Five years is, as they say, a long time any way you cut it, especially this last half-decade we've all been through. Cast your mind back to 2018 – Marvel Comics films were the unquestioned rulers of the blockbuster world, but even so the appearance of something quite as quirky as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (a wildly imaginative tale of numerous parallel universes crashing into each other) stood out from the crowd.
Now, on the other hand, people are queueing up to declare that the main Marvel Studios project seems to be in danger of stalling, and movies about parallel timelines and multiversal machinations have become such cosily familiar fodder for the movies that one even won a few Oscars this year. Superhero fatigue is one thing, but multiversal banality? I never thought I'd live to see the day.
In theory, then, you might have expected Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K Thompson) to have missed its moment – sequels are inevitably about repetition, so how does that square with a film which succeeded because of its irresistible novelty? Needless to say they have a good try.
This time around the film starts by focusing on the travails of Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), who is contending with the usual travails afflicting the different Spider-People of the cosmos – namely, balancing her personal life with arachnid-themed superheroics. Her main issue is that her father is the policeman in charge of catching her, which makes things awkward around the dining table. Things get even more strained when she finds herself having to fight the Vulture – not the one who occasionally looks like Michael Keaton, but one originating from what is presumably a Renaissance Italy version of the standard Marvel Universe. The events of the first film have left the multiverse riddled with cracks which miscreants like this keep slipping through.
Luckily, a crack squad of Spider-Folk from across these many worlds has been assembled and are doing their best to keep the situation under control, as Spider-Woman discovers when she meets Brooding Vampire Spider-Man (Oscar Isaac) and Pregnant Motorcyclist Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), who invite her to join the team.
Absolutely not invited to get on board is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), the inexperienced Spider-Man of yet another dimension, who is also struggling to combine his normal activities with what goes on in the costume (he also has an odd relationship with his father, who is another police officer). The appearance of an apparently nuisance-villain named the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) doesn't help much – but the Spot turns out to be a much greater threat than he first appears, as it turns out he can access other worlds as well and is intent on using them to boost his own powers. Inevitably, the young Spider-Man finds himself obliged to team up with Spider-Woman and the inter-dimensional Spider-People if the Spot is going to be stopped – but why does Brooding Vampire Spider-Man resent him so much? And what is the dark secret that the other Spider-People are trying to protect?
I'm not even going to try and suggest that people who don't like Spider-Man, Marvel Comics or super-heroes in general should hurry along and give Across the Spider-Verse a chance. To the uninitiated the plot probably sounds like utter gobbledygook – you really do have to be across the idea that there are a vast number of similar but slightly different worlds, most of which possess their own variant of Spider-Man. (If you think that one Spider-Man is enough, or even more than enough, stay away.) Forget about the half-dozen or so Spider-Men from Into the Spider-Verse – this one features about two hundred different versions of the character, including Punk Rock Spider-Man (Daniel Kaluuya), Bollywood Spider-Man (Karan Soni), Cowboy Spider-Man, Film Noir Spider-Man (Nicolas Cage), Andrew Garfield Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield), Lego Spider-Man, Cat Spider-Man, Car Spider-Man and Tyrannosaurus Spider-Man. Most of the film is animated; some is not (a character from Venom appears in live-action form).
You might think the film was in imminent danger of vanishing up its own spinnerets, one way or another, and I suppose from a certain point of view you'd be absolutely right: the film-makers seem to take inordinate pleasure in just riffing on different versions of the character and bringing them together in odd combinations – but the script is actually quite clever in the way it goes beyond simply dropping in Easter Eggs for the faithful and coming up with a story built around ideas that are quite resonant and emotionally involving. This still finds time for a sequence where umpty-tump versions of Spider-Man have a chase up the side of an orbital tower, but that's the skill of blockbuster film-making, I suppose.
But the charge that the film is – in some way – excessive is a tough one to dodge. Never mind the plot, feel the length of the thing – it goes on for well over two hours and you do start to feel it well before the end. The film ends on a cliffhanger (of course; Beyond the Spider-Verse will be along next year) so there isn't an actual climax – but it certainly feels like the film is building up to an ending of sorts, only for it to push on for a good twenty minutes or so more. The earlier sections of the film, before the multiversal plot really gets started, also feel like they could comfortably be trimmed a bit.
Nevertheless, there was a point in the middle of the film where I caught myself genuinely thinking 'Why can't all superhero movies be like this one?' – meaning, having the same relentless energy, wit, inventiveness and colour. The film may be about the whole concept of Spider-Man, but it's also a triumph of creativity and, yes, art: it looks stunning, with terrific ingenuity shown in the way the different worlds are depicted – each one of them looks different in some way, as does their native web-slinger. The conception and direction of the film must probably qualify as a bit of a triumph; if you are on its wavelength, it is a terrific piece of entertainment, and still highly original. How many films about multiple versions of famous superhero characters visiting parallel dimensions, featuring Nicolas Cage cameos, are we likely to see this summer, after all?