“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was one of the best films of 2018. It was the rare comic book film that could stand on its own. There was a refreshing uniqueness that pleased fans and non-fans alike. The Oscar-winning animated feature introduced us to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Brooklyn’s very own friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Well, the one that inhabited his particular universe.
“Into the Spider-Verse” had amazing visuals and stellar voice work by the entire cast, including John Mulaney, Mahershala Ali, and a very noir-centric Nicolas Cage. The story was that there were multiple universes, or Spider-Verses, if you will, and each had its very own version of Spidey. Gender, age, race, ethnicity, and species didn’t matter. Representation ruled, and it was a beautiful thing.
The first movie was a lot of fun and, as we now know, is part of a trilogy.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is the second entry, 140 minutes of non-stop, often exhausting action that culminates in a very comic-book-panel-worthy box that says “To Be Continued…” It is the second movie this summer season, after “Fast X,” to hang viewers from a narrative cliff before the closing credits.
Just like Vin Diesel’s movie, this one ends on an unsatisfying note that offers no temporary conclusion or reward for sitting through a butt-numbing feature. I was annoyed with Dom Toretto, and I’m annoyed with Miles Morales. We’ll have to wait for “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” (tentatively scheduled to be released in 2024) to find out what happens next.
I’ve seen this film get compared to the greatest “to be continued…” movie ever, “The Empire Strikes Back.” While this Spidey sequel has that film’s uncompromising layer of darkness, the movie it reminded me of was “Back to the Future Part II.” Like that first sequel to Marty McFly’s adventures, this one is nothing but exposition under its alluring smoke and mirrors. All those details started to wear on me; I found myself ready to check out at times.
And so, I am conflicted. Because despite my aggravation, I concede there is much to recommend about “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” For starters, the visuals are absolutely stunning, surpassing the original film by leaps and bounds. The voice acting also remains top-notch, with several cast members returning alongside newcomers like Issa Rae, Jason Schwartzman, Oscar Isaac, and a very game, very entertaining Daniel Kaluuya.
Additionally, the screenplay by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Dave Callaham takes time from all those plot beats to further the original’s strong and complex emotional bonds between the Afro-Latino Miles, his parents Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), and his friends Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson).
Gwen and Peter B. Parker are the Spideys of their respective universes, and “Across the Spider-Verse” begins in hers, where her cop father thinks Spidey is responsible for the murder of her best friend. We know that, outside of Miles, Gwen is averse to bonding with anyone as a friend after Peter’s demise. But Miles is in his world and there is no longer a way to hop from one universe to another. The portal that allowed the other Spideys to fall into Miles’s universe was closed at the end of the first movie when Miles destroyed Doc Ock’s collider.
We discover that not only is there a way to hop from world to world, the entire multiverse is policed by a group of Spideys recruited by Miguel O’Hara (Isaac). These include Jessica Drew (Rae) and grumpy as hell punk rocker Hobie (Kaluuya). These names will mean more to the fans than the casual observer, but each performer brings them to life with their voices.
Gwen is recruited, somewhat grudgingly, by Jessica and gets a bracelet that enables multiverse travel. That’s how she ends up visiting Miles. He has grown since they last met, and his Dad is about to make captain on the police force. Miles’s Spidey also has a new nemesis, a guy named Jonathan Ohnn (Schwartzman), who possesses a very strange power Miles has inadvertently given him. Among other things, that power allows him to accidentally kick himself in the genitals.
When Miles discovers that universe jumping is possible, he hitches a ride with an unsuspecting Gwen.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s going on in “Across the Spider-Verse,” and I’ve probably said too much already. The bottom line is that, unlike “Into the Spider-Verse,” this movie feels like the standard issue Marvel movie. That is, its sole purpose is to spew a slew of details mega-fans will care about too much and newbies and the casual fan won’t care about enough.
The more I consider it, the more I realize the best elements of this film make it worth seeing, if only marginally so. There is enough to, dare I say, marvel at while you are beaten senseless with plot. Bring on “Beyond.”
SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE
Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson. Written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dave Callaham. Starring Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Issa Rae, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Schwartzman. 140 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburbs. PG (does whatever a spider can)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.