Just when critics who are generally down on the genre might be polishing up those “there is nothing new for the superhero movie to do” thinkpieces, producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord (the latter also a co-writer with co-director Rodney Rothman) have brought us Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the first full-length animated superhero film to get a theatrical release since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm way back in the relative dark ages of 1993.
What Miller, Lord, Rothman and fellow co-directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey have done is a revelation. They’ve made perhaps the first comic book movie that truly looks from start to finish like it’s jumped right off the page, blending old-school and current animation techniques, both digital and analog, to subtly make every single shot in the movie seem like a comic book panel even if it’s not stationary. On a purely visual level it’s a thing of beauty.
In terms of story, character and theme it’s a groundbreaker too. Black/Latino high school student Miles Morales (voiced expertly by Shameik Moore) is the youngster who gains great responsibility, etc. here, and seeing him make the leap from the comics to the screen as Spider-Man is a moment of powerful and resonating significance.
But then the movie introduces us to the concept of the multi-verse, which brings us a much wearier Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from another dimension, along with wild variations like Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) and, yes, Spider-Ham. Throw in a plot that could rupture the universes permanently, some iconic Spidey rogues like Kingpin, Green Goblin, Scorpion and a few surprise villains, and you’ve got the makings of one of the best big-screen Spidey outings ever.
Den of Geek got the chance to speak about all this with Lord and Miller, who have directed gems like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie (as well as an abandoned version of Solo: A Star Wars Story) and have toyed with dipping into the live-action superhero realm with projects like The Flash. After this, we’d be happy to see them stay at the wheel of the Spider-Verse for as long as possible.
Den of Geek: How did this all start for you?
Phil Lord: I mean, everything started with Miles, and it started with the idea that we wanted to make a completely different kind of superhero movie, and what are the moves that we could do that would shake up a Spider-Man story? It started with, “Well, it should be somebody different in the suit.” And we love Miles’ comic and we love his relationship with his family and we thought that was such a refreshing way to look at the character. So, we went to that, and from there, we wondered, gosh, to make it like a movie event, there’s something neat about him crashing, or rather, Peter crashing into Miles’ world for a little bit. Let’s see where he’s at a little bit later in his career.
That seemed like suddenly, you know, a movie has to be about a relationship. In this case, it’s about a lot of relationships, but what would be the relationship you’d be following across the movie? That’s why it felt important to bring Peter into it and see what they could learn from one another.
Chris Miller: Another thing that really excited us from the beginning was the opportunity that doing a movie with comic book origins as an animated movie allowed for making a visual style that you’ve never seen before. To try and make it something that felt like you were walking into the pages of a comic book. Turned out to be way harder than we even expected, but the idea from the beginning was like, “Well, why can’t we make it look like this? Like this piece of art, not inspired by this piece of art, but actually look like a moving version of this piece of art.”
It ended up being a very complicated mashing of CG animation and 2D hand drawn animation and a bunch of new software to render textures in a stylistic and hand painted style. The end result was that any frame that you pause will look like a painting, done by an artist, by hand. That was what we wanted to do, sort of honor the legacy that it came from.
As the story turned into this multiple universe type of thing, did it organically make you go more playful and inventive, with the visual style?
Lord: It was sort of holistically conceived. If you’re gonna do a movie about dimensions opening up and crashing into each other, it’s gonna have to feel like the movie itself is being pulled apart. That reality is being broken down and that’s what we wanted the visuals to say.
Miller: We said, we’ll just push it as far as we can, until it breaks. Crazily enough, where it gets to in the third act is beyond as crazy as even we imagined it could be.
I kept expecting Dr. Strange to walk out and say, “Slow down everybody.”
Lord: The first draft ended with him.
Miller: Oh, that’s right!
Lord: You remember that? It ended with him saying, “Okay, I have some things to tell you …” It was the first draft, like three years ago. It ended with Doctor Strange. Literally, the last frame was Dr. Strange, going, “Hello.”
Miller: I forgot about that.
There is so much Spider-lore, for lack of a better word, in the movie, was there anything you couldn’t touch or include, for any reason?
Miller: I mean, the only reason we couldn’t include anything was because at the end of the day, it was Miles Morales’s story and it was his coming of age journey that he was on, and there’s only so much room for all of the other characters. We never wanted him to get lost, and have him be just one of the team. He was the character that we were following, that we cared about, that we were rooting for the most and so, any time it got too diffuse it had to keep coming back to Miles.
