Marvel Comics' deep-lore multiverse, with its seemingly infinite timelines, realities, and roster of heroes, is already plenty complicated to explain to a novice. Trying to depict it in a movie, against the added real-world backdrop of a culture saturated in superhero movies, TV shows, and assorted other media, should by all rights have been an even more challenging task for the filmmakers of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
The obvious route for someone writing the animated movie would be to try to detangle the inherently twisted story and to distance the new film as much as possible from all the other Spider-Man movies; pushing aside all outside narratives would give the filmmakers a clear runway to build around the movie's new young Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and create a distinct story that exists in its own fictional context. But instead, the screenwriting team of Phil Lord and co-director Rodney Rotham leaned in hard the other way, placing the movie right smack in the middle of our spider-saturated real world.
In hindsight, it should have been obvious that the movie would go meta, given that Lord and Chris Miller, the minds behind The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street franchises, were driving the production. They're the guys who managed to make movies about sentient toys and remakes of self-aware cop flicks that tease fictional sequels, so integrating actual pop culture into a movie was likely no sweat.
"Very early on, when Phil Lord was writing the initial treatments, he realized this kid, unlike Peter Parker, is growing up in a world where Spider-Man already exists," explained Peter Ramsey, the third of the film's three co-directors. "If somebody like that exists in this world, they're going to be a celebrity. They're going to be an outsized presence in this world. That just added more to the story of a kid who takes on a huge legacy and responsibility and has to avoid being crushed by the act of living up to it."
The movie is filled with Spider-Man comics (they're called "True Life Tales" here), and narration explicitly references actual movies, even flashing back to specific scenes from 2004's Spider-Man 2 and 2007's Spider-Man 3. The implication is that the comic books are works of graphical biography, while the movies are real-time biopics, installments in an ongoing big-screen depiction of the true-life tales.
The self-referencing became a way to excite longtime fans and pay homage to the character's creative history; Stan Lee has the expected cameo, while there are also nods to other Marvel icons, including Miles Morales creator Brian Michael Bendis. It all swirls together in its own meta-multiverse, with real movies within a fictional movie being viewed by fictional characters and the real people who created them.
"My guess is that Spider-Man probably was being played by somebody in those movies [within the movie]," Rotham said, laughing at how deep the rabbit hole can get. "We had an early version of that stuff where there was a DVD they were watching and Spider-Man was on the audio commentary, with Brian talking about being Spider-Man with an altered voice."
Added co-director Bob Persichetti: "Spider-Man is a special consultant on [the movies], too, an important distinction."
Ratcheting up the acknowledgment of past Spider-adventures wasn't just a clever way to thrill longtime fans; doing so also served to up the tension and stakes for Morales, who struggles with his new powers shortly after Peter Parker — the original Spider-Man — dies in battle.
For the uninitiated: Peter Parker dies early on in Into the Spider-Verse… but there is more than one Peter Parker, because there are many different universes that are, as luck would have it, strikingly similar. The Parker in Morales' universe was an idealistic 26-year-old superhero at the top of his game; another Parker, this one from what you'd probably call "our" universe, is a 40-year-old slob who has just about had it with trying to follow Uncle Ben's "great power, great responsibility" code.
Shortly after Miles gains his powers, he's confronted by this spider-schlub, who winds up in Miles' universe due to scientific shenanigans pulled by the villain Kingpin. He's not the Peter Parker that Miles admired from afar, but introducing any Spider-Man to this lost kid is a big deal. With the callbacks to the old movies, the movie reminds the audience of Spidey's long legacy, while also providing context for its protagonist.
"He sets up the expectations for Miles and raises the bar for Miles," Rotham explained. "I believe that's why we can walk that fine line of making a joke out of dancing like Tobey Maguire did and also being incredibly moved when he connects with Miles the first time and says, 'Don't worry, kid. I know you're pretty overwhelmed. I'm going to help you out.'"
Spider-Man gets help with training this new Spider-Man from several other Spider-people from more of these parallel universes, which could have again left audiences somewhat baffled — the Spider-Verse comics, from which the movie takes some inspiration, sometimes require repeated forensic examination for the casual reader. But instead, the filmmakers also used this important plot point to further distinguish Miles and the learning curve he faced.
There were seemingly endless options for which Spider-people to include (more precisely, about two dozen), but some were more similar than others, which would have defeated the purpose of their inclusion. Animated films often change significantly throughout production, but the screenwriters and directors on Into the Spider-Verse were set on their roster from the start.
The filmmakers wound up choosing Spider-Man Noir (an old-time, black-and-white-shaded detective), Spider-Gwen (from a universe where Parker pal Gwen Stacey is bitten by the radioactive spider instead), Spider-Ham (a Looney Tunes-esque cartoon pig with Spider-powers), and Peni Parker (a futuristic, anime-style girl with a robot pal). Each of them provided distinct personalities and visual styles, but more importantly, all furthered Miles' journey.
"Miles is a kid having a bit of an identity crisis and trying to figure out who he was and if he's capable of doing the things that Peter Parker was," Rotham said. "It was interesting to show four or five wildly different versions who are all different models of how you could make it work but not necessarily the exact way Miles needs to make it work. Then there was the visual element where we just wanted a shot with five characters that didn't really belong together."