One of the recurring talking points raised by the cast of “Black Panther” is everyone involved knew it was a big deal: Whatever else the film would be, it was a groundbreaking achievement in creating more diverse blockbusters. However, the cast of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” barely had any idea that they were doing the same thing.
In the surprise animated studio hit of the fall, black teenager Miles Morales gains the same spider powers as all the Spider-Man in the preceding live-action movies, but he finds himself joined by a range of other Spider-Man variations after villain Kingpin forces their worlds to collide. This narrative device does more than yield the most satisfying Spider-Man entry to date; it allows the character to reach a potential that has eluded him for decades, ever since Stan Lee launched him with “Amazing Fantasy” #15 in 1962.
While Batman is a billionaire and Superman is an alien, geeky Peter Parker provided a metaphor for hesitant youth confronting their fears, but his appeal was constricted: This Everyman was a white man, which isn’t every man (or woman). With “Into the Spider-Verse,” Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) joins forces with two female versions of the hero, “Spider-Gwen” (Hailee Steinfeld) and an anime girl named Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who uses a biomechanical spider-suit.
There’s also the cartoonish “Spider-Ham” (John Mulaney), a black-and-white detective “Spider-Man Noir” (Nicolas Cage), and Jake Johnson as a portly, divorced Spider-Man who needs to get his group back.
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The movie changes the Spider-Man dynamic by exploring the character through several racial and gender possibilities, but it began with the decision to make a movie around Morales. First introduced in comics seven years ago, the character has made fleeting appearances on Disney’s “Spider-Man” television shows, which is where Moore first saw him.
“It just surprised me that he looked exactly like me,” said Moore, now 23. “That opened up my eyes.” Nevertheless, Moore didn’t fully recognize the cultural ramifications of the movie until it was done. “The representation is really kicking in when it’s brought up to me, when people say I’m the black Spider-Man,” he said.
Several of its voice actors said it was difficult to parse “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” on the page. Produced by “The Lego Movie” visionaries Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the movie clearly had potential to bring an innovative approach to the character, but the project was shrouded in secrecy and the cast only received pages featuring their dialogue.
“I knew there were a few Spider-things and some villains,” said Glenn. “I didn’t really know exactly how to explain it.” After her first recording session, she saw the art design for her character. “I grew up around Japanese culture my whole life,” said Glenn, who’s half-Japanese. “That was really cool. I just had a plethora of ideas.”
Glenn scored her breakout role on “Orange is the New Black,” but has done extensive voiceover work on everything from “Voltron” to “Bojack Horseman,” and has noticed that her opportunities have been more plentiful there. “It opens up the whole voiceover world to me because you can’t see my face,” she said. “I get to express myself however I want.” Still, she was wary of being associated with a movie with such a familiar figure at its center. “I was concerned because there are so many Spider-Man franchises out there, but this is epically different,” she said. “Being biracial in this industry is kind of an interesting thing. I’ve always been hyperaware of that because I’ve been told so many times you’re not Asian or white enough.”
Moore had the opposite experience. “I was never the type of person to look at a movie and see the white man,” he said. “I loved 007 and Superman. They happened to be white and I didn’t care. I never thought that because these characters were white meant that I wouldn’t be able to do that. Maybe that’s why I was chosen to do this.”
Ultimately, “Into the Spider-Verse” drives home the central idea that anyone can wear the mask. “It seems the corny, but in the context of the movie where you see this struggle, and you see that it’s everyone’s struggle,” Glenn said. “They’re all unlikely superheroes.”
The movie also provided its white actors with the opportunity to play a kind of character usually reserved for different types. That included Jake Johnson’s Spider-Man, which gave the “New Girl” actor the opportunity to play a superhero that would be otherwise unavailable to a grinning comedic face often relegated to supporting roles in bigger movies. After the Fox show ended earlier this year, Johnson faced a crossroads.
“I knew when ‘New Girl’ ended, I needed time off from being an on-camera actor, because that was such a big job,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be one of those actors who goes from job to job.” Johnson’s studio work has been limited to date — he played Tom Cruise’s buddy in the ill-received “The Mummy” — but “Spider-Man” provided the opportunity for a reinvention. “I think acting on camera is a way bigger challenge,” he said. “It becomes a mental game to try to forget the 60 or 70 people who are working long hours in the same room as you are there. In a booth, I can have the light dim to a spotlight on the script, close my eyes, and disappear into this world.”
The project marked an even bigger change for Mulaney, who had recently finished a 150-city standup tour and hosted “Saturday Night Live” when the project came his way. The standup comic and writer had never done a movie before. “I was back in LA and kind of burnt out a little,” he said. The script came to him with a fake title and he was only provided with details for his character, Spider-Ham. The silliest figure in the movie, a Porky Pig knock-off buried behind standard Spider-Man garb, Spider-Ham forced Mulaney to explore how to complicate his comedic sensibilities. “I find him very funny,” Mulaney said, “but as the story progresses, we see his angry side, his traumatized side. We weren’t doing the Rodney Dangerfield or Don Rickles version. They really wanted to see Spider-Ham deeply sad, which then turns to real rage.”
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As the concept of diversity suggests, unilateral solutions don’t work. Moore is wary of career opportunities that appear to treat him as a representative more than an actor. “I ask myself, ‘Is it iconic?’” he said. “Will it make a huge difference? Is it meant for me, or could any black boy do it? I have a lot of black actor friends out there. There are so many other projects like that where they didn’t really need me.”
Glenn said she approaches offers with similar caution. “I’m always conscious of stereotypes,” she said. “I grew up very American, so I always felt weird putting on an Asian accent, auditioning for roles that felt very stereotypical, like the martial arts experience. Now that they’re being more inclusive, I feel a bit better about those roles existing in the world.”
She said “Into the Spider-Verse” hinted at a kind of inclusivity that might be around the corner for the film industry. “The best possible situation would be if we don’t have to call it out as much, if we’re able to watch something and everything’s inclusive,” she said. “Then, it’s not about diversity. It’s just a part of our lives.”