So we crammed it with as much as we could and still have it feel balanced. We certainly talked about so many other Spider-characters and just the idea of the multiverse allows a lot of possibility for anything in the future, but this was as many as we could get in here.
There are clearly all kinds of Easter eggs in the movie that people will have to pore over the Blu-Ray to see.
Lord: Oh my God, there’s hundreds.
Miller: Literally hundreds, because the animation world and comic book nerd world overlap quite a bit, it turns out.
Lord: Yes. The Easter eggs have Easter eggs.
Miller: That’s really fun about the movie, is that if you are a hardcore comic book nerd, there is so much in here, and you literally can pause it and find hundreds of little details of things. And if you’ve never read a comic book in your entire life, and you’ve never even seen a superhero movie in your entire life, you can come into this thing and watch the story about a kid trying to figure out his way in the world, his relationship with his family and finding a group of friends and coming into his own. It’s just as enjoyable.
Lord: We also wanted to depict an alternate universe, so there’s all of these different weird posters, and there’s Coca-Cola in Jake’s world, but there’s Coca-Soda in Miles’ and it looks just like a generic thing, and then you realize, “Oh my God, there’s actually a point to that.” And that was in the script, but like, there would be all these generic brands that feel like “Oh, I guess they didn’t clear Coca Cola,” but it’s actually just a way to depict the alternate universe and that’s why this Miles’ universe is one in which Steph Curry is the best golfer in the world and one where Blake Griffin is a baseball player, and there’s a movie called Hold your Horses, starring Seth Rogen.
There’s a lot of things like that, that we wanted to seed in there, just so that it fleshed out this world and told you, this is parallel to ours, but not exactly the same.
And of course, there’s a great cameo by Stan Lee. Did he get to see the film?
Miller: Unfortunately, no. We were finishing up to the very last minute and we wanted to get him to see it, but he was not feeling well enough. But when we went to his office to record him, and the director showed him the character design of how he’d look, he was so happy to be involved.
He had been such an inspiration to us and to the movie itself. Several times during our career we’d crossed paths with him and he’d always been so encouraging to us that it felt like we needed to do something really special for his cameo and not just have it be some little aside, we give it a real important moment in the movie, with some actual emotional weight to it. As an honor of his legacy, and obviously now, it’s taken on some extra poignancy. But it always was something that felt uplifting, inspiring and a little bit funny.
The dedication at the end was very beautiful, too.
Lord: One of the hardest things to figure out, because we put that together really fast, was, “What does it sound like?” Because every piece of anything that we did felt melancholy, or it felt weirdly triumphant or something, so we just left it silent.
Where in the course of all this did the idea of bringing Miles and Peter together come into play, and then the idea of Peter having this mid-life crisis?
Lord: The hardest thing is what moves are left to us, because other folks have been down these roads before, so a place that Peter has never been, emotionally, in a movie is not being the youngest guy in the room, anymore. What’s it like when he’s being called upon to do something more mature and he’s called upon to be a mentor.
He doesn’t know how to do that. He’s never done that. So, we thought that was just a really neat place to drive the character. That gave us some fresh ground and new moves. We try and approach all this stuff with a lot of sympathy, so that meant that we had to really get under his skin and feel what he was feeling, and it made a big difference. But once you felt bad for him, then he could say all those kind of mean things to Miles and you would forgive him for it, ’cause you knew what he was going through.
Miller: It wasn’t hard for us to relate to a 40-year-old tired guy.
You guys have been associated with some other live action superhero projects, does this scratch that genre itch, or if the right thing comes along, do you want to do the live action super hero thing?
Miller: It’s so idiosyncratic. Like who knew that we would get really interested in a 21 Jump Street adaptation? That’s a really weird project. Or a Lego Movie.
Lord: I couldn’t tell you why we get interested in something.
Miller: We get engaged by figuring out a way to do something that feels new and fresh, that you haven’t seen before, and whether it has something to say that we’re interested in thinking about for multiple years, ’cause these things take so long. If it’s something that really is engaging us, as an idea, and we have something that we want to say, and we want the world to hear, that’s what grabs us. So whether it’s a superhero movie, or an indie drama, or whatever it is, it doesn’t matter what it is, it just has to be something interesting.
Lord: Don’t you think it has to be hard? You and I seem to engage when it seems impossible. But there might be one way, maybe, that we could do it. I think we get really engaged with the problem solving. “How could we pull this off?”
Miller: Yeah, and that was what was exciting about this one, for sure.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is out in theaters this Friday (December 14).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye