What happens when a superhero gets grounded?
In "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse," that superhero does the things most teenagers might do: whines that his misstep wasn't his fault, retreats to his bedroom to listen to an emo James Blake song on his headphones — and then climbs out of his window to join a friend.
The difference, of course, is that Miles Morales/Spider-Man is a crucial part of saving the world in the spectacular "Across the Spider-Verse." As in any superhero movie, there's a villain (the Spot, voiced by Jason Schwartzman) with evil plans. Using his ability to slip into alternate universes, the Spot is creating trouble that causes arachnerd Miles and a diverse group of fellow Spideys — including, this time, one who uses a wheelchair and another who may be non-binary — to activate a secret network of world-savers.
If you've developed Superhero Fatigue Syndrome, the sequel to "Into the Spider-Verse" may be the cure. The plot barely matters because the movie has so much fun dishing out new Spideys, almost like a skilled comedian improv-ing jokes. Some favorites are Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), who thinks he's a lot cooler than his parents do, Issa Rae's tough-talking (and pregnant) Spider-Woman and Daniel Kaluuya's hilarious Spider-Punk. The latter is as cool as he thinks he is, with huge dreads, a penchant for rhyming cockney slang and a look derived from British graphic design of the late 1970s.
Visually, "Across the Spider-Verse" is an anarchic astonishment. As Miles slips into alternate universes, the appearance of the film evolves. One minute, it resembles an Impressionist painting, then a stylized comic book, then a Sex Pistols album cover, then a Legos sculpture, then photo-realism, then a Roy Lichtenstein painting. Not that you'd want to but I suspect you could turn off the sound and simply delight in the beauty of this inventive film.
Please don't, though, because there's also a different style of humor in each universe and because you'd miss the heart of the movie, which is Miles' relatable story, given depth and soul by Shameik Moore's lovely voice acting. Miles has all the teenager things — there's a sharply conceived sequence in which Miles gradually inches his hand closer to would-be girlfriend Gwen Stacy's (Hailee Steinfeld), only to pull it back when the conversation takes a turn. But he also grapples with the loneliness that comes from not being able to tell anyone, including his folks, who he is.
Most superhero movies have moments in which it's argued that the protagonists are not that different from the rest of us but this one starts with a kid who seems real, then complicates his life with the heroic stuff. As Stacy's narration indicates at the beginning of the film, "He hasn't always had it easy. And he's not the only one."
So, if you're scoring along at home, "Across the Spider-Verse" is a sweet story of parents and children (Miles' mom, voiced by Luna Lauren Velez, gives great pep talk), a believable romance, an accounting of adolescent woes and a grand adventure. Like "Into the Spider-Verse," it's also a bold technical leap that feels like it expands the storytelling and visual possibilities of animation.
In short, it's a classic. No spoilers but I'll say that the ending does something I really do not like and, in this case, I didn't care one bit.
'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse'
4 out of 4 stars
Rated: PG for comic book-style violence.
Where: In theaters.