‘Across the Spider-Verse’ amazes with its many, visually glorious worlds

Animated sequel has all the elements of a great summer blockbuster but keeps the story spinning too long.

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By age 15, Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore) has seen a lot as the hero of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

Columbia Pictures

They don’t call him Spider-Kid or Spider-Teen. He’s Spider-MAN, and even though Miles Morales is just 15 years old, he has seen enough things and fought enough battles and endured enough pain to fully understand that with great power comes great responsibility. He has earned that sobriquet, even though his parents and even most of his fellow travelers across the Spider-Verse keep treating him like a kid and telling him he’s not ready to handle the worlds outside of Brooklyn.

They couldn’t be more wrong. Miles Morales is a hero for our times.

Four years after writer-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller gave us the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the duo has teamed up with directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson to deliver a frequently exhilarating, visually glorious, wickedly clever and action-packed sequel that would have packed an even greater punch were it not for the running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes. The action sequences are dazzling and innovative, but at least two major set pieces run far too long, to the point where we’re equal parts thrilled and exhausted. Given that this is just the first half of a two-part sequel (“Beyond the Spider-Verse” is scheduled to arrive in theaters next spring), one can’t help but consider if this might have worked better as a multipart streaming series, with each episode running 45 minutes or so.

‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’

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Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson and written by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and David Callaham, Running time: 140 minutes. Rated PG (for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements). Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Ah, but despite that bloated running time, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” really should be seen with a crowd, on the largest possible screen, with popcorn and jumbo-sized drink in hand. This is the very definition of a summer escapist blockbuster, featuring an awesome variety of visual designs and hues, from screen-popping CGI to rough-edged, hand-drawn frames to split screens to a few perfectly timed live-action cameos to some deliberately murky backgrounds, as if we’re looking at a 3D movie without the glasses on. There are so many clever comic book-style title cards and quick-cut Easter eggs, super fans watching this when it comes to home video will be pausing every 30 seconds and pointing at the screen like DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Picking up the story a year after the events of the 2018 film, “Across the Spider-Verse” begins with a rousing prologue in which Gwen Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) bangs on the drums while telling us, “Let’s do things differently,” and that’s no idle prediction. This is in some ways the most faithful “Spider-Man” movie adaptation ever, while on another level it’s all about going AGAINST the canon and breaking all the rules.

After Gwen does battle with a 16th century version of Vulture (Jorma Taccone) who looks like an artist’s rendering come to life, she’s recruited to join an super-elite team of Spider-Men and Spider-Women (and in some cases, Spider-Animals and Spider-Machines) who are led by Oscar Isaac’s brooding and ferocious Miguel O’Hara and Issa Rae’s badass Jessica Drew. Their ongoing mission is to keep the delicate balance in the hundreds if not thousands of worlds in which one version or another of Spider-Man exists, for if someone were to mess with the canon, the entire multiverse could collapse.

(Apparently multiverse rules are pretty much the same as time-travel rules. There’s always some authority figure warning that you can’t go back in time or through a portal and change things — and some upstart hero-in-the-making who says, “We’ll see about that!”)

With Daniel Pemberton’s brilliant, multimusical-style score helping to set the pace, the action careens all over the place. Gwen breaks the rules and visits Miles (Shameik Moore) in his universe, where Miles is forever disappointing his parents, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), who still don’t know he’s Spider-Man, and doing battle with the goofy Spot (Jason Schwartzman), whom he initially dismisses as a “villain of the week,” but becomes increasingly dangerous and lethal. With the color palettes constantly changing, we’re introduced or reunited with a plethora of Spider-Characters, from the Indian Spider-Man Pavitr Prabhakar (Karon Soni) to the Brit punk-rocker Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya) to Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker, who’s now a proud papa.

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Miles, as Spider-Man (left), and Spider-Gwen (right, voice of Hailee Steinfeld) battle the Spot (Jason Schwartzman).

Columbia Pictures

Alliances are forged, bonds are broken, battles are fought. The connection between Miles and Gwen continues to strengthen; nobody else in their respective worlds can begin to comprehend what their lives are like. When Gwen has a touching scene with her police captain father (Shea Whigham), it’s as if we’re inside a faded watercolor painting. When the punky Hobie takes center stage, the visuals resemble a 1980s fanzine. In Pavitr’s world, Manhattan and Mumbai seemed to have melded into the same city.

The action frequently zips through various portals; one minute we’re in a 1940s-looking animated world, the next, we’re paying a visit to the LEGO Universe. Name the Spider-Man related GIF or meme or theme or inside joke, and there’s a great likelihood of seeing it featured in this jam-packed multiverse. It’s a bit too much at times, but it’s also pretty great, and it’ll be a huge surprise if the third chapter in the trilogy isn’t equally entertaining.

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