When Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were first approached by Sony Pictures in 2014 about making an animated Spider-Man movie, their answer was immediate: No.
At the time, Sony had just face-planted hard with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, an expensive misfire that failed to justify why audiences should race out to see the fifth Spider-Man movie in just 12 years. The idea of doing yet another movie about Peter Parker, Aunt May, great power, and great responsibility so soon seemed foolhardy.
Lord and Miller built their joint career messing with the conventions of animation, from the 2002–2003 MTV series Clone High to the feature films Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in 2009 and The Lego Movie in 2014. Despite scads of superhero movies flooding theaters for years, no one had ever made an animated feature that looked and felt like an actual comic book — and the prospect of being the first was a tantalizing opportunity, too hard to pass up.
“We were like, Why make this movie? What do we have to say?”
Then there was the prospect of getting to make the first movie about Miles Morales. Marvel Comics had only just introduced Miles — a teenager from Brooklyn with a black father and a mother from Puerto Rico — as a brand-new Spider-Man in 2011, but there was already a steady drumbeat for a Miles movie resonating across the internet.
“We thought, Well, if they let us do a Miles Morales story, that would feel like something new,” Miller told BuzzFeed News earlier this month. When Sony agreed, Lord and Miller, somewhat to their surprise, signed on to produce the film, with Lord writing the script. But the duo still needed to answer a fundamental question for themselves.
“We were like, Why make this movie?” said Miller. “What do we have to say?”
It was around this time that Lord was shopping along Olvera Street, the historic Mexican marketplace in downtown Los Angeles. “There’s all of these shops that have, like, Mexican wrestling masks,” Lord said. “And then they always have a Spider-Man one. I was like, That’s interesting. There’s a lot of Spider-Man stuff here in this Central American market. I started wondering if it was about, yeah, anybody can identify with this character, because you don’t see his face.”
“That’s, like, Stan Lee’s idea,” he added, referring to Spider-Man’s beloved co-creator, who died last month. “What if he’s just one of us? That to me seems really powerful.”
So on the first page of the first draft of his script, Lord wrote out a mission statement for the film, proclaiming that if anyone can identify with Spider-Man, then anyone could be the character, too.
“The mission statement ended [with] saying, ‘We want young people to feel like you are powerful, and we are counting on you,’” said Miller. “The idea that it was democratic — that you didn’t have to be a rich billionaire or an alien from outer space to be a hero, that it could be anybody — was built in from day one.”
A plot began to take shape. A schism in the space-time continuum causes an older Peter Parker from an alternate universe to plop into Miles’ life just after he’s been bitten by the proverbial radioactive spider. Desperate for guidance, Miles (voiced by Dope’s Shameik Moore) forces Peter (voiced by New Girl’s Jake Johnson) to become his extremely reluctant mentor. That might have been enough to support the idea that anyone could be Spider-Man, but Lord and Miller ended up pushing that concept to the extreme, drawing inspiration from the profuse canon of Marvel’s Spider-Man comics, including a brand-new series Marvel had just released called Spider-Verse.
They included a version of the classic Spider-Man character Gwen Stacy (Edge of Seventeen’s Hailee Steinfeld) who becomes Spider-Woman. From there, though, they sought out characters who were each more radically different from the last: Peni Parker (Orange Is the New Black’s Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese American schoolgirl from 1,000 years in the future; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a hard-bitten black-and-white crime fighter from the 1930s; and Spider-Ham (Big Mouth’s John Mulaney), a talking pig from a cartoon-y universe who is also, somehow, a Spider-hero.
In other words, when Miles says in the movie, “Anyone can wear the mask,” he means it quite literally. In a year in which diverse representation has been a blockbuster boon for Hollywood, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first superhero movie to be explicitly about the power of representation.
