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Secrets of ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Revealed

Producer/writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller take us deep inside the cameos, Easter eggs, ending, and more from their multiversal Spidey smash

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Sony Pictures Animation

The first time a superhero truly soared onscreen was in animated form, via the art-deco gorgeousness and hand-painted, cel-by-cel detail of Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoon shorts, way back in 1941. It’s an all-too-natural medium for the genre, given its ink-on-paper origins, but artful animated superhero adaptations were strikingly scarce in the post-MCU gold rush — until 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which also introduced the non-comics-reading world to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a half-Black, half-Puerto Rican Spidey who’s as easy to love as Peter Parker ever was. Its critically hailed, box-office-smash sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, is an even more impressive achievement, and perhaps the most comic book-y comic book movie ever made.

Producers Philip Lord and Chris Miller, who co-wrote the new movie with Dave Callahan (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), took us through the making of the movie (directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson) and its many surprises.

Spoilers ahead!

Tell me about ending on a cliffhanger. I guess I haven’t seen that in a big movie since The Matrix Reloaded, and before that, maybe Back to the Future
Lord: It felt really like comics, where every issue is an episode that leads you to the next issue. And there’s always drops like that at the end. So that felt really natural. Knowing that this movie was going to be [the middle episode of] a trilogy gave us a lot of freedom creatively to make this movie as interesting as I hope it is. We got to make choices where you leave your character literally dangling. [Laughs]

Miller: We had been trying for a long time to jam two movies into one. And it was just too many chapters. And we finally admitted to ourselves that this movie was the middle part of a trilogy. And that was very freeing to sort of allow us to dig in emotionally. But it was really important that we had all of the characters have a full arc and growth so that this was its own movie emotionally and thematically with a beginning, middle, and end.  Miles starts one way — he’s afraid, he wants to leave. And then he wants to come home, and he’s not afraid. Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) and her father, that relationship has a full arc to it. Even the parents start one way and end another way. It was really important that it doesn’t feel like everything is left hanging.  It’s really a plot that’s left hanging, but on a relationship and character arc and emotional level, it is a full story unto itself.

Lord: Miles’ journey had a purpose, right? It was the forge in which he becomes a grownup. And literally, there’s a forge in the movie, when he’s talking to Peter, where there’s all those pistons and flywheels and fire… So then the idea is after this movie, weirdly, you’re dying to see the next one, but you feel like you had a satisfying meal. Because one of the ways that this movie and the next one can stand out from all the other pictures is that it really feels like a big, epic odyssey. You know, one of the movies we talked a lot about was, believe it or not, pardon the grandiosity, but it’s a lot like Lawrence of Arabia, which is like, nothing is random.

Donald Glover’s appearance was a huge surprise. Obviously, you worked with him in your incarnation of Solo. Was that the path toward making this happen?
Lord: Yeah, it was definitely a personal reach-out to Donald, who we love and stayed close with. We reached out and were like, “We thought of something. It will be so easy. And you commit to nothing.” And he was really excited to be part of it. He loved the first movie. He has kids that he wanted to surprise by having dad in the movie.

Miller: And we did a fun little shoot. And we got Trayce Gigi Field, who was the costume designer for the first season of [Miller’s Apple TV+ series] The Afterparty to build a Prowler suit in a matter of weeks. These things often take months or years to build and she really did an amazing job designing and building something really quickly so we could all come together and get him into the film.

With the limited number of live-action cameos, you made an aesthetic decision to be live-action against the animation, not in some kind of stylized, realistic animation. What was the thinking there?
Every dimension has its own look, style, and cinematic language. In this film, there’s a Lego dimension, there’s various different art styles. We want to honor the original cinematic style or language that each world’s character is coming from. The juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together — like the newspaper, collage, zine punk poster look of Spider-Punk next to the drippy painted world of Gwen — that they’re not fully harmonious is part of the point. We never even considered doing an animated version of Donald Glover. That wasn’t true to the universe that his character came from.

Lord: We’re always trying to assert that things you think are sealed off from one another are not. The movie’s point is that the boundaries you’ve been told are there, aren’t really there.

And the same obviously goes for the inclusion of the brief glimpses of Sony’s live-action Spider-Men.
Yes. Well, I mean, that whole thing is about how all the films that you’ve seen are all canon. And there’s various different worlds where Spider-Folk live and some of them are live-action, and some of them are animated, and some of them are who knows what.

How much MCU negotiation and approval and Kevin Feige intervention were involved in getting that one line about Dr. Strange approved?
Miller: None. We did it. It’s been our policy to do what we think is interesting and best and let the lawyers and business affairs people figure out what’s possible, and so far we’ve been able to do the things that we think are good.

