Producers: Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Christina Steinberg   Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson   Screenplay: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and David Callaham   Cast: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac, Shea Whigham, Mahershala Ali, Amandla Sternberg, Jorma Taccone, Rachel Dratch and Andy Samberg   Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Grade: C

When “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” come out in 2018, one could appreciate both its lively, inventive animated visuals, which happily distinguished it from the lumbering live-action of most superhero movies, and a narrative that, while not ignoring the usual genre expectations, connected emotionally by centering on the difficulties faced by teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) in trying to master his new Spider-Man powers while dealing with normal teenage problems, including the concerns of his loving but overprotective parents Jefferson and Rio (Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez) and a new school.  And while it opened the door to a Spidey “multi-verse”—a concept which frankly is by now hackneyed and overused—it didn’t bring it crushing down on us. 

The sequel, “Across the Spider-Verse,” arrives attempting the same balancing act, but its ambitions have expanded substantially, evidenced by the fact that it’s just the first part of a two-part tale, with the continuation, “Beyond the Spider-Verse” scheduled for release in 2024—yet by itself runs for nearly two-and-a-half hours.  The visual extravagance and speed are taken to extremes, so that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate individual niceties before they’re snatched from view.  And the multi-verse has now become the focal point, with Miles’ place in it (or outside it) important, it seems, only as a cog in its overall operation; as a result while the screenplay strives to maintain an emotional core in his story, it’s overwhelmed by the sheer busyness that surrounds him.  Bloated in every respect, it winds up, despite (or perhaps because of) its visual excess and high-octane energy level, an exhausting watch, so overpopulated that only the most obsessive fans will be able to appreciate much of it.

The film begins with a prologue about Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), her world’s spider-person, who’s depressed over the death of her buddy Peter Parker, for which her father George (Shea Whigham), a police detective, blames Spider-Woman, not knowing she’s actually his daughter.  It also introduces the Spider-Society, a group headed by stern Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), or Spider-Man 2099, and Spider-Woman Jessica Drew (Issa Rae) and dedicated to maintaining the balance within the multiverse so that it doesn’t implode when its rules—including a code that applies to all the hundreds of spider-folk—are violated.

Focus then shifts to Miles’ Brooklyn, where he’s in trouble with his parents because of the erratic quality of his schoolwork—Rachel Dratch does a nice bit as a guidance counselor—and his frequent absences, partially caused by the arrival of a supervillain as new at the job as Miles—Jonathan Ohnn (Jason Schwartzman), who was turned into The Spot, a white-skinned being with black blotches that serve as portals to different places, even interdimensional ones.  His unfortunate condition, it turns out, resulted from the explosion of the Kingpin’s super-collider in the previous movie, a disaster caused by Miles and thus a rationale for The Spot desiring revenge against him specifically.

After a successful battle against her world’s version of The Vulture (Jorma Taccone), Gwen decides to revisit Miles in Brooklyn, where their growing relationship is interrupted by The Spot, whose ability to jump into other universes puts them in pursuit.  In an episode in a metropolis that merges Mumbai and Manhattan, they meet one of the more amusing Spideys they will encounter—cheekily narcissistic Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni)—though some viewers may prefer Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), a punk-rock Brit with a guitar slung over his shoulder.  They wind up in the headquarters of the Spider-Society, where Miles will not only meet up with a much changed old acquaintance, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson)—now with a tyke in tow—but will learn something unsettling about his spider-origin and an equally disturbing part what O’Hara says is an essential element of the Spider-Man canon.  The upshot is that Miles is pursued by the entire corps of the Society as he tries to get home, though the attempt goes awry and leaves him in dire danger from an unexpected source.

Super-fans will undoubtedly enjoy every tiny bit of “Across the Spider-Verse,” vying with one another to spot all the references, however fleeting, to the innumerable permutations of the Spider-Man franchise that have proliferated in various formats since the character first swung onto the printed page some sixty-plus years ago.  (There’s even a quick look at a LEGO-Spider-Man world.) They’ll ooh and aah and applaud as they watch the picture repeatedly in theatres and catch the references, and then use the pause button to savor them when it reaches home viewing.  For the true aficionados, this will be cinematic nirvana.

Others will find a good deal to marvel at, too, especially the degree of imagination demonstrated by the animation—distinctive appearances for the multiple worlds, one looking like a watercolor painting and another like a splashy Bollywood poster just for starters, and split screens, panels and captions employed to mimic the look of comic book pages.  (The production design by Kevin Aymeric and Patrick O’Keefe is undeniably outstanding.)  And the voice work is excellent, especially from Moore and Steinfeld.  But the initial dazzle wears off over time, especially since Mike Andrews’ editing and Daniel Pemberton’s score are so hectic and hyper-agitated.

This is a film that will leave Spidey-devotees wowed but outsiders simply woozy.  The former will salivate over the prospect of next year’s resolution; the latter will probably just shrug.