‘Let’s Go More Awesome’: Inside the Making of ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’

Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and directors Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson and Joaquim Dos Santos walk TheWrap through the sequel’s long, ambitious journey


In late 2018, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” quietly debuted. It featured a different version of the Spider-Man character, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a New York City whiz kid whose Spider-Man died tragically, forcing him to step into the iconic role (with some help from some other Spider-People from different dimensions). And it was rendered in an aggressively comic book-y style – this style was unlike anything that audiences had seen before and effectively bumped out the parameters of what we think of as Western animation.

It took chances in both the medium and the message. It made an impressive $384 million worldwide against a budget of $90 million. And it was awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature a few months later, marking the first non-Disney or Pixar movie that had been honored since Gore Verbinski’s “Rango.”

Now, five years later — and after Marvel Studios effectively aped the concept for their “Spider-Man: No Way Home” which grossed nearly $2 billion in 2021 — Miles and the rest of the gang are back for “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Somehow, the movie is even more ambitious and complex than the original film. Not only is it significantly more complicated on a visual level, but the emotions this time around are even deeper, as we traverse the larger Spider-Verse with Miles and Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), meet the hard-assed Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) and ponder the question: can you even be Spider-Man without being saddled with a tragic backstory?

TheWrap sat down with “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” writers and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, along with the directors Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson and Joaquim Dos Santos, to talk about where the film came from and where the next film (“Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse,” out March 29, 2024) is going.

Assembling the Spider-Society

“Across the Spider-Verse” has an entirely separate directorial posse than “Into the Spider-Verse” – directors Rodney Rothman (who also co-wrote the original film’s script with Lord), Peter Ramsey and Robert Persichetti moved on to other individual endeavors and were replaced with Powers, Thompson and Dos Santos.

It was easy to see why they were initially chosen – Powers had just come from co-directing Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Soul” with Pete Docter; Thompson had been a production designer on “Into the Spider-Verse” and had worked with Lord and Miller since their directorial debut “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs;” and Dos Santos had directed episodes of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra.” (He also directed a better-received “Black Adam” movie than Dwayne Johnson made – 2010’s “Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.”)

“First of all, it’s so much movie. It’s too much movie for any one person to do. But what I enjoy about watching this movie is that it feels like watching a great jazz combo,” Lord said. “You’re not watching an individual performance, but rather an amazing band of people that are taking turns, soloing and flexing. Each of these guys has a superpower that you get to see.”

Thompson said he was chosen for the sequel because on the first film, he was already dealing with the ambitious visuals. “This was just an opportunity to go even further and be more experimental and do something even bigger and better and try even more weird things that would actually help tell a story about this character that’s going across the Spider-Verse and seeing things he’s never seen before,” Thompson said. “We just wanted people to see things the way Miles would see them not knowing what to expect, and it was kind of cool.” This, Thompson said, is his “specialty.” “Turning up all those knobs and doing weird things with them is fun,” Thompson said.

While it might seem like a pretty large leap going from production designer to director, Thompson disagrees. “I’ve always approached everything I do as a storyteller. To have a greater hand in the storytelling from the beginning was the natural progression. And these guys trust me,” Thompson said. “Getting in at the ground floor to help tell the story and thinking about how we could make the visuals support the story from the very get-go and start crafting and planning that, as opposed to sometimes reacting to what a director might want.”

Lord said knowing that “those things go hand-in-hand” was key to the production.

“The idea that Gwen’s dimension would respond to how she felt. And that it would morph and change. It would feel like walking into a painting of her experience. That came from these guys,” Lord said, referring to the world that Gwen Stacey comes from, which has been described as a mood ring before and features drippy watercolors and pastels. It’s one of the most striking elements of the movie and also one of the most moving. You can feel her heartache in every frame. “It also helps tell the story more clearly,” Miller added.

Powers, who said he considers “Soul” “as much my film as it’s all of our films,” was brought in to work with the actors. An accomplished playwright, he was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar the same year that “Soul” won for Best Animated Feature for Powers’ adaptation of his own “One Night in Miami…” (the film version was directed by Regina King). “I love working with actors, the performative aspect of it. I love writing and I love sitting in the edit. I have strong opinions, and I liked getting passionate about them and arguing and throwing temper tantrums,” Powers said.

“You’ve thrown the most charming temper tantrums I’ve ever experienced,” Lord interjected.

“I have very strong opinions. Let’s just put it that way,” Powers clarified. “The collaboration is also a debate and the best idea wins. I love winning an argument but I also love losing an argument and being proven wrong. That’s exciting – this thing you didn’t know was going to f–ing work worked. And that element of the process, which often happens when you’re sitting in the edit suite and you’re looking at these scenes and you’re workshopping lines with actors and you’re like, holy s–t this thing we wrote doesn’t work. Let’s try this. And actors are very different personalities, and this draws in such an incredible range. You get these incredible comedic actors and then you get those big dramatic actors and everyone has a different style and you’ve got to figure out a way to work with all these different people. At least I think that’s kind of my superpower when it comes to this collab.”

For Dos Santos, he was tasked with amplifying the already absurd action of the previous film.

“I come from TV action-adventure stuff, I love setting big set pieces, big action, a lot of choreography, a lot of trying to create the strongest base to pass down the line so that our layout department understands what’s going on, so the animators have a good idea of what’s going on,” Dos Santos explained. “And like these guys, it’s all story based. As crazy as it gets, as upside down as it gets, if we’re not tracking through everybody’s movement and reaction to each other through the choreography, what the emotional drive is, then we’re lost. Just tracking all that and when these guys go, ‘That’s cool, but how about more awesome?’ You go, ‘Let’s go more awesome.’”

“I think Joaquim is one of the best I’ve ever seen at taking kinetic energy and using it to tell a story,” Lord said.

(L-R) Chris Miller, Phil Lord, Brian Tyree Henry, Kemp Powers, Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Justin K. Thompson, Jake Johnson, Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Vélez and Amy Pascal (Getty Images)

There’s a sequence in the movie involving a runaway hover train that is one of the most thrilling sequences (to say anything else about the sequence would be criminal), and it seems to point to Dos Santos — but the filmmakers maintain it was a group effort.

“It’s so fun to watch the movie and be like, ‘Oh, look at this, it feels like Kemp,’ or ‘I know this feels like Joaquim,’ or ‘this is all Justin’s idea,’” Miller said. “The ambition of the film is so big. Just being able to look past with all these partners that you really believe in, that this is the best in the business, and say ‘Take this, I’m going to be over here doing this, and you go over here and do this.’”

“As Kemp points out, it’s the conversation that happens. When you have people with different points of view, just like the story we’re telling in the movie. When you bring people together and you have the conversation, that’s where the movie lives,” Lord added. “You got to be ready for anything. And you have to be like, all right, Kemp has this idea, s–t, let’s try it out.”

“We’ve got a lot of strong opinions and a lot of really smart people,” Miller said. “But we’re not all rowing in five different directions, because then you’re like, ‘Now we’re f–ed.’ We all know where we’re heading and we have the same goal, but how to get there or what it ultimately is at the end is a part of what everybody brings to it.”

Secret Origins

According to Lord, Dave Callaham, the screenwriter who had worked on “Ant-Man” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (among many other big Hollywood movies) wrote a screenplay during the final days of work on “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The ideas wound up being spread across the two new movies, with both Lord and Miller working on the screenplays for the sequels. But the “core, animating idea,” as Lord describes it, for “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” was, simply, “what if your friend got invited to a really cool party and you didn’t?”

“We’re trying to feel like a coming-of-age story. The first one is a boy becoming a teenager, and this one’s a teenager becoming an adult. And the idea that, you want to leave the nest, you want to find affirmation from friends and others outside of your home. It’s a very natural part of what the growing up process is,” Miller said. “And parents are often afraid to let you go and make mistakes. Birds leaving the nest, they migrate and then they come back. And similarly, Miles is looking for validation from others when he really needs to find it from within. That was the core concept. And then it ended up becoming more and more about parent/child relationships and the various stages of that – from the very, very beginning, in the womb to a toddler, to a teenager, to an adult.”

“I think all of us are parents and I think we’re all thinking about and channeling that idea of when your kid starts pulling away from you, just how painful it is and how heartbreaking that is,” Thompson said. “But you have to let them take those risks. And the scene with Rio and Miles where she’s letting him go and giving him permission, I think building that into the story is where we started to really find what the movie was and what was going to hold us. We go across all this crazy dimension-hopping but it’s really that thing that we want to come back home to and save this relationship between Miles and his family.”

“If you’re still recalling that when they’re on the train, we’ve done our job,” Dos Santos said.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man/Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animations’ SPIDER-MAN™: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE.

Lord said that the filmmaking team was really focused on a moment when Miles has a heated fight with his parents and walks out on them. “We had to have him feel like, Oh, if I’m not ever going to get back there, I regret how I ended things,” Miller said. “If you ever walked out of the house angry, saying something mean to your parents. And then if you were me and wound up getting arrested,” Thompson said. “It was kind of a bad thing to have to call my dad from jail. It was not a great day.”

In fact, the “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” team paid particular attention to these scenes, which is part of what makes the movie so special. “The traumatic scenes, honestly, they were some of the scenes that were some of the earliest ones we worked on, and we refined until the very, very, very last minute,” Powers said.

“It’s crazy that the first scenes, we got in a good place but we just never stopped working on them. Those relationship scenes became the bedrock of this film. I think that’s what makes it matter because it’s so interesting that while we were making this, we’re going through this run of seeing movies and going, ‘Did you see this film, did you see that film? What did you think?’ I’m like, ‘I kind of got bored during the action.’ And it was like, God, we don’t want to do that. We want our action to be motivated by emotion and the stakes. The stakes aren’t really the universe. The stakes are very small, understandable – save a person I love.”

And while they were sure they were doing the right thing with the more measured approach to the movie’s stakes, the filmmakers were worried that audiences might not agree. “The thing that shocked all of us when we screened early versions of the movie, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be in trouble because half of this movie is just people in rooms talking,’” Lord said. “But that was the thing the audience liked the most. We couldn’t believe it.”

