SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE (2023) is the middle film of an animated trilogy beginning with SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018) and to be continued in SPIDER-MAN: BEYOND THE SPIDER-VERSE (planned for 2024).

The screenplay was written by David Callaham, and by the producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. David Callaham also wrote for ANT-MAN and THE EXPENDIBLES as well as SHANG-SHI and the remake of MORTAL KOMBAT. I note the names because the writing was exceptional.

Two things surprised me about this film: first, it was much better than anticipated. Reviewers and friends who’d seen it either downplayed or did not see its virtues.

Second, it ends in a cliffhanger, which, again, I would have expected reviewers to mention.

Also surprising was the character of Spider-Gwen, whom I merely found annoying in the first film, in this was portrayed so sympathetically and so three-dimensionally, that at times I almost forgot her stupid half-shaved hairdo and eyebrow piercings.

To turn a dislikable character into a likable, or even a lovable one, displays a mastery of writing craft: the same virtuoso writing was on display with the character of Spider-Punk, disliked at first, then admired.

A final surprise was how little the wokeness there was, perhaps none.

Each point that looked like wokeness also seemed honest, as integral to script, character, background. Perhaps pregnant biker-women and maternalistic fathers carrying babies into combat is not criminal child endangerment in some parallel world. A Bollywood Spidey mocks the British, and a British Spidey mocks capitalism, but perhaps this is banter, not propaganda.

No female needs rescuing, or aid, or advice, but this could be because they are superheroines with spider-powers, not a political statement about female empowerment. If there is wokeness in this film, it is insufficient to trigger my hypersensitive allergic reaction.

Even the one mixed race married couple comes honestly from the source material, not injected for a political point. The characters are real, not representation.

Unwoke is the portrayal of cops and dads as dignified, including the cops who are dads — three of them.

Unwoke moreso was the film’s theme, displaying the wrongness of lying to one’s family, even for super-vigilante teens. And the families here were families, not wokecrap “found” families.

The film was surprising, and all the surprises were pleasant. Even discovering it to be cliffhanger did not displease any fan eager to see more of this tale.

The premise of the trilogy is that there is a multiverse composed of myriad parallel timelines, each containing variations of the same people and events, some mildly different, some wildly.

Spider-Man of Earth 1610 is Miles Morales, who differs from our Spider-Man in that both his parents are still alive. In addition to webbing and clinging and spider-strength and super-reflexes and precognitive spider-senses, he also discovered how to turn invisible and emit electric shocks. Otherwise, he is the same loudmouthed angst-ridden teenager as ever.

In the previous film, Miles Morales ran afoul of the criminal mastermind Kingpin, who used a supercollider to open a portal to a parallel dimension, seeking a version of his wife and family still alive, to claim them for his own. The various spider-men of several worlds, including Spider-Gwen (from Earth-65 where Gwen Stacy, not Peter Parker, was bitten by the fateful radioactive spider), team up across dimensions to quell the threat, but then are separated, seemingly forever.

In the current film, Miles has been nursing an infatuation with Spider-Gwen since that day. His spider luck is running as bad as ever, and various shoplifters and purse-snatchers hinder his prompt appearance, first, at a crucial meeting with college application officer, and second, with his parent’s big rooftop feast and celebration. Spider-Miles is particularly hindered by a reluctant villain-of-the-week named Spot, an ex-mad-scientist who controls an ill-controlled portable hole power, which he uses for petty crimes, sometimes for pratfalls.

The parents know Miles is lying and hiding a secret from them, but each attempt to fathom the truth is frustrated. One furious argument later, his father grounds him for a month, which snowballs into two or more as silence is misconstrued as sullen stubbornness. Miles has no friend, no fellow with whom to share his secret and to open his heart.

Back in her home dimension, Spider-Gwen’s battle with the Lizard ends in the tragic death of her best friend, school geek Peter Parker, leading to her being suspected of the murder, leading her to be ruthlessly hunted by her own father, police captain Stacy. Typical spider luck! The troubled teen drives family and friends away, unable to reveal the truth of her double life.

But then she is recruited into the interdimensional society of spider-beings, whose mission is to preserve the canon of cause and effect, included the tragic events fate decrees, needed to preserve the Spider-verse intact. Issued a cross-dimensional portal key, she uses the opportunity to cross dimensions herself, and visit the grounded Miles.

