Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was originally announced as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Part 1, and it remains a Part 1 in all ways but its name. (Part 2 is now subtitled Beyond the Spider-Verse and set to release in spring 2024.) Our audience was mostly teenagers attending a midday show on their summer vacation, and there were a few who were vocally upset by the fact that the movie ends right when the third act starts heating up. I guess that’s a spoiler — but there’s really no way of talking around the structure of Across because the structure of the story is ultimately key to my only real frustrations with the film.

Across picks up a year after Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which told the origin of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), the 15-year-old Spider-Man of Earth-1610. In that story, he befriended a middle-aged other-dimensional Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), and a spider-powered version of Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), for whom he harbors real romantic feelings. The only problem is the ending of that movie saw them return to their home dimensions, leaving Miles alone and frustrated as his world’s sole super-powered protector who just happens to have schoolwork, college prep and two loving-and-present parents who can’t quite figure out what their son is up to all the time. Being Spider-Man is a lonely occupation across the multiverse, and Miles is learning that lesson all too well, especially when new villain the Spot (Jason Schwartzman) shows up on the scene, obsessed with Spider-Man and determined to use multiversal powers to make our hero suffer. Soon enough, Gwen shows up, too, representing a multiverse alliance of Spider-people dedicated to protecting the fabric of reality.

Unfortunately, this Spider-Society is led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), who has his own reasons for hating Miles.

There’s a lot to take in throughout the runtime of Across, which digs deep into the sort of multiversal mumbo-jumbo that now feels commonplace in the blockbuster lexicon (and, frankly, makes it seem unfathomable that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is hinging its next four years on multiverse stuff that already feels well-explored … by Spider-Man films in particular). Characters discuss concepts like fixed canon, variants and hyper-destructive rifts in time when something happens outside the natural “order” of things. After Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man: No Way Home, it seems pretty clear that Sony, Avi Arad and Pascal Pictures have a clear vision for using Spidey as the anchor in stories about lots and lots of Spider-people, and they’re pretty much 3-for-3 on the concept.

However, it’s hard not to feel a little deflated when the credits roll on Across because it is fundamentally not a complete story, despite trying very hard to create the sense of a character development for both Gwen and Miles within this particular film’s runtime. Creating a satisfying interstitial climax is always difficult in these big multi-part sequels; this feels more along the lines of The Matrix Reloaded or Dune: Part 1, which feel like they end right when things are becoming most interesting rather than concluding when their respective story is actually done. Heck, the closest comparison came out less than a month ago: Fast X, which just sort of ends, too. This isn’t a complete film, not by a long shot, and it’s sort of misleading to pretend as such.

You know, I love the movies I listed above for their own particular reasons — and I loved a lot of Across, too. It’s profoundly gorgeous, with brilliant art design to designate which dimension we’re inhabiting from across the multiverse. Every “where” has its own unique visual signifier, and that’s even before we start seeing the different Spider-men, women or creatures represent their own homes while sharing physical space. It’s an extrapolation of the work seen in Into the Spider-Verse. It’s remarkable. Every scene is a feast of expressive visual artistry, accompanied by Daniel Pemberton’s fantastic score.

The story, though, is hard to really feel strongly about until the conclusion is reached. Here’s the thing: Miguel O’Hara has beef with Miles for two reasons, both boiling down to the fact that our hero is an anomaly in O’Hara’s multiverse. The first is that the spider that bit Miles came from a dimension different than Miles’ own; in O’Hara’s eyes, that means Miles was never supposed to be Spider-Man. The second is that shared tragedy weaves the web of continuity that binds together the Spider-Society. Every Spider-Man has a dead uncle or loved one to spur them into action as well as subsequent deaths that continue them down their path of lonely heroism. In this case, the death of a police captain close to them; traditionally, Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy, dies while saving a child in the midst of a battle between Spidey and Doc Ock). In Across, Miles’ father is promoted to Captain and thus may be “destined” to die. Miles won’t allow that to happen, and Miguel — who insists that disrupting canon jeopardizes the fabric of the entire universe — sics the rest of the Spiders on Miles to stop him.

This entire sequence is visually astounding and a ton of fun, but in hindsight I found it really bothersome from a thematic standpoint. First, we know the death of a Captain Stacy isn’t a real fixed point in the wider multiverse of Spider-Man characters; it has never even been one within numerous iterations of the live-action film adaptations well-known to audiences. Only one, The Amazing Spider-Man, dramatized that story. Second, the core of Spider-Man as a character is “with great power comes great responsibility,” and yet Miles is pursued by the entirety of the Spider-Society without a second thought. What sort of Spider-Men are these, to not do their damndest to help their friend and multiversal counterpart?

Frankly, it’s what No Way Home got so right about this type of story: When brought into the MCU’s 616 Universe, both alternate Peter Parkers (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) bond with the main Peter (Tom Holland) over analogous losses and then set out to help him achieve his goal of saving seemingly irredeemable villains rather than letting them die. It seems like in this version of the Spider-Society, both work very hard to save time-displaced villains, but they are also fully willing to allow one of their own to suffer unfathomable loss in the name of destiny. All of it feels emotionally incongruous.

Perhaps that incongruity is the point and in Beyond the Spider-Verse, we’ll learn that Miguel’s web only pulls the Spider-Men closest to his experience rather than drawing in all possible variations of his kind. In fact, that seems like the obvious play. Even so, the way in which Miles’ story continually develops without any sense of catharsis or conclusion makes Across feel somewhat unsatisfying by the end of the story. Obviously I think about this character and these films a lot more than the general audience, and I just can’t get the reactions from the crowd out of my head. Even Aly, sitting next to me, verbally said “What?” aloud when it ended.

Look: This is a beautiful, entertaining film made with real passion and creative ingenuity. It sits among the best of its franchise and maybe its genre. But it’s hard not to shake the feeling of hollowness when mulling the overall story of this particular film. It’s incomplete and leaves just about ever major thematic thread hanging across the gap between films. Beyond is well into production, and when taking the ending into consideration, it actually feels like the scenes leading up to “To Be Continued … ” are filled with potential cut-to-black moments to which the filmmakers just couldn’t commit. The end result is probably the best they had, but it would’ve been more satisfying as an individual story if they’d just written two separate scripts with shared themes and ideas rather than chopping one in half at the most minimally frustrating moment.

I’ll figure out what I really think of it next spring, I guess.