A day after I saw Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson; written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Dave Callaham), it started fading in a way that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) didn’t. A lot has to do with expectations: Into came out of nowhere at year’s end to nab the Best Animated Feature Oscar seemingly by word of mouth alone.

But some of it has to do with a few specific challenges of making a sequel that Across falls afoul of. The story is classic multiverse timeline anxiety, with the initial protagonist–antagonist character dynamic of the Lord and Miller–produced The LEGO Batman Movie (2017). The family plot devolves into the classic quandary of all masked superheroes, aggravated by a false comparison between Miles’s (Shameik Moore) and Gwen’s (Hailee Steinfeld) situations. In other words, the film fails to emotionally justify not having a much-needed conversation.

The central theme picks up from Into’s search for belonging and brings Miles face to face with the “responsibility” half of “With great power” etc., specifically how to deal with when, as Gwen admits, “I don't know what the right thing to do is anymore!” Setting up Gwen as Miles’s foil is thought-provoking. Though they’re both isolated by their secret identity, sense of moral goodness, and their feelings for each other that the film emphasizes shouldn’t be pursued, that’s where the similarities end. In nearly every other way, the two are opposites. Miles truly is utterly alone, both by his choices and his circumstances.

To isolate him completely, the film has to undercut the joy of its most euphoric scene. For Into, it’s when Miles finally learns how to swing through Manhattan and truly becomes Spider-Man. For Across, it’s when Gwen crosses dimensions to visit him, and their reunion is one long soaring flirtation across the city (YouTube). In the prequel, Miles’s maturation is key to the plot, but here the flirtation is a distraction, maybe even an impediment, and revealing this fact gives us the first uneasy hint that Miles will be betrayed.

Once that betrayal looms, we await the other shoe-drop, and plot development turns into gear grinding. It taints all of the fan-service cameos afforded by a multiverse, including everyone from the first installment (Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker gets a line), live-action convenience store owner Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu) from Venom (2018) — she gets one line, delivered twice — and the rest of the incredibly lengthy cast listed on the film’s Wikipedia page. Even the main comedic element embodied (so to speak) in AI assistant LYLA (Greta Lee) feels a tad rote, perhaps a sign that Lord and Miller’s trademark manic humor has its time and place, and this ain’t it.

And yet, this can all be chalked up to sequel-itis. Every new element the film introduces reveals the whole endeavor to be a labor of love (and an extra year and five weeks of production). Using the film’s wonderfully animated “glitch” leitmotif, the opening titles show off various ways to illustrate the corporate logos. The closing credits are also amazeballs: The above-the-line credits get a James Bond opening credits–style sequence that eases us down from the cliffhanger while reminding us of what we’ve just seen, while the below-the-line credits are title cards that change in time to the beat of the music set against stylish pastel backgrounds (art direction by Dean Gordon and Araiz Khalid). And the opening lines of the prologue, focused on Gwen’s story, are perfectly written and scored to rap and R&B tunes produced by Metro Boomin (YouTube) (score by Daniel Pemberton (YouTube)) — the whole prologue is a marvel of compressed storytelling (edited by Michael Andrews), second only to the legendary prologue of Up (2009).

Each character’s universe is illustrated differently, with Gwen’s in watercolor (production designed by Patrick O’Keefe). Much digital ink has been spilled parsing the confounding intersection of the facts that (1) Gwen’s world is painted in the colors of the transgender flag, (2) she has a “protect trans kids” flag taped above her bedroom door, (3) superhero secret identities often lend themselves to queer readings, (4) Gwen’s dad (Shea Whigham) is a cop who wears a trans flag patch and (5) tries to arrest her when she “comes out” to him, (6) Gwen says to him in their moment of catharsis that she knows he puts on the badge to prevent someone else who shouldn’t and (7) that “my mask is my badge,” and that, (8) when Miles’s dad (Brian Tyree Henry) asks her if she’s doing drugs with Miles, she gags him by vengefully retorting, “My dad’s a cop.”

I think the film simply doesn’t care about political coherence. Gwen’s color palette reflects her grief and isolation, and the symbols of trans support are just scattershot symbols — that is (to be uncharitable), virtue signaling. There’s a whole scene set in “Mumbattan” featuring Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), and all the film can muster is a few cracks at British museums being filled with stolen loot, and the redundancy of the term “chai tea” (because “chai” just means “tea”), while also poking fun at Mumbai’s infamous traffic snarls in a way that doesn’t not feel condescending. Even the ostensibly anti-establishment Spider-Punk/Hobie (a cockney-spouting Daniel Kaluuya), illustrated in the style of underground zines (costumes designed by Brooklyn El-Omar), joins in trying to make Miles’s betrayal go down easier.

This subtle downside is more than counterbalanced by what’s fast becoming this series’ calling card: action sequences that defy all spatial orientation and come at you at the speed of thought while meticulously maintaining coherence and clarity of audience focus. Though frenetic, they feel intuitive, and so the film’s momentum makes you feel more at home than your actual, real-life home — this, too, being a thematic element. Spider-Man, and the inherent chaos of his pendular mode of transport, was made for this shit.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in theaters.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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