But all is not as it seems. Spider-Gwen is not here in Earth-1610 merely for a social call, but to deal with dire danger. For it seems that Spot is weary of being a comedy relief crook, and has determined on a plan to become a true supervillain, one worthy of fear and respect. Here, again, the Spot grows from a minor scofflaw to a major menace, moved by an understandable motivation — what supervillain tolerates being taken lightly? Again, it takes considerable skill to turn a comedy-relief shoplifter into a nightmarish superhuman able to make good on blood-chilling threats.

The shared scenes of Spider-Miles and Spider-Gwen, and their awkward teen-angst interactions with each other, were particularly well handled, as Miles slowly comes to learn Gwen is keeping secrets from him, perhaps romantic, perhaps something else. Who is this Hobart fellow she mentioned, and how close is he to her? Why was he invited to join the Spider Society, but not Miles?

Questions snowball while emergencies emerge and the spider-pals plunge through a portal to a parallel world.

One portal leads to another, and Spider-Miles finds himself invited into the great and shining futuristic meeting hall of the interdimensional Spider Society.

Miles is eager to team-up with others like himself, and to use the great responsibilities of his great powers for the truly noble goal sought by the leader, the cybernetic Spider-Man of 2099, Miguel O’Hara of Earth-928.

I was charmed by the high-pitched voice of a child seated a row or two ahead of me, who, when Spider-Man 2099 stepped on stage, cried excitedly “I recognize him!” — a cry which could have been repeated two dozen times or more.

There are cameo appearances, glimpses, and voice-overs from every iteration, cartoon or live action, show, film, or computer game of every Spider-Man variation I knew, and many more I did not. This film surely should win a prize merely for the number of Easter-eggs and fan-panderings peppered through the scenes.

Every Spider-being, whether or not original to this film, was handled with originality, especially Pavitr Prabhakar of Earth-50101 who was born Indian and lives in Mumbattan and who has great hair and spins a diabolo bobbin on his spider webs. He is the one spider-fellow whose spider-luck runs in his favor. He lives with his Aunt Maya, and no close loved one of his dies.

Contrasted with him, both in comportment and animation style, is Hobie Brown, a punk-rock Spider-rebel with a lip-ring and mohawk, armed with guitar and sneer, hailing from the London rock scene of Earth-138. This fellow is charming in an anarchic way, because sometimes a rebel rebels for all the right reasons — but he does not believe in consistency.

A particularly clever conceit of the film was to animate each world in a separate and unique style, including wild variations ranging from scrapbook animation to stop-motion Lego figures. Film Noir world is entirely black and white, and Peter Porker the Amazing Spider-Ham hails from a Loony Tunes toonworld.

In Gwen Stacy’s world, the scenes are painted in watercolors, which blush with emotion or ripple and drip with grief, as the mood of the scene changes.

Any viewer prone to epileptic spasms may be disorientated by the experimental strobe-light exuberance of some of the animation. The fight scenes are particularly kinetic and colorful, almost too rich with action, if that can be imagined. One would go crosseyed trying to track and read every rapid narration bubble that appears and vanishes when a crowd of spider-beings tumble across the scene. Some films are made with slow-mo or freeze-frame in mind.

I was particularly taken with the sheer grace of the motion of Spider-Gwen leaping and swinging across rooftops. The animator drew her like a ballerina, complete with ballerina shoes, smooth as music in motion. At one point she even lands on point. At another, she calls on her drumming skill to set a rapid rhythm of a particularly risky rescue.

But, again, the other spider-men are drawn doing similar leaps and acrobatics in athletic poses, or Bollywood dancers, or like brutal clawed beasts, or swinging on motorcycles. As is the main difficulty of a multiverse story, the variations of the same theme have to be drawn and depicted memorably. Here they were.

And fight scenes and chase scenes there are aplenty, but not one is needless, not one fails to forward the plot, not one is not cleverly choreographed and worth seeing more than once.

But the quieter scenes are also well executed. The irony of Police Lieutenant Morales having a heart-to-heart with Spider-Miles, whom he does not realize is his own son, about the hopes and fears of child-rearing is rich with classic Spider-Man irony.

A parallel scene, as befits a multiverse movie, takes place between Spider-Gwen and her father, but with an unexpected culmination. Nothing was fake or forced, all was heartfelt.

It was truly a relief, in the midst of the psychotic desolation of postmodern Hollywood, to see a film where trouble between father and child was handled realistically, as if the writer were sane, and understood fatherhood.