Lord: Marvel has given us a lot of rope. It’s been a very fruitful collaboration. But it’s not like there’s some shadowy board of figures that you have to run things by. I think Kevin’s a big admirer of the first movie and just believes like a rising tide lifts all boats. Like, “These movies are cool, and it makes those movies cool. And we make each other cool.”

Miller: And it’s all done out of love. If it were somehow mean-spirited or coming from a place of anything other than admiration and enjoyment, I think it might be a thing. But as it is, it’s just been a very pleasant collaboration.

On a similar note, the brief Lego bit got one of the biggest reactions in my screening. It felt a little bit weirdly taboo, like you were almost dancing on the edges of a Marvel-DC crossover.
Lord: [Laughs] It was kind of a similar thing where, pretty late in the game, like in the last 12 months, we were like, “We need a world that looks very surprising, that is playful.” And because at one point he went to other dimensions and one looked like a Chris Ware independent comic. And he went to all these other places that the audience was having a hard time distinguishing them from one another. They were such fine slices of what a comic book looks like. So I think Chris had the idea of, “Let’s do a Lego thing.” And then we just made a million calls to our old buddies.

Miller: It’s lucky that we have a good relationship with the LEGO Group and [Lego Movie producer] Dan Lin.

Lord: And everybody at Universal [who currently have the rights to make Lego movies], who let us run with that. But they were all charmed and the Lego folks are just delighted.

Miller: When it’s done with love and joy, it’s a lot easier to get people to say yes.

Tell me about the decision to start off in Gwen’s world, with that gorgeous watercolor look.
Miller: The look was based on the comic book covers of her run, which have this beautiful painterly sort of gouache watercolor look and a very specific palette. We wanted to honor that. That was our idea of her world. In the first movie, we had little glimpses of it, but we didn’t have the tools to do as sophisticated a version as we did for this film. Knowing we wanted to dig in and see that, we were killing two birds with one stone. We wanted to start the movie off in a world that wasn’t Miles’ to let the audience feel the concept that every world was going to be like going into a different painting by different artists and have its own cinematic style. We also felt it was important to understand Gwen, and where she was coming from. In the first movie, she was a cool character that seemed awesome and good at everything, really confident. We wanted to get underneath what’s going on with her, the things that Miles doesn’t know that she’s been going through. When she returns to see Miles, she seems like the same confident, cool character, but we, the audience, know there’s a lot more there.

What led you to Miles’ arc in this movie?
The original emotional idea was, what if your best friend got invited to a party and you didn’t? There’s a sort of feeling of being an outsider, like your name’s not on the list or your friend goes off to college and meets cool new friends and you feel left out. We were always asking, what’s the next chapter in someone’s development? At that age, you often look to your social group for validation to feel cool, but that can quickly become a dead end. The arc was really always about understanding that your legitimacy has to come from inside. It’s also about leaving the nest, the strong social imperative at that age that makes you willing to disobey your parents, sneak out the door, and go to the party. It’s about the necessity of breaking free, even if it risks the ire of your parents. It would’ve been tempting to make them unreasonable, too. But they’re not unreasonable; they love him and want him to succeed. They may overstep a bit, and that’s enough for him to be like, alright, I gotta go do this. I gotta follow her. The realization that those people are not holding him back, but are actually the source of his strength, is something that comes with getting a little older.

When you released the first Spider-Verse, the idea of the multiverse was old news to genre fans, but pretty new to the general public. Now, between the MCU, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and even The Flash, it’s everywhere. How does that affect your storytelling at this point?
Miller: Well, you can’t rely on like, “Wow, multiverse, neat.” That’s not interesting to people at this point. First of all, it’s a bunch of window dressing, ultimately, to tell an intimate, emotional story where what really matters is relationships. So that really focuses you even more: “Nobody’s going to care that there are multiple worlds. So we need to make this about something that is real and human.” And then secondly, it makes you say, “How is our version of this going to feel different from every other version of it?” And that gave us more confidence that we needed to lean into the different stylizations and animation and artistic looks of each world. And that’s something that no other multiverse movie or show or piece of media can do, is have each world look like a distinct piece of art by a distinct artist that you are immersed in. And the newness of that and the wow factor of that is what’s going to be the thing, not the concept of the multiverse itself.

There is, of course, talk of superhero fatigue out there, too. But you’ve clearly evaded that. What’s the secret there?
Miller: I don’t believe it’s super superhero fatigue, I believe it’s “a movie that feels like a movie I’ve seen a dozen times before” fatigue. If you’re using the same story structure and the same style and the same tone and the same vibe as movies and shows that have come before, it doesn’t matter what genre it is. It’s going to be boring to people.

