A More Diverse Spider-Verse: Sony's animated adventure features multiple superheroes
This is not your father's Spider-Man. Literally: Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse stars not the familiar Peter Parker but rather Miles Morales, a black and Latino high-schooler introduced in one of Marvel Comics' alternate-universe imprints. Peter Parker does co-star in this new 3D animated feature, but then so do several other alternate-universe spider-people. It's a veritable spider-palooza.
What, who now? It's not complicated, at least by comic-book standards. After crime boss the Kingpin (voice of Liev Schreiber) sponsors development of a dimensional-rift device, hoping to find a parallel-universe version of his dead wife and child, an unintended consequence sucks in many parallel versions of Spider-Man. Miles (Shameik Moore) finds himself fighting an all-star array of supervillains alongside not only the familiar Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) but also four others—ranging from a hardboiled 1930s version referred to as Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) to a futuristic manga-girl, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), symbiotically linked to a spider robot.
Who, what now? "The initial impetus was to look outside of just a standard Peter Parker," says Bob Persichetti, one of the three directors on this feature written by cult fave Phil Lord (2009's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 2014's The Lego Movie). "The first question was, 'Why another Spider-Man movie?' And that became sort of our topic sentence," he says. "It also gave us the freedom of updating the Spider-Man myth…and expanding the [character's] vernacular."
"It was all about justifying 'Why another Spider-Man movie,’” agrees fellow director Peter Ramsey, who helmed the 2012 animated feature Rise of the Guardians. "And I think [the producing team of] Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] saw an opportunity to say something about Spider-Man in a larger sense—about this character who is legitimately a cultural icon. It's a way of making the character relevant and new again," he says. "It's also a way of addressing a lot of concerns, like diversity. That's a biggie."
"Spider-Man has become mythic, and myths are mutable, changeable," says Rodney Rothman, a “Late Show with David Letterman” head writer turned memoirist and screenwriter (2014's 22 Jump Street). "It can wrap around different people, it can surface in different ways, but the basic elements are the same," he says of the core mythos: contact with a radioactive/genetically modified/mutant/alien/exotic-jungle spider, and a tragedy related to the abilities it brings, compelling the bite-ee to take on responsibility for his or her new powers. "It becomes relevant for new generations, new groups of people, as it's told," he notes.
Indeed, Marvel Comics has a host of such alternate-universe Spideys across cultures, races and timelines—a fairytale version, a 1602 version, a 2099 version, an Asian Indian version named Pavitr Prabhakar, and others—from which the filmmakers could cherry-pick. In addition to Spider-Man Noir (introduced in 2009's Spider-Man Noir #1) and Peni Parker and SP//dr (introduced in 2014's Edge of Spider-Verse #5), the movie also showcases teenage Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), the nickname given to the Spider-Woman introduced in 2014's Edge of Spider-Verse #2; and, most amazingly, Peter Porker: Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic funny-animal version introduced in 1983's Marvel Tails Starring Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham #1.
With all the Spideys from which to choose, why pick these particular ones? "I think it's a combination of which characters were already really popular and also which characters were going to resonate best with Miles' story," says Persichetti, who notes that "Phil's first treatment and draft pretty much had the lineup we have now. It didn't change a whole lot."
Gwen—a younger version of the traditional Spider-Man's adult girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, who was murdered in a landmark 1970s storyline—"was a must-have," he continues, "because not only is she extremely popular and a [teenage] woman, but she's also very close in age to Miles. Spider-Man Noir couldn't be more different from Spider-Ham, and that just goes to this idea of diversity in this group Miles finds himself in." Hardboiled-detective-Americans and funny-animal-Americans, rejoice.
"This thing becomes a myth, the story of Spider-Man," Persichetti says, "and each retelling of it can evolve it to a place where it becomes more relevant for the people telling the story"—and certainly for readers, particularly minority readers, who each can have a Spider-Man to which they can more readily relate. Much has been made about the original costume design by Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man with Stan Lee in 1962, and how the full-body unitard and mask covered the character completely, allowing readers of any stripe to project whatever they wanted. But it's not the same as seeing a biracial Spider-Man or an Asian Spider-Man or a female Spider-M—er, version.
