“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” looks like a dream, as did its 2018 predecessor, and the look is right: animation unafraid to evoke not just the visual influences of comic books, but animation in hurtling, accelerated motion — this thing gives you something to relish every millisecond — daring you to keep up. It’s like reading a comic book, or flipping through a dozen of them, at top speed in between glugs of Mountain Dew and Dots.
At its best, “Across the Spider-Verse” offers the same fluid, kinetic, eyeblink-quick storytelling that worked so well in the 2018 animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” People loved the sincerity and qualities of Miles Morales, Brooklyn’s teen superhero with a borough-sized secret. He lives with a complicated set of mentors and a soul mate, Gwen Stacy — like Miles, the child of a police officer and, also like Miles, a victim/beneficiary of a radioactive spider bite — who takes center stage, or thereabouts, in the new film.
Miles, voiced by Shameik Moore, is 15 now. “Across the Spider-Verse” picks up a year and a few months after we last saw him, juggling the demands of being a good son on Earth as we know it, where his identity as Spider-Man (one of them, anyway) remains a secret to everyone except Gwen/Spider-Woman, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld. But she has zwooped out of Miles’ life.
Let’s not waste your time with a lot of narrative rehash. It’s enough to say that Gwen zwoops back to Brooklyn and reenters Miles’ life long enough to deliver information about an existential threat to the Multiverse of multiple worlds and a crazy variety of Spider-Folk. Oscar Isaac voices the proudly humorless multiverse protector Miguel O’Hara, aka Spider-Man 2099; Issa Rae is Jessica Drew, leader of the Spider-Society and a motorcycle fiend.
The adversary this time? The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), resembling a black hole-riddled Marcel Marceau, born of a chemical mishap, and aren’t they all? He’s a dweeb at the start — Miles dismisses him initially as just another “villain of the week” — but that only fuels The Spot’s drive to take over all the ’verses.
If “Across the Spider-Verse” falls an inch or two short of the earlier film, it’s because screenwriters/producers Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and David Callaham pack the second half of a pretty long movie (24 minutes longer than “Into the Spider-Verse”) with an increasingly dark and heavy threat level. Miles doesn’t get much relief from his troubles here, whatever sliver of the multiverse he visits.
The writers and the new trio of directors — Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson — lay a considerable amount of narrative track here, setting up the next “Spider-Verse” chapter. This film is a middle chapter of a finite trilogy, with a cliffhanger ending — and, judging from the preview screening I saw, a sensationally effective one.
The wondrous blur of it all can get a little much. But here’s where this subfranchise knows exactly what it’s doing: Every time Miles anchors a one-on-one or two-on-one scene with Gwen, or with his parents, the feeling and the pacing adjusts intuitively, ensuring legitimate emotional stakes. The movie feels human-made and genuinely witty.
Yes, it doles out the same old predicaments we’ve seen across a multiverse of Marvel and other movies. But it brakes right at the edge of pure velocity now and then — long enough to remind us there’s a dimensional, wonderfully realized family at the heart of the story.
Oh, and any movie that believes in the power of the action verb “thwip” is OK by me.
Phillips writes for the Chicago Tribune.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
RATED: PG for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements. RUNNING TIME: 2:20.
OPENING: Friday in area theaters.