Lord: And the audience in the theater cannot be sustained on Easter eggs and reveals. Or even these big, crazy multiverse stakes. They only care about, like, the relationship between Rocket Raccoon and Groot. And so this story is just so rooted in parents and kids. And Miles and his family. With the last movie we showed it to some friends early on, and they were like, “You have to get to like all these multiple Spider-People as quickly as possible. That’s the exciting thing.” And we were like, we don’t think so. Because the thing that everybody seems to enjoy is the quieter scenes with Miles and his mom and dad. They can’t get enough of it. And I’m so glad we stayed true to what the audience was telling us.

James Gunn gave a very similar answer about all this. So I think you’re on the same page there.
Lord: Yeah, he’s so great at that. [In Guardians of the Galaxy], you feel like these misfits have found their family. And that’s what you’re watching. That’s why those movies are beloved.

One of the things you’ve done throughout your career is push the boundaries of American animation and remind people that the Pixar style is great, but it doesn’t have to be the only style of digital animation. And you push the boundaries again this time. Tell me about making that a goal.
Lord: We have a mantra, which is every film is an experimental film. And if you go back into the history of American feature animation, something like Snow White is outrageous! When you look at it, it’s dark and weird. And no one had ever seen anything on that scale with that level of detail. And the same goes for Toy Story. We think of that now as a traditional style, but I remember being in college and watching that and thinking about how far out it was not just in its look and technique, but in its storytelling. Woody tries to murder Buzz. That’s how that movie starts! So to us, and I’m sure to most people working in animation, we’re all just scratching the surface of what is possible. And this is a medium, not a genre. Right? So we’re trying to tell a story you would tell in any medium. But when you do it animated, it gives you possibilities you don’t have otherwise.

I know that Oscar Isaac took the part of Spider Man 2099, a.k.a Miguel, under one condition, which was “don’t make me boring.” What went into making that character work and also not making him into sort of a one-dimensional asshole, which seems like it could’ve been a danger?
Miller: There’s 1,000 smart people working on this movie for a long time and continually adjusting and shifting. And for a while he was too big of an asshole. [Laughs] And we were trying to be elegant about implying his backstory and his reasoning. Then we figured out that we had to let the audience in on his story the way we did on Gwen’s and on everybody else’s. That allowed him to be a more three-dimensional character.

Lord: One of the things we talked about with Oscar was like, we know people in our lives that are hardliners, right? And what makes them a hardliner is, they’re mostly traumatized. And the only way out is through a kind of orthodoxy. Because you can’t tolerate dissent, because dissent is to question whether your pain is legitimate or not. Oscar is from an exile community of Cubans, and that’s a lot of how people feel. And we were like, well, let’s expose the beginnings of that trauma, and so you’re sort of rooting for Miguel to find some other way. Because this was not working for him.

You’re deep into working on the sequel, Beyond the Spider-Verse, which is scheduled for next March. Are you confident on that release date?
Miller: We’re far along. That said, you know, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Lord: All we can do is keep working on things until we feel that they are great.

Miller: The deadline is excellence.

Yeah, I’ve tried that with my editors. They don’t buy it.
Lord: [Laughs] “We can’t put out blank pages!” [A Sony rep emphasized that Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse is on the release calendar for March 29, 2024.]

By the way, whatever happened with the idea of merging your 21 Jump Street franchise with Men in Black? That was kind of a cool idea.
Miller: It was a cool idea. I think most likely that opportunity has passed, but it was very fun. It was crazy. It was a crazy thing to try. One of those things where, if it works, it’s incredible. And if it doesn’t, you can take down two franchises. And so you know, the pressure was very high. And so it was a missed opportunity. But there are a lot of those in life.

And finally, I think everyone is curious about your experience on Lucasfilm’s Solo, where you didn’t get to finish your version of the movie. What were your emotional and professional lessons from that movie?
Lord: So much of that experience was positive. We worked with so many great crew people and the Creature Shop, and these amazing craftspeople in London, and a great cast. So like, they can’t take the experience that you gain, that many days of shooting. That stays with you. And so that made us better filmmakers,.

Miller: And then gave us a drive to make things that felt new and original and fresh and interesting, and have something cool to say and bring things into the world that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And that’s been a driving force before, and even more so after.

Lord: Yeah, it’s important to remember that Star Wars was an independent film. And it’s important, for us, anyway, to remain independent voices even while making these big franchises for big studios.

From Rolling Stone US