Unlike the six Peter Parker-centric Spider-Man feature films that have web-swung onto the big screen over the past 16 years, Sony’s upcoming animated thriller Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse imagines a world in which Spidey can have a seemingly infinite number of secret identities that co-exist from across the dimensions. With dazzling new footage from the upcoming December film unveiled at San Diego Comic-Con Friday, audience members discovered that in addition to Peter Parker’s OG web slinger (voiced by New Girl co-star Jake Johnson), there is Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (comedian John Mulaney), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and the newest Spider-Man on the block, teenager Miles Morales (portrayed by Shameik Moore), who is mentored in the ways of superpower management by none other than the now 40-year-old Peter himself.
But one of these things is not like the others. Miles, who first appeared in Marvel Comics in 2011 as the co-creation of writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, arrives as moviedom’s first nonwhite Spider-Man — an Air Jordan-wearing Brooklynite of mixed Puerto Rican and African-American heritage struggling not only with the kind of “with great power comes great responsibility” existential overload that has burdened every Spidey to date, but also the daily humiliations of his family, the onset of puberty and how his hands keep getting stuck in his new classmate Gwen’s hair.
According to Into the Spider Verse’s co-directors Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman, who spoke to Vulture at a round table interview just before the Sony panel, the idea was to create a three-dimensional Miles with carefully considered cultural values rather than simply transpose a set of standard Spider-Man attributes on to a character of color in a cheap bid to make the movie “multicultural.”
“When Miles first came out, he was in the first of this wave of characters of different ethnicities taking on the identities of classic heroes,” says Ramsey. “Since then, that idea has become pretty normalized. Coming out with the Miles Morales movie now, part of the task was to say, ‘Okay, it’s not just that you’re plugging someone of a different background into the costume or into the movie.’ How do you really flesh out what being of a different background is?”
“So there’s a lot of details of Miles’ life, where he grows up, what his family life is like, what school is like,” the director continues. “There’s cultural specificity. One of the other ideas is New York and its different boroughs being like really specific characters in the movie. And going for a really contemporary look at that. To see, what is Brooklyn like now? What is Queens like now? All those things to create a character who is not just ‘diverse.’ But feels real.”
For Moore, 23, co-star of the Netflix series The Get Down and lead actor in the 2015 Sundance breakout Dope, the opportunity to portray Miles represented a kind of strange wish fulfillment. “I wrote, ‘I am Miles Morales’ and, ‘I am Spider-Man’ in my journal two years ago when I was filming the movie Dope,” Moore says. “And it came to life. My cast mate Kiersey gave me a journal for whatever reason and I just started writing. We were really big on The Secret and The Law of Attraction and The Four Agreements. We were reading books and stuff. Working out at 6 am. Doing runs for however many miles up the street. Eating healthy. All of us in that apartment were like pushing each other. I was just being positive. Writing what I wanted in the book. And, yeah, some things came to life.”
Asked how he felt, embodying a character so long associated with movie #Caucasity, the actor spoke in emotional terms, expressing some shock at his luck. “I feel blessed. I feel chosen,” Moore says. “There’s a lot of black people, a lot of Latino people. I’m sitting in front of you. I took two private jets in the last six months! It’s been life changing for me. I have a desire to inspire youth and others. I want to be a positive role model. This is a good way to start.”
“Even as a white guy, I’m really glad this movie’s happening,” adds Johnson. “I was really happy Wonder Woman happened and we had a female super hero. All different types of people in power — showing that to young people is great. So I’m really excited people are going to watch this movie. This is a positive movie.”
When I asked if the actors felt that Into the Spider Verse speaks to the current cultural moment — an era of inclusion riders and a marked uptick in TV and film projects plotted around and written and directed by people of color — Johnson cautioned against reading too much into it. “This movie is not a political movie,” he says. “It’s for everybody whatever side of the political fence you’re on. Unless you hate human beings! Because this is a multicultural world we live in, this is a multicultural movie. It’s a gender equality movie. And it should be a gender equality world. So in terms of that speaking to the times, it is. But outside of that, the movie is not addressing the ins and outs of 2018. Because who could figure that out?”