But diversity comes at a price, and inclusiveness in comics has been a trigger to the self-labeled "alt-right," who on social-media forums and other platforms denounce the notion of minority versions of superheroes—and in a hilarious misfire, launched a boycott campaign against this year's nearly $1.35 billion worldwide blockbuster Black Panther. So what would those proud boys think of this Spider-Man multiverse?
"We try, actively, not to think about those things," Persichetti responds. "If our choices feel right for the movie, then that's what we go with. And if we offend those people—and I think you know they're easily offended, so I'm sure we will—it's fine."
Ramsey, who with Rise of the Guardians became the first African-American to direct a major computer-animated film, is equally unperturbed. "We're being faithful to the idea of Spider-Man," he contends. "And to the extent that this is all new, it really is just because it's a reflection of what's outside everyone's door. There are millions of Miles Moraleses."
The film's diversity also allowed the directors to mix and match different visual styles. "One of the cool things we get to do in the movie is to show you different characters from different dimensions, and that was an opportunity to try out different ideas in terms of animation," says Rothman. "Each character is basically animated in a different style."
"We started to say, 'OK, what is the style of that character? Is it photorealistic? Is it much more stylized?' And that," says Persichetti, "was when we really started to discover the texture of the movie, which was an animated style that went against the last maybe 20 years of this golden age of computer animation and was more 'Let's lean back into what was traditionally hand-drawn, but with a computer animating it.'”
That may not be unique—TV's "The Simpsons" does that—but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse legitimately doesn't look like a lot of other animated films, and not just because of the manga-style Peni Parker, or the cartoony Spider-Ham, or the black-and-white, almost gray-wash look of Spider-Man Noir.
"Trying to make something that felt visually different took us, like, a year and a half to make two seconds of the film and then we had a year and a half to make the rest of it," says Persichetti, swearing he's not exaggerating. "We really were in this heavy crunch period; for literally the last 12 months we've been six, seven days a week, trying to finish the movie"—one reason it took a trio of directors, all three of them say.
Those two seconds of film weren't just two seconds of film, of course, but time devoted to solving algorithmic problems that, once solved, could be used throughout the rest of the film. "Those two seconds were of a character lit with skin texture that we actually liked," Persichetti says with a laugh.
The environment and other design elements were much easier to do. "We wanted this contemporary, modern look based on the original comics," he explains, "but taking the strength of a computer, which is photorealism, and then stripping out all those natural tendencies of the computer and saying, 'We want to interpret light and visuals the same way a person recreating [an old-fashioned, hand-colored] comic book might do it,' where it's just two hues of color next to each other with a hard edge as opposed to a soft gradient."
The movie—which also features Brian Tyree Henry as Miles' beat-cop dad, Luna Lauren Velez as his nurse mom, Mahershala Ali as his uncle Aaron, and comedy icon Lily Tomlin, one of whose six Emmy Awards is for voiceover performance, as Peter Parker's Aunt May—pays tribute to its comic-book roots in other ways as well. Particularly, it echoes Marvel Comics' longstanding conceit that the company's writers, artists and other creators exist within the comic-book world (Stan Lee, et al., occasionally show up in various issues) and are just dramatizing the superheroes' real-life stories. Spider-Man exists in Miles Morales' world, yet Miles and his friends read Spider-Man comics—pages of which appear onscreen depicting the classic Steve Ditko/John Romita Sr. version of Peter Parker.
"The idea," says Rothman, "is that a comic-book company sees there's money to be made off these superheroes swinging around, and somehow gets hold of them" and arrange licensing deals. "Like, 'You just can't use my real name or likeness.' 'Great! It's a deal!'” And so, says Ramsey, "If you look very closely" at the comic books within the movie, "he's not named Peter Parker in them." So what's he named? "Billy Barker!" laughs Persichetti. "We thought deeply about that, believe me," he says of that internal-logic issue. "We were definitely conscious of that."
The filmmakers were conscious as well that Spider-Man, like Superman or Batman, has become ingrained in American mythology, a piece of Americana like Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed and Uncle Sam. And while America has always been a melting pot, it has never been as publicly diverse as now, with so many representations of black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, gay, trans and other groups reflected in all media—including comic books. The Into the Spider-Verse creators are well aware their film offers different takes on Spider-Man, and the risk that represents.
"The majority of people who will see this movie probably had no idea that there was a comic with Miles Morales in it," Persichetti says. "If it's possible for a Spider-Man movie to feel like an underdog, we do."