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'Across the Spider-Verse' explained: Hundreds more Spider-People, surprise MCU tie-ins and the most animators ever on one film

"This film requires repeat viewing specifically because there are so many things in every frame," co-director Kemp Powers advises.

'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse' (Everett Collection)
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Photo: Sony/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Even Shameik Moore couldn’t believe how good Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was, and he was a key cog in the making of 2018’s animated hit.

Moore, who stars as Miles Morales — the Brooklyn teen who becomes the new Spider-Man after the Peter Parker in his dimension Earth-1610 perishes — first saw it with co-star Jake Johnson. “He was like, ‘Dude, this is going to be really good for you. You’re going to start doing live-action movies,’ because I want to do action movies.” Moore (Dope, Wu-Tang: An American Saga) wanted to be the live-action Miles Morales (he still does, more on that below). “But then as my nephew saw it, as people started to see it, I [started] to see the real impact of it. I started to digest what we just did.”

The real impact of it was this: Into the Spider-Verse was a critical and box-office smash. Some reviewers called it the best Spider-Man movie ever, better than anything with a Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland, with particular raves for its stylistically groundbreaking animation that brought the spirit and essence of comic books to life like no Marvel or DC movie before it. The film cruised to a worldwide gross of $384 million (from a budget of $90 million) and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

“I think I just sort of like laughed to myself after I saw it for the first time,” admits Hailee Steinfeld (Pitch Perfect, Hawkeye), who voices Gwen Stacy, a young Spider-Woman from the alternate dimension Earth-65, who, along with Johnson’s aging and overweight Peter Parker, help Miles defeat the evil Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).

Issa Rae and Daniel Kaluuya, who join the festivities for this weekend’s sequel Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, were watching from the sidelines… on a slight delay.

“I put it off, and I grew up reading the comics,” says Rae (Insecure), who plays the very pregnant Spider-Woman Jessica Drew, a member of the elite multiverse-hopping Spider-Society that Miles and Gwen team up with in the new film. “Then people started saying it was the best thing ever and I was like, ‘Y’all are hyping it. And so I didn’t see it until probably like a year later. So then I was just like, ‘Why didn’t I watch this sooner? I missed it.’ Everything was just so phenomenal.”

“I had a similar reaction,” says Kaluuya (Get Out, Judas and the Black Messiah), who plays the guitar-wielding anarchist Spider-Punk. “And then when I finally watched it, my mind was blown. I mean, there’s a lot of good movies nowadays, but this was one of my favorites. I watch it every Christmas.”

As with any sequel, the stakes are higher in Across the Spider-Verse. (While Across the Spider-Verse is the second film in the series, it’s technically the first of a two-parter, with 2024’s threequel Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse already in the works from the same creative team: Lego Movie masters Phil Lord and Chris Miller back as producers as well as co-writers with Dave Callaham (Shang-Chi), and the trio of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson directing.)

Miles has a new nemesis (the vendetta-carrying Spot, voiced by Jason Schwartzman), and chases his crush Gwen into an alternate dimension where he crosses paths with literally hundreds of other Spider-People (there are dozens spotted in the trailer alone). “There is a huge board” of Spider-People the filmmakers looked at, Lord confirms. “And there’s a lot business affairs people that are part of the process. And in this case, I guess we just said, ‘Use ’em all.’”

'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse' (Sony Pictures/YouTube)
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Photo: Sony Pictures/YouTube)

In this dimension (one of five featured in the film), Miles learns of a threat that could destroy every universe at once.

“In the first movie we were introduced to Miles, and we met Gwen, and we knew Peter already,” says Moore. “But in this movie, it’s about the Spider-People, and I think that’s where the stakes [elevate], because everybody has a different path or mentality or a way to approach saving people.” The film’s central conflict ultimately unfolds between Spider-People, not your typical hero versus villain arc.

Across the Spider-Verse is bound to excite fans with its tie-ins to the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe, which remains a creative partnership between Disney and Sony. As revealed in the trailer, Across acknowledges the multiverse disruptions caused by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange and Holland’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022). “Don’t ever get me started on Doctor Strange and the little nerd back on Earth-199999,” bemoans Spider-Society leader Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). There may be a live-action cameo or two from the live-action worlds we won’t spoil here.

Not that these references will necessarily have larger ramifications in Disney’s Kevin Feige-run MCU. “We didn't have any conversations with Marvel, that’s for sure,” laughs Powers (whose Pixar film Soul won the animated Oscar two years after Into the Spider-Verse). “The conversations were just within our creative team. And it starts from this place of having fun. I think fans are going to interpret it in any number of ways. And I don’t feel right saying there’s a right or wrong way to really interpret it. But this is a Lord-Miller film. The whole idea of this creative process is about having fun and being subversive and looking at the idea of comic books and comic book canon and comic book heroes and heroines and villains and where they are and all the rules there.”

Laughs Lord: “We just put [the MCU references] in the script and the film and let someone else deal with it.” Says Miller more sincerely: “Our theory is that anything’s possible in the multiverse.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - MAY 22: (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 attend the photocall for Sony Pictures Animation's
(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 attend the photocall for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse on May 22, 2023 in Beverly Hills. (Photo: Kayla Oaddams/WireImage)

Also elevated for Part 2: the film’s eye-popping visual style. More than 1,000 animators worked on the sequel, a record for an animated feature film. “It was something like 750 person-years to make the picture,” says Lord.

“It’s a lot more advanced and sophisticated than the first film,” explains Miller. “We had to break the pipeline to make the first film. But this one, we broke it five more times because each world we wanted to feel like it was in its own style of animation, its own aesthetic as though you’re walking into a different painting by a different artist.”

“I think this film requires repeat viewing specifically because there are so many things in every frame,” says Powers. “Even for us, we’ve watched this film thousands of times in development, but watching it again and again, even we see different things that we didn't see each time.”

As with Into the Spider-Verse, critics are falling in love with Across the Spider-Verse, again effusively praising the film’s breathtaking animation.

Moore will surely enjoy its impact again. Even if he still does want to be Marvel’s live-action Miles Morales.

“Absolutely,” Moore says. “I think it’ll come down to what kind of film they want to make. Honestly, at the end of the day, I’m going to keep doing other movies and projects and just show my range and hope the Spidey fans speak up when it’s time, when they announce they’re going for live action. You know, it’ll be time to speak up.”

Steinfeld has his back: “Start the petition,” she interjects. “I could definitely see Shameik doing it, 100%.”

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse opens Friday, June 2.

Watch the trailer: