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Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is an energetic, multifaceted adventure, and not just because its heroes hopscotch through other dimensions. As visually inventive as its 2018 predecessor, Across the Spider-Verse again delivers eye-catching action along with characters of depth and nuance both behind and outside of the mask.

It’s a thrilling achievement, even as it leaves viewers dangling by a thread for the final installment.

The Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a hyperkinetic dose of animated adrenaline that celebrated the idea anyone can become a hero; they just need to take a leap of faith. That film introduced Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, Wu-Tang: An American Saga), a biracial teen from Brooklyn with a talent for art and a brain for physics. As Miles embraced his spider powers, he learned he wasn’t the only one with such skills, forging fast friendships with spider-folks from other Earths.

Multiple dimensions might seem to offer possibilities, but Across the Spider-Verse heightens the stakes by floating the idea that some bad things need to happen—and that not everyone can or should stop them. That’s a tough assessment for Miles (Moore again) to accept, still learning on the job and wanting to save everyone he can.

Across the Spider-Verse picks up roughly one year after the first film, where Miles and his new friends stopped a reality-collapsing device before returning to their home dimensions. Unknown to them, their actions had fallout, such as characters from one world popping into others, leaving the fatalistic Spider-Man 2099, a.k.a. Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac, Moon Knight), to clean up the mess.

Setting up this unfinished business, we first catch up with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld, Dickinson), a.k.a. Spider-Woman. About a year older than Miles, who’s about fifteen, Gwen hides her secret identity from her police captain father (Shea Whigham), who blames Spider-Woman for someone’s death. Her double life pains Gwen until she encounters a time-hopping villain whom one might call a Renaissance man, animated as if he’s ripped from da Vinci’s sketches of a flying machine.

After Gwen helps Spider-Man 2099 and Jessica Drew (Issa Rae, A Black Lady Sketch Show) fight the interloper, the heavily pregnant Jessica, who rides a motorcycle, takes pity on her isolation and invites her to join their task force. Following an anomaly in Miles’s world, Gwen can’t resist dropping in on her friend, who also knows what it’s like to lie to loved ones while trying to be a friendly neighborhood hero.

For his part, Miles seems aimless yet secretive to his parents and guidance counselor. He has confidence and swagger in his spider suit, perhaps too much when he encounters The Spot (Jason Schwartzman, Asteroid City), a scientist warped by the device from the previous film. The Spot lost his features and his family, reduced to resembling a white bodysuit with black spots that turn out to be portals. He and Miles have a clever fight where limbs defy gravity while Miles jokes he looks like a Dalmatian. This makes the nerdy nemesis more determined to up his game, so Miles will take him seriously.

Director Kemp Powers (Soul), sharing duties with longtime animators Joaquim Dos Santos and Justin K. Thompson, juggle the emotional threads with the interdimensional action, which zips by at an enthralling pace. Part of the fun of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is watching Miles venture to other worlds, such as Mumbattan, a version of Manhattan with an Indian flair, such as Holi-bright colors. The other spider-folks are a lively and well-defined bunch, especially the upbeat Spider-Man India, a.k.a. Pavitir Prabhakar (Karan Soni, Bridgewater); the moody Scarlet Spider (Andy Samberg, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers); and Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya, Nope), a plaid-clad Brit with a mohawk on his mask and a lush mane underneath.

“How are you even cooler under your mask?” Miles asks.

“I was cool the whole time,” Spider-Punk says, with Kaluuya’s obvious glee.

There’s also a spider gal upside-down in a wheelchair, and Miles’s returning mentor in sweatpants, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, Lost Ollie), wearing a baby carrier with his superpowered toddler, May. While his fashion sense still fails to tingle, he again has heartening words when it counts.

Writers Phil Lord (from the previous film), Christopher Miller (the Lego Movie films), and Dave Callaham (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) give Miles’s and Gwen’s parents relatable angst along with deprecating humor. Miles’s dad, Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta), and mom, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez, East New York), have a touching rapport together and with Miles.

While the voice cast is stellar, the animators—more than a thousand—are true all-stars. They imbue each world with a different texture, palette, and artistic style that will take additional viewings to absorb. Again, they render the feel of a comic book come to life—panels spell out thoughts, ink splatters, neon splashes, and Ben-Day dots scatter across the screen. Yet they also evoke the characters’ feelings and personalities in their surroundings. Gwen’s watercolor backgrounds blend and bleed, highlighting the distance between her and her father. Miles’s reflection appears in a subway car’s windows, conveying he’s on her mind as readily as his sketchpad shows Gwen is on his.

The two share what passes for a date, swinging through the city before taking a breather at the Williamsburg bank building, sitting upside-down on a ledge because they can. With the skyline upended before them, Gwen muses things don’t end well for other Gwens who fall for a Spider-Man. “There’s a first time for everything, right?” Miles says as their fingers inch close to a touch.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse ends on a cliffhanger, teasing whether Miles will unravel what seems to be fate. Until the next chapter appears, consider us happily caught in his web.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.