But with that power comes a great responsibility: getting that representation right. BuzzFeed News sat down with Into the Spider-Verse’s core creative team — Miller, Lord, and directors Bob Persichetti (The Little Prince), Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians), and Rodney Rothman (22 Jump Street and cowriter with Lord on Spider-Verse) — as well as some of the movie’s stars to talk about the risks and rewards of making one of the most inclusive superhero movies ever.
The first time Moore saw Miles Morales, on an animated Spider-Man TV series, it was a startling experience, as if he were peering into a cartoon mirror.
“He looked like somebody took my face, animated it, and put it on television,” Moore said. “I was first like, Whoa, is he black? Who is this?! Where does that guy come in? He looks like me!” Moore, like millions of others, was a fan of Spider-Man because he was a fan of Peter Parker. But it had never occurred to him that a Spider-Man hero could be someone he might play one day, let alone someone who appeared to literally resemble him. It was such a powerful moment that Moore wrote this prescient affirmation in his notebook: “I am Miles Morales.”
When Moore first landed the role in Into the Spider-Verse years later, he thought back on that moment and how meaningful it was for him. In the course of recording the role, however, his perspective began to broaden. “I have nephews who can't watch [me in] more edgier type of movies,” he said. “But they can watch Spider-Man. And not just them, but millions of other kids as well.”
It was exactly this kind of emotional impact that weighed heavily on the minds of the team behind Into the Spider-Verse. They knew their film had the potential to speak to a deeply underserved audience hungry to see themselves on screen. So they committed themselves to assuring that Miles and his family — his father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry); mother, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez); and uncle, Aaron (Mahershala Ali) — never felt anything less than authentic, down to their hair texture and skin tones.
“I wish that everybody could have sat in on some of our many, many, many digital review sessions, just to see how much we talked about Miles’ skin, or his hair, or the relationship between the color of his eyes to his complexion,” said Ramsey. “Every tiny detail. We were just devoted to the idea of creating people that you really could feel and accept and love.”
Getting Miles to that place, however, took some time.
“Miles’ performance was really tight for a while,” said Lord. “I think people were afraid to take a risk with how he moved.”
There was, the filmmakers said, a steep learning curve to their desire for naturalistic performances inside highly stylized comic book visuals; it even forced the animation team to rewrite the software they used to make the movie. But the bigger issue was that the animators — most of whom were white — were so anxious to avoid making Miles seem like a caricature of a black-Latino kid from Brooklyn, they ended up not making any bold choices with him at all.
“There’s not a huge population of African American animators,” added Persichetti. “And there’s not a huge population of Latino animators, especially in Vancouver” where much of the animation team was based. “We were dealing with people who were like, I don’t want to misstep. I don’t want to do something wrong. I don’t want to push a pose too far, or an expression.”
To help the animators get past this block, Persichetti said he screened the film Get Out (which had recently opened at the time) to show the team how director Jordan Peele took advantage of Daniel Kaluuya’s subtly emotional performance in how he’d structure a scene. “I just said, ‘I want you to look at look at the expression on this character’s face. We cut away for literally half a second, come back, he’s in a completely different expression; he’s saying something really strong. That’s what we’re doing in a comic book form.’”
Another important step was shaking loose the idea that Miles needed to be wholly defined by his status as a historic first for superhero representation. It certainly helped that he wasn’t the only person of color in the film.
“Once you get past the tokenism and start adding enough characters of color — like, they all have different personalities,” said Lord. “And now you’re just trying to represent this human being and what they’re like. So how does Miles dress? Not how does an average African American–Puerto Rican kid dress? Once you get out of that mentality, it gets a lot easier.”
Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy
It’s perhaps a more, er, rarefied variation of the nature of representation, but even able-bodied white men can struggle to see themselves in the lives (and physiques) of white male superheroes.
“I think superheroes are fine,” said Johnson. “I think they’re neat. But I don’t relate to them. They might be acting like regular people, and then they take their shirts off, and they have muscles on muscles. I’m like, this is if WWE wrestlers were superheroes! Congratulations! Jake the Snake as a superhero!”
