When 2018’s Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse introduced us to teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a new hero behind the web-patterned mask, it freshened up the by-now ubiquitous form of the superhero origin story in so many vital, bracing ways. As a strong, smart POC protagonist, Miles proved that you didn’t need to be as white as Peter Parker to master web-slinging. The sci-fi conceit of a multiverse in which every dimension contains its own different Spider-Man extended that inclusive, democratic notion that “anyone can wear the mask” in clever, creative ways. And most playfully of all, the dazzling eclecticism and style of the visual design, influenced by Miles’ passion for spray-painted street art, took full advantage of the liberated possibilities of the animation medium.
But there were times within Into The Spider-Verse when Miles’ origin story still felt very similar to Peter’s, though not in a bad way. Watching Miles fumble with his newfound abilities while trying to impress a school crush (Gwen Stacy, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, who is soon revealed to be another dimension’s Spider-Woman) or scramble to hide his new identity from his parents makes him just as relatable in his coming-of-age awkwardness as his friendly neighborhood predecessor.
For a long while, the film’s wildly ambitious sequel, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, strikes the same uncanny balance between eye-popping innovation and recognizable humanity. Following a prologue set in Gwen’s dimension in which circumstances force her to reckon with revealing her Spider-Woman alter ego to her cop father (Shea Whigham), we see that Miles is similarly struggling with compartmentalizing his superheroics alongside his ground-level relationships and obligations. Much like how the first Spider-Verse mirrored Peter’s origin story, this second outing initially parallels Sam Raimi’s operatic, moving Spider-Man 2 in its focus on the difficulty of shouldering the burden and making the sacrifices inherent in being Spider-Man—essentially learning what “with great power comes great responsibility” truly means.
However, as Across The Spider-Verse indicates in its cocky opening line of “Let’s do things differently this time,” delivered by Gwen while in the middle of a rebellious drum solo, this is one sequel that’s not content merely to riff on what’s come before. The ability of certain central characters—like Gwen and a villain called The Spot (Jason Schwartzman)—to travel through the multiverse means that co-directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson can transport the viewer to an array of imaginatively conceived, visually stunning dimensions, thereby upping the sci-fi genre quotient this time out. The script, co-written by Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Dave Callaham, goes in similarly heady directions, acquiring a layer of self-referentiality when the shape and order of the “spider-verse” is dubbed “the canon,” which, as nitpicking fans know, is comprised of the tropes essential to every Spider-Man story. It makes for a narrative as meta as that of Lord and Miller’s Chosen One myth-skewering The LEGO Movie.
But what soon gets lost in this enjoyably mind-bending feast of visual psychedelia and self-aware plot turns—aside from a story that kids can easily follow—is the human-scaled heart so evident in the first act. Miles’ parents (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Velez) are so specific and well-drawn on every level—like how they bristle at Miles’ friends immediately calling them by their first names—that their disappearance from most of the movie’s mid-section is sorely felt. Across The Spider-Verse is so intent on constantly showing us something new that it sometimes neglects the classical virtues and comforts of the old. And even if it’s the rare galaxy brain blockbuster to come off as a bit too busy and overplotted instead of lowest common denominator targeting, messiness is still messiness.
Luckily, it doesn’t prove fatal. In addition to expanding the series’ visual artistry and offering some amusing new characters (the snarling, anti-establishment Spider-Punk, voiced with Cockney-inflected attitude by Daniel Kaluuya, is a standout), Across The Spider-Verse retains the rapid-fire wit and thrilling action of its predecessor. That it falls short when it comes to matching the emotional impact of Into The Spider-Verse is further exemplified by a surprisingly abrupt cliffhanger conclusion that instead of sending the viewer out on a rousing high just makes one wonder why such an otherwise sharp franchise is going the route of weaker MCU entries in shortchanging its effectiveness as a stand-alone film to tease a future installment. That’s definitely one case where the film would’ve done well to heed Gwen’s opening promise of doing things differently.
Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse opens in theaters on June 2