Indeed, the only father-figure handled badly was Peter B. Parker, who hails from a future version of the original timeline of 616, allegedly the grown-up and married, divorced and dispirited version of the Spider-Man we all know and love.

The writer makes Parker into comedy-relief Mr. Mom, complete with house-dress and fuzzy slippers, toting his child into danger in his baby-pouch. In a truly cringe-inducing scene, this alleged hero and mentor erupts in unsightly if not unsettling flattery toward the Miles Morales, confessing his sole reason for having a child was to see an infant grow into someone as impressive, great, and good as Miles. He says this to Miles. Miles therefore is the one who showed his mentor and guide how best to live, fix his marriage, and be a father. The scene is brief, but I was offended on behalf of Steve Ditko.

I am sure in the multiverse somewhere, there must be a version of Spider-Wimp with no dignity and no sense of proportion, who is merely a broken loser, but I am offended to have this character be called Peter Parker: is this one more example of Rey Skywalkering, that is, kneecapping a long-beloved hero to replace him with an inferior diversity-hire knockoff?  Or is it the character arc of Peter B Parker, continued from the first movie, now shown to have his loser life turned around? In either case, it was one gross and poorly-written paragraph in a script otherwise masterful and well-crafted.

The voice actors and actresses deserve highest compliments, bringing each scene to life with adroit professionalism and a good range of emotion. In particular, when Miles Morales the superhero meets Miles Morales the supervillain, both the animated expression and the expressive voice show their distinct differences.

As a writer, often I see plot twists before they come. Not this time. There was more than one place where the writers fooled me, and it was a legitimate feint on their part, with clues hidden in plain sight in the scene. Perhaps I should not mention such plot-twists at all, least you, dear reader, be too wary to enjoy what comes, or, worse, look for a coming twist when the plot is being straightforward.

As a science fiction writer, I appreciate when a story set in a multiverse backdrop takes the time to correct the major drawback of this setting: namely, if the hero lives in a world where every parallel world is just as real as his, his every decision was made differently in the world next door, rendering all drama moot.  Or if a character dies, there is a replacement at hand, mostly indistinguishable from the original.

This script handles the question neatly in a brief exposition to Miles as he questions the Spider Society: the web of parallel universes produces “canonical” events, which must happen in every Spider-Man’s life, or else the timeline suffers paradox, glitches, and dies.

This places an insurmountable dilemma before the gathered spider-men: must they stand idly by while the Uncle Bens or Captain Stacys of parallel spider-persons perish? The conflict is one of fate and free will: can one save one life and let a world perish — is not it obligatory to try to save both, regardless of the odds?

No matter the answers to these deep questions the multiverse setting given in this story does not allow for every decision to be made, or any lost loved ones to be replaced. Both Kingpin in the first film, and Cyber-Spider of 2099 in his sad backstory of this film, found out the high price which seeking to replace family with doppelgangers entails.

Miles Morales also has an origin story differing from all the other Spider-men in their myriad parallel versions that both set him apart from the throng, and set him at odds with them. This, again, is crucial to a story set in a multiverse setting, to prevent one’s viewpoint character from being buried in an avalanche of twins. There has to be something setting him apart, more than merely the fact that the audience laid eyes on him first. Here the writers do so.

Let it be said that and any film, science fictional or otherwise, opening up curiosity about metaphysical questions wins high praise from me.

The film is not only eye-dazzling in its experimental animation techniques, it is eye-opening in the themes and questions it raises.

It is not woke, or not obviously so, and is a worthy entry to the Spider-Man canon. Miles, despite the name, is not merely a token minority Spider-Man knock-off, but a real hero, a real teen, a real character portrayed as flawed but unwilling to surrender to failure.

The film ends, or, rather ends in a cliffhanger, with Miles Morale captured by a villain he defeated in the first film, or a version of him, and chained to a post, while Spider-Gwen gathered the band of spider-heroes from the first film together for a rescue, while the Spot, now living spacewarp of world-ending magnitude, looms over the skyline, laughing maniacally.

To be continued.

My recommendation is a strong one. I see few drawbacks in the film, perhaps none. There is at least one young man of my acquaintance, a friend of my sons, whose disinterest in the superhero genre was reversed by this film.

Will Miles and Gwen get together? Is Gwendolyn Morales as possibility somewhere in the multiverse? We must wait for the sequel to discover this and other mysteries.