Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

Into the Spider-Verse (again): why the world needed an African-American Spider-Man

We speak to the cast and producer of the new ‘Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse’ to find out why there’s more to this movie than its groundbreaking racial shift

From left, Peni, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham, Miles Morales, Peter Parker and Spider-Man Noir. Courtesy Sony Pictures Animation
From left, Peni, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham, Miles Morales, Peter Parker and Spider-Man Noir. Courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

You could be forgiven for not mustering much enthusiasm upon hearing there’s a new Spider-Man film about to hit cinemas. In the past two decades, three actors – Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and now Tom Holland – have played Marvel Comics’ web-slinging superhero on screen.

But for anyone suffering fatigue, animated adventure Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse might be the answer. “We were trying to take something you’re ­familiar with and turn it on its head,” says producer Chris Miller.

It’s something Miller and his filmmaking partner Phil Lord are more than adept at; they were behind The Lego Movie and the movie reboot of 21 Jump Street. But reinvigorating Spider-Man is a whole other matter than playing with toys or old TV shows. Lord, who co-wrote the script with Rodney Rothman, one of three directors alongside Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti, says they deliberately turned our over-familiarity with the Spider-Man brand into a selling point.

When studio backers Sony first approached he and Miller, they resolved to “use the fact that you’ve seen a bunch of these movies as a device [and] set up a Peter Parker you think you know and then introduce Miles”. He’s referring to Spider-Verse’s leading character, Miles Morales. First introduced in the comics in 2011, Morales is an Afro-Latino adolescent who gains similar powers to Spider-Man’s alter-ego Peter Parker after being bitten by a radioactive spider.

Created by Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Morales was not the first time Marvel had reinvented ­Spider-Man as a non-white character. In the 1990s, Spider-Man 2099 was a ­futuristic take on the character with his alter-ego the half-Mexican Miguel O’­Hara. However, while Bendis drew inspiration from former United States ­President Barack Obama and actor-­rapper-singer Donald Glover, it’s the first time there has been a black Spider-Man on screen.

Voicing Miles is 23-year-old Shameik Moore, who made his big screen debut with 2015’s Dope. “I think there’s a new wave of ‘let’s make everything black’,” Moore admits. “But I’m happy to be part of something that was before a trend. It’s not just ‘Oh, let’s make some money off this because Black Panther did well.’” The message here is different, he adds. “Miles was created a while ago for a whole different reason. Anyone can wear the mask. And that’s the big thing in this movie.”

While Miles must get used to his new powers, Miller says, “We started with this really sweet emotional story about Miles and the fact that he has parents that are alive that are trying to help him out …that felt really unique to this character.” As anyone versed in ­Spider-Man’s oft-told origin story will know, Parker is an orphan raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. But here, Morales has a Latino mother, a nurse called Rio, and a black father, Jefferson, a cop.

“I really like the way they show the father-son aspect in this movie because … they really truly love each other,” says actor Brian Tyree Henry (Widows), who voices Jefferson. “What do you do if your child has this superpower and he’s out there, kinda risking his life? He’s so young. He doesn’t know who he is yet. It’s got a lot of heart.” So is that how he’d pitch it to viewers? “I would pitch it by saying Spider-Man’s black, so go see it!”

Actor Shameik Moore. AFP
Actor Shameik Moore. AFP

Still, there’s more to Spider-Verse than simply this groundbreaking racial shift. The film is a treasure trove for aficionados of the character; after the villainous Kingpin tears a hole in the fabric of space-time, Miles encounters several other “Spideys” from alternate universes. “They all think that they’re alone until they meet each other,” says Moore.

These include Spider-Gwen, in which Spider-Man’s one-time girlfriend Gwen Stacey has the powers, and Spider-Man Noir, a 1933 black-and-white detective.

“Thematically, it really made sense with what we were trying to go for,” says Miller. “To say to the audience: ‘It doesn’t matter where you came from, from what walk of life, young or old, wherever you’re from, you can be a hero, and you’re not alone.” But it had the added bonus of doing something no other Spider-Man film had ever done and playing around with the mythology of the character, and his friends and foes (villain Doctor Octopus, for example, is female here).

Other characters Miles meets include Japanese girl Peni Parker, who comes equipped with a mechanical robot spider-suit, and a cartoon pig called Spider- Ham / Peter Porker (a sub-Porky Pig, he even uses the classic ‘That’s all folks!’ sign off from the old Looney Tunes ­cartoons). All derive from the original Marvel comics, but somehow seem perfect for Lord and Miller’s irreverent humour. “There was an Australian Spider-Man for a week,” laughs Lord. “People got pretty mad at us.”

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Introducing such wildly different characters meant combining vastly different animation styles into one frame – from Japanese anime to 1940s Warner ­Brothers cartoons, to film noir. “[We thought] can we even get away with this?” says Miller. Moreover, the film set out to truly bring the Marvel Comics style alive with a vibrant mix of CG and 2D hand-drawn animation. “There were so many groundbreaking techniques in this movie,” says Miller, “it feels like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

While all this freshness has just seen the movie nominated for Best Animated Film at the Golden Globes, at its very heart is a character that people have embraced since his creation in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. “I think he’s relatable,” says Moore. “He’s a teen. When he first came out, the mould for Spider-Man was a little different than the Iron Mans, the Captain Americas. Those characters … I feel like the origin stories are just different. Spider-Man appeals to the coming-of-age point of life for most people.”

Fans can also rest assured that Spider-Man / Peter Parker do appear in Spider- Verse (in two iterations; one even with middle-aged spread who is still hung up on now ex-wife Mary Jane Watson). But this is really all about Miles. “One of the big challenges was keeping an eye on Miles all the time…remembering it’s his story,” says Lord.

Now all they have to do is keep an eye on the box office – which is likely to be huge.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is due out in UAE cinemas on Thursday

Updated: December 11, 2018 06:29 PM

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