Into the Spider-Verse plays with this very idea by making the Peter Parker in Miles’ universe be strapping, blonde, blue-eyed, financially flush, universally beloved, and voiced by Chris Pine. When Johnson’s alt-Peter (or Peter B. Parker, get it?) then shows up, he’s a fortysomething divorced loser saddled with a studio apartment and a noticeable paunch.
“Audiences have never seen an older, tired version of Peter Parker,” said Miller. “So making the Peter of Miles’ world younger, thinner, with a different hair color, his face more symmetrical … makes it clear they are two very different variants on the classic hero.”
Finding more of himself in Spider-Man was a nice bonus for Johnson, but he was also thrilled by the chance to participate in a movie with a much broader approach to inclusion. “I have two daughters, and when they first saw Spider-Man, they called themselves Spider-Man Girl. I thought that was fine, and then my wife pointed out how kind of sad that is,” he said. “That really hit home. I thought, like, Wow, as a white guy who grew up in the ’80s, I never thought about this because I always had my heroes in movies. Hearing mothers talk about their African American sons who are 8 and 9 and how excited they are to see somebody who looks like them as a hero, and Spider-Gwen being in this movie as a female Spider person — I think it’s incredible.”
Most audiences likely know Gwen Stacy as Peter Parker’s girlfriend who (jokey spoiler alert for a decades-old comic book plot twist) tragically died despite Peter’s attempt to save her. In Spider-Verse, that story is flipped — alt-Gwen’s tragic backstory stems from Peter’s death in her universe — but the filmmakers still debated whether to make their Gwen a love interest for Miles instead.
(Genuine spoiler alert: The following two paragraphs discuss a plot development in Into the Spider-Verse.)
“There was more than debate,” said Lord. “We just tried different versions.” The characters first meet at Miles’ private high school, and Miles develops an almost immediate crush — which, in classic Spidey fashion, gets literalized when his powers begin to kick in, and his hand gets stuck to Gwen’s hair. There’s even a moment later on in the film when it seems like Miles and Gwen could be about to have their first kiss. The filmmakers did have the animators try out a smooch, but in the finished film, they don’t.
“Any of these characters can be the star of their own movie.”
“You put these things onscreen, because you go, ‘I don’t know, it might work.’ And it just didn’t feel as good as watching them become friends,” said Lord. “It felt like a letdown, because the movie sets up this friendship, and it sets her up as her own person, and then when that [kiss] happened, it just felt like, OK fine? But it’s not really what we wanted.”
By keeping Miles and Gwen’s relationship platonic, they also kept the biggest female role in the film from becoming defined only by her romantic value. Instead, she’s more capable and more accomplished than Miles — and possibly destined for her own movie. Along with a sequel to Into the Spider-Verse, a spinoff animated feature with the major female Spidey heroes is already reportedly in the works, and Spider-Gwen is expected to play a central role.
“Any of these characters can be the star of their own movie,” said Rothman. “Part of what I think we were trying to convey was that each of these characters had been through tragedy, and thought they were the only ones that would ever go through that experience, and were having this new experience that was teaching them that they weren't alone, and that was going to change them going forward.”
Peni Parker, Peter Porker, and Spider-Man Noir
When Kimiko Glenn showed up for her first day of work on Into the Spider-Verse, she — unlike many of her costars — had no idea who she was going to be playing.
“I didn’t know that she was going to be Japanese,” said Glenn, who had auditioned with a fake scene rather than the real script. “I didn’t know she was going to speak a little Japanese. I didn’t know annnything.”
In that first recording session, the filmmakers explained that Glenn was playing Peni Parker, a Japanese American girl who pilots a mechanical SP//dr suit (try to pronounce it out loud) through a psychic connection she shares with a radioactive spider who lives inside it. Glenn had thought she was there to play a small part; instead, she was playing one of the film’s superheroes. Similar to Moore’s reaction when first seeing Miles, it was an astonishing moment for her, something she’d never quite entertained as a possibility for her career.
