2018’s Into the Spider-Verse is still the best thing to happen to superhero movies in the last decade, so the notion of a sequel was both exciting and troubling: after a dizzying high, there’s so far down to go, and successful IPs are wildly susceptible to franchise rot. Across the Spider-Verse writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller have become the go-to guys for vitalizing tired IP—see 22 Jump Street, a playful sendup of sequelitis and their live-action directorial peak—but the only sequel they’d written before now was The Lego Movie 2, which had all the visual flair but only a tenth of the heart of its predecessor. Across the Spider-Verse is nowhere near that deflating, but its returns are sadly still fractional.

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This mostly comes down to the script, which Lord and Miller co-wrote with Doom and Mortal Kombat scribe David Callaham (who is not allowed within 100 yards of another video game adaptation). Into the Spider-Verse, in its mission to democratize heroism with an Afro-Latino protagonist, revolved around the idea that Spider-Man’s story is mutable—it needn’t fit the safe, White straitjacket that Spideys of the screen starve themselves to fit into. That the film was bookended by samey MCU Spider-Men only spotlighted its point. Across the Spider-Verse takes the same idea further, but it’s still the same idea, and it fails to hit as hard even from a new angle. 

That new angle involves the Spider-Society, a multiversal union of Spider-People run by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), a vampire Spider-Man with an ontological burden. Through the wonders of sci-fi, Miguel has discovered that each universe’s Spidey must experience certain “canon events”—fixed points in their lives that echo every other Spider story. Every Spidey loses a family member; every Spidey watches a police captain die. According to Miguel, if a canon event is altered, the universe in question—and everyone in it—could be destroyed, and if too many realities collapse, the entire multiverse could follow. It’s unclear why Spider-Beings are the keystones of their realities, but if you roll with it, you can watch the stakes climb from personal to cosmic, the mark of any true comic book sequel.

The cosmic doesn’t forgo the personal, thankfully. As the first of an eventual two-parter (Beyond the Spider-Verse comes next year), Across features plenty of table setting and character building. Its first hour spins redolent arcs for Gwen and Miles involving parents, identity, and the struggle to move forward, and the chemistry between the two is sweeter than ever, owing to resonant animation and terrific vocal performances. There’s no dearth of feeling. But once the stakes rise, the script runs into some problems. 

For one, the film never wrestles with its stakes authentically. The thematic core is, once again, that the Spider-Man story is mutable—Miles is told that his story goes one way and bravely, uniquely refuses. He’ll break canon and risk dimensional breakdown to save just one life. But at no point does Miles consider the costs of his rebellion: the film, so proud that it and Miles are set apart from the rabble, can’t help but paint his actions as heroic, even when they’re ostensibly imperiling all existence. The force with which it endorses a wider Spider-canon (a valuable endorsement, to be clear) prevents it from taking its diegetic stakes seriously. This is not a story that contends with saving one life over many; it’s another story about how, as the first film put it, “anyone can wear the mask.” Miles can change the narrative to fit him—just ignore the side effect of the universe dying.

To be fair, the story isn’t over yet—Across leaves open for the next film whether Miguel’s warnings are even true—but it suffers for lack of resolution. And its cliffhanger isn’t the only sign of IP decay: unlike its predecessor, Across features cameos and references from several concurrent properties, from Sony’s Venom to the MCU to Insomniac’s Spider-Man games. This abstracts the story further, tipping the scales from metanarrative to property-palooza. It’s still mostly celebratory—the in-jokes are rapid-fire funny, and the animators sure love all these Spidey designs—but the film’s distinctive value is dulled. With a sequel and a spinoff on the way, the Spider-Verse is shaping up a lot like its contemporaries.

It’s countless miles ahead in the visual department, though. Into the Spider-Verse was a watershed moment for animation—a curated acid trip, graphic novel and expressionism in pop art harmony—and Across ups the ante considerably. Every frame my eyes could perceive was enthralling. The frame swivels, splits, and rotates like a camera could never, echoing the comic aesthetic flawlessly while suffusing its world(s) with verve. It’s dynamic and kinetic and spilling over with care. Most breathtaking is the use of color: Gwen’s universe, for example, is awash in bleeding pastel watercolors that shift hue to match the themes, like when the purples and pinks that delineate her character thrum against red and blues emanating from her livid cop father (the only scene that comes close to criticizing police, who even “progressive” Spidey stories refuse to de-pedestal). The palette of each universe is wide and wonderful, and the action is always legible—an absolute triumph of CGI/hand-drawn synthesis, rivaled only by the films of CoMix Wave and Ufotable in the East. It’s spectacular. Maybe after part two, we can say the same for the story.

★★★½   (3.5/5)