In a year that gave us films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” this weekend’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” delivers one more home run for underrepresented groups in media in 2018.
An animated film that takes advantage of Sony’s piece of the Marvel pie, “Spider-Verse” not only puts a mixed-race, middle-class teenager in the driver’s seat of a beloved comic franchise — it reaches deep into its own lore to call home diverse Spider-folk of different genders and races from other dimensions.
“I think it’s so exciting that ‘Black Panther’ and our movie are coming out in the same year. I’ve heard a couple people say, ‘Do you wish it wasn’t?’ No! I think it’s amazing! It’s such a wonderful sign of the times,” Kristine Belson, Sony Pictures Animation president, told Variety.
“We can enjoy all kinds of heroes,” she said.
The hero of “Spider-Verse” is Miles Morales, an African American-Latino teen living in Brooklyn, voiced by up-and-comer Shameik Moore. On weeknights he’s toiling in the dormitory of an elite private school, but come Friday he’s rocking headphones and posting stickers of his original graphic art all over New York.
He solves quantum puzzles in notebooks and sings Post Malone and Swae Lee tunes alone in his bedroom. It’s a meticulously-drawn portrait of a modern, metropolitan teenager in a genre that often relies on tokenism to make one-dimensional characters sing.
Peter Ramsey, one of the film’s three directors, said the production relied on the family experiences of its filmmakers in making Morales.
“We tried really hard to make Miles’ world as real and relatable as possible, so that you could say this is an Afro-Latino kid and this feels just like where he would be growing up. Down to the details of the apartment he lives in,” Ramsey said.
His police officer dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and nurse mom Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) are busy working parents, never seen out of their uniforms.
“Our production designer Justin Thompson, his mom was a nurse. He said she was always in scrubs, so Rio should always be in scrubs. That’s us trying to pack as much story into each decision along the way,” said Ramsey.
“Culturally, we’re ready for Miles. We’re craving what that character says. People all over the world want to be a part of this myth. By including more people, different ethnicities, sexes, nationalities, etc — it enriches and deepens what those myths are in the first place,” said Ramsey.
The on-screen authenticity comes a result of increasing diversity in his industry, the director said. Ramsey, a Los Angeles native and the first African-American to direct a big budget animated feature in “Rise of the Guardians,” said the landscape is slowly improving.
“A lot of it has to do with the talent pool that gets drawn upon. Historically, there are not a lot of people of color and, until recently, women. It also has to do with the schools that mostly feed the industry [and] the feasibility of people of color to study art, and get to that level of technical skill that gets you in the door,” he said. “The most important thing is that awareness around the issue is changing.”
Ramsey specifically pointed to Terence Nance (director, “Space Jam 2”) and LeSean Thomas (a Netflix anime hitting in March) as emerging, diverse creators in the space.
What’s also notable about “Spider-Verse,” which posted the best-ever December opening for an animated film this weekend, is not only Spidey’s fresh translation, but its larger message of including the other. Multi-dimensional Spider-people include a young woman who fans will recognize as Gwen Stacey (Hailee Steinfeld) and a Japanese girl named Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn). Supporting super characters include Miles’ Uncle Aaron who is revealed as villain Prowler (Mahershala Ali), a female villain in Dr. Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hahn) and a credits-scene appearance from Miguel O’Hara, aka Spider-Man 2099, voiced by Oscar Isaac.
“This film is subversive and self-referential and meta — and funny! There’s so much ridiculous and wonderfully silly comedy in the movie — but what makes it work is that it’s profoundly emotional. It has a giant beating heart about these very diverse and lonely Spidermen from their different homes in the Spider-verse coming together to meet each other,” added Belson.
Moore points to the film’s oft-repeated tagline: anyone can wear the mask.
“What makes you special is what’s different about you. That one thing you’re not confident about, or that people make fun of you about? That thing is what makes you unique. That’s what Miles has to figure out in this movie,” said Moore.
“Operate on excellence. You can’t do it like me, you have to do it like you,” he said