“It was always one of those things that I had hoped, but never really thought would happen,” she said. “When I started, there was a lot less diversity in television and movies. I didn’t want to play stereotypes, and most of the time, any powerful Asian woman who’s a kind of superhero is sword-wielding or accented or playing the stereotypical ninja type. I didn’t want to do that, because that felt inauthentic to me. So in that way, I never thought I would get there.”
At one point, the filmmakers considered using the Spidey character Silk — aka Cindy Moon, a Korean American woman — for Into the Spider-Verse, but they settled on Peni because her set of abilities felt like a much greater contrast with everyone else in the film. But they struggled at first with how to present Peni. She’s among the newest Spider characters, created in 2014 by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, and in the comics, Peni’s world evokes the mecha anime of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the film, though, the character wasn’t nearly as visually striking as her powers screamed out for her to be — remember: psychic spider inside a giant robot suit.
“For a while her design was just, like, iffy,” said Persichetti.
Then the film’s production designer, Justin Thompson, made an impassioned pitch for Peni to take on the classic cute-and-energetic anime style similar to Sailor Moon. “It became, like, why aren’t we just doing it?” said Persichetti. The other two Spidey heroes in the film — Spider-Ham (aka Peter Porker) and Spider-Man Noir — were pure expressions of and homages to their respective genres, and Peni became so as well.
“It was like a different type of representation,” said Miller. “It was like, any style, any interest, any age, any gender, any race, I can see myself up there.”
Even with a character as deliberately zany as Spider-Ham, though, the filmmakers realized that he couldn’t just be a joke machine. “He was hilarious, but he was like truffle oil — a little goes a long way,” said Miller. “We found that he needed to have potency and actually kick ass, or else people would just get annoyed at him. … When he became more well-rounded as a character is when he became extra delightful.” (Spider-Man Noir, meanwhile, “was just us having a lot of fun coming up with ’30s slang,” Miller said with a laugh.)
Similarly, the filmmakers knew Peni couldn’t just rest on anime cuteness. “We wanted to give her some kind of layering, that she’s a tough, accomplished Spider-person with her own specific talents,” said Ramsey. Still, in pushing Peni to embody the classic tropes of anime rather than take on the more nuanced specificity of the main Spidey heroes Miles, Peter, or Gwen, the filmmakers also made her an expression of a genre predominantly authored by men, and, in Peni’s case, a white man.
That fact wasn’t lost on Glenn when she first learned about her character, and how she would look in the film. “It did take me a moment to kind of process it,” she said. “I also think that, you know, you suspend your disbelief in a lot of ways. You can’t really argue with that when there’s, like, a Looney Tunes pig in a Spider-Man outfit.” She chuckled. “Of course there’s a little bit of concern, but there’s so many battles in this life, and I feel like that’s one of the lesser ones.”
And Glenn said she was “really moved” by the finished film. “I love that the lead character is biracial and you just get that through the context of the movie,” she said. “I relate a lot to that because I’m biracial. I think they did such a great job of making it a more creative, fun approach to sending that message, because it could have been a lot less…nuanced.”
“Any style, any interest, any age, any gender, any race, I can see myself up there.”
Besides, she said, “They really made an effort to cast this completely diversely and make sure the [main] voice actors were true to their characters, which I appreciate.”
Indeed, the actors’ biggest contribution to Into the Spider-Verse’s dedication to representation was with their voices. And for Moore, it allowed him to keep in mind an audience member perhaps most often forgotten in conversations about honoring everyone’s lived experience in feature films.
“I have a cousin who’s blind,” said Moore. “So she listens to audiobooks and whatnot, and she's really into them. I always thought about that, like, if I was ever a voice actor in a movie, I would want my cousin to be able to just listen to it and be as into it as she is with her books.” He smiled. “If you close your eyes — do you believe it still? In this movie, you will. Because I went in with that mindset. You’ve got to have your eyes closed, and you’ll feel my emotion.” ●