When Dos Santos told people that he was working on the “Spider-Verse” sequel, he said theybrought up moments from the first that were the quieter, more emotional moments. “They recall Miles and his uncle just as much as they do Miles doing all the crazy stuff. They recall Miles with his family. That’s the pillar,” Dos Santos said.

Return to the Multiverse

A lot has changed in the five years since the original “Spider-Verse” movie. And chief among them is that when that movie was released, there were no stories about the multiverse. Now, Marvel Studios is dedicating a whole era of their movies and streaming series to The Multiverse Saga (including, of course, “Spider-Man: No Way Home”) and an indie movie about multiverse-hopping (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”) swept the Oscars earlier this year.

How did they deal with coming back to a concept that has been picked clean in the years that they were working on the film?

“Well, I feel like there’s two parts – one is that’s a lot of whizbang, the multiverse stuff, but really it’s about the emotional story and the heart. And that’s the only thing that you really care about,” Miller said. “The rest of it is just noise. But then the other part about it is that there’s a thing that we can do that the other multiverse movies can’t, or don’t do, which is that every world we visit looks like a totally different art style, with an entirely different way of animating it. Every character from a different dimension looks like they were drawn or painted by a different person. It was an extra opportunity to make a sort of cinematic visual experience you’ve never seen before. And that none of the other films that do multiverse things could possibly do.”

“And it’s also an expression of a character. It’s personal. Gwen’s universe is personal. Even Miguel’s universe is personal. And it has a metaphor behind it, which is the future is unwritten,” Lord added, commenting on Spider-Man 2099’s futuristic world. “It doesn’t bleed all the way to the end of the page. You can see the underdrawing. It’s yet to be completely formed no matter what Miguel says. Those little nuances that you can do in an animated image really give us a leg out.”

Sony Pictures

“There was trust in the fact that the core of the film stayed true. They could have 50 more multiverse things. The core of this story still works,” Dos Santos said.

Another interesting aspect of the movie is that it acknowledges, in some fun and surprising ways that we will not reveal here, that the mainline “Spider-Man” movies have adopted the multiverse approach. In essence, they are all now a part of the “Spider-Verse” created in 2018 (which is to say nothing of the spin-off projects already in development around various characters from these animated films).

“We built a chart, which is like, this is everything. And, this is our part,” Lord said.

“We like to feel like anything’s possible in the multiverse and we just try to do things that seem interesting and fun for our story,” Miller said. “And then we let the lawyers decide if they can.”

But the team said that they didn’t lose anything that they really wanted to include. “That’s the crazy part. Everything we tried to do we were able to pull off,” Miller said.

Lord added: “It helps if you don’t ask permission. It’s called a negative option. Are you okay with this? Email me back. You don’t hear back? It’s okay.”

Miller interjected, “It’s in the movie! I’m assuming you’re okay with this. I didn’t hear a no.”

An Even Bigger Adventure

Of course, as big and terrifyingly complicated as “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is, there’s another movie around the corner. Originally titled “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Part Two,” “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” will hit theaters next spring. But having the sequel turn into a trilogy was not something that was initially on the filmmakers’ minds.

“For a long time, we’ve been trying to jam two movies into one, and everyone was telling us there was two parts,” Miller said. “Everyone was like, we love this, but it’s really long,” Lord added.

“Miles goes through a journey in this part of the thing. He has a beginning, middle, and end. He’s afraid about stuff at the beginning, and he wants one thing, and then at this point he has grown up and has a different want and is not afraid,” Miller said. “And we are also doing a similar thing with Gwen and her father. All of these stories have a beginning, middle, and end. And then there were more stories, and they’re like, ‘Do we really want to be doing this?’ We realized, OK, I guess we have more than one movie’s worth of story. We finally admitted it to ourselves and we’re like, OK, fine, exciting conclusion. We can have that be the third movie. And this one we can tell a full, complete story, but it really feels like the middle part of a trilogy.”

“Ultimately it felt like a more interesting movie because it allowed you to end it in a way that feels unconventional. The movie starts and ends and feels like there are no normal choices,” Lord said.

This movie is so emotional – both for the characters and the audience – we had to ask how the people who made the movie are feeling at this moment. After five years, countless iterations, release date shifts and a global pandemic – how do the people who made “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” feel now?

“I think the key thing is, again, just making it satisfying. And again, subverting people’s expectations. I mean, they just said that both Miles and Gwen go on this journey where there’s a beginning and middle and end to it,” Powers said. “We’re all storytellers, and there’s nothing less satisfying than being four or five steps ahead of everything. And you really just don’t want to allow the audience to be so many steps ahead. So initially, as with anything that’s difficult, you go like, Jesus Christ, do we really want to try to do this?”

“Can this movie be normal for one second?” exclaimed Lord.

“But then by the time you get to the end, you can’t imagine it having gone any other way,” Powers said.

“I will say it’s scary as hell many, many times during the process, but it is such a long game making these fricking movies, that we’ve had the too-long version, we’ve had the too-short version. We’ve had every version in between,” Dos Santos said. “And we arrived here because it felt right. That’s the one that landed.”

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is in theaters now.