and motivations that are unconnected to her situationship with Miles. (Bechdel Test passed, baby!)It’s not an easy feat to keep an audience invested in relatable characters even as it pummels that same audience with mind-melting visuals and nonstop sci-fi outlandishness. This is a movie that includes such goofiness as LEGO Spider-Man, Cowboy Spider-Man and Spider-Tyrannosaurus, yet never loses the essential thematic thread of Miles’ anxieties about isolation and rejection. This is emblematic of the fundamental magic trick of the Spider-Verse films: They manage to proffer both sincerity and silliness, often in the same scene, while making the wildest, double-black-diamond stylistic feats look as easy and graceful as a web-swing around the block. For viewers who have become exhausted with the artistry- and personality-free content that often passes for superhero movies (not to mention studio animation) these days, Across the Spider-Verse arrives just in the nick of time.
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