‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Co-Director Kemp Powers on the Impact of Representation

Sony Animation Pictures’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a massive sequel to say the least. As the follow-up to one of the most visually dazzling comic book movies, co-director Kemp Powers had his work cut out for him trying to make the next chapter bigger than its predecessor in story and in animation.

Many would say that he — and fellow directors Justin K. Thompson and Joaquim Dos Santos — were successful in continuing Miles Morales’ story of navigating life as Brooklyn’s very own Spider-Man and being a teenager at a prestigious high school. We got to talk to Powers about the sequel, the differences and similarities of animated studios, bringing meaningful representation to a blockbuster animated film, and what we can expect to see from Beyond the Spider-Verse.

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

The Nerds of Color: I can’t imagine what it’s like for you to jump from one major animated feature to another with two completely different work cultures, but their films focused on the importance of representation. So can you talk about what that experience was like for you?

Kemp Powers: Exhausting. Because no, I mean, it’s so funny because usually when you finish an animated film, you take a break because it’s such a heavy lift. You know what I mean?

It takes years to make one of these films. But I met Phil Lord and Chris Miller, before I was even finished on Soul. So, it worked out that I was asked to co-direct Across the Spider-Verse and I started on Across the Spider-Verse, just a couple of days after I wrapped on Soul. So, by the time Soul came out, and was released, I’ve been working on Across the Spider-Verse for quite a while, in secret.

It’s interesting, because Pixar is pretty awesome and has its own very kind of like unique culture. You know what I mean? With the Pixar brain trust. And obviously, working with Phil and Chris and my co-directors at Sony, that has a very different culture. But the thing that I think they both have in common is that animation is such a collaborative filmmaking experience. There are so many different voices. And at times I try to describe to people the experience of being a director as and I don’t mean this as in a negative way, is kind of feeling like air traffic control. There’s so many great ideas flying over your head. And it’s just like picking them out and like synthesizing and just trying to keep this like really huge beast of a ship, you know, going in the right direction. But it’s probably one of the most collaborative, I think filmmaking environments I’ve ever worked in. I’ve worked in live-action, I worked in theater, you know, and I’ve worked in a lot of, but it’s like, man making an animated feature.

The scale of it is also something I don’t think a lot of people understand. They think because it’s a cartoon, that it’s somehow like a smaller scale. But the process of making something like a soul or a spider verse, is you feel like you’re making like a Star Wars movie, like it feels you’re you’re building these huge worlds. And while they’re being built digitally, it takes just many people to to build these worlds. Yes. So it’s, it’s really quite an undertaking, but but it’s exciting, you know, and it’s exciting.

Since we are a site that primarily focuses on meaningful representation, I wanted to ask you about how you brought that to life. Because some films have the character there and they claim to count it as representation when in actuality, it feels superficial. But in Across the Spider-Verse, we hear it in the needle drops, the Spanglish, the Spanish without subtitles, and see it food and other visuals. What was that like to bring it to life in such an organic way?

The key word you use is organic. These are conversations you have and it never is a superficial thing. If it’s superficial. It feels fake. It feels token. And that’s something that like no one wants to do.

People are encouraged to speak up. I remember the day we had a conversation about the Spanish language and never having subtitles. You know what I mean? It was just kind of like, okay, there’s a lot of Spanish in here. Do we want to have subtitles? And it’s like, no, that doesn’t feel right. It’s also something a little something special for the members of the audience who are Spanish speaking. You see what I mean? It’s like the the intent in the meaning is obvious, even if you can’t understand the language. So the entire audience will totally understand the intent of miles as mom when she’s ribbing him about his grades. But if you’re also from a Spanish speaking culture, you get all the specifics of it.

It’s something that you know what I was actually thinking of a film that if you might, if you don’t mind, a film that I thought, oh, that doesn’t did it so well was Sofia Coppola‘s film Lost in Translation, there’s a part in the film will, where Bill Murray‘s character is being directed by a director in Japanese. And there’s no translation. But he’s getting incredibly frustrated, giving him all these instructions. And then the interpreter says something very simple. I saw that with a friend who spoke Japanese. And the friend who spoke Japanese was cracking up. And when they told me all of the stuff that the director was saying, but I love that the fact that like, I got the intent, I got the meeting, I got the comedy, but for someone who spoke Japanese sitting next to me, it was also like something incredibly specific.

And I mean that those are the types of things that that inspired I think us when when you know, when you when you think about like, of course, we can do this, of course, animation isn’t about you don’t have to dumb down animation, quite the opposite. Animation is a medium is so sophisticated. And I think you can do sophisticated storytelling, and even kids can get it because kids are sophisticated.

Of course, we have to talk about the cameos. It wouldn’t be much of a Spider-Verse sequel without them. But before i get to that, I want to talk about the running gags. We all saw how Donald Glover wearing a Spidey suit in that Community episode evolved into a full on live-action cameo as the Prowler. And then there was “I think it’s a Banksy” joke. Is it safe to say that those two gags will reappear in Beyond the Spider-Verse?

Yeah, I mean, I can’t talk about Beyond at all. But one thing to understand is now that you’ve gotten to very different movies, you also can get an idea of the irreverent tone, you know, and I mean, and a lot of the kind of like, meta or irreverent humor, and I think it’s safe to say that that won’t stop.

Spider-Man (Shameik Moore) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE.

Now, there were a lot of Spider-Heroes making their respective cameos. What was the process like to chose which ones would appear and not appear, and will the ones who didn’t appear in Across the Spider-Verse make an appearance in Beyond the Spider-Verse?

It was a lot of fun. First part of the question, it was a ton of fun. And, you know, a lot of heroes were actually from Spider-Man comics, and a lot of them in, particularly in the background wore characters that our artists made up. So it was like a nice blend of both like, characters from Spider-Man comic books and canon, and just characters that we wanted to create, because they look cool.

We knew that, for fans of the first film, they might at first concerned about not seeing so many of those characters return, like Spider-Man Noir, and Spider-Ham and stuff like that. But we always knew that by the end of the film, those characters were going to show up again. And you know, as part of this cliffhanger that we ended – but what excited me was introducing these new characters. There was so many. The development of characters like Spider-Punk or Spider-Man India, Jessica Drew, or even like smaller characters, who I think is pretty obvious are going to have a bigger role like Spider-Byte, you know what I mean? Like Margo, the, that was like super duper exciting because it makes you always want to be doing something original.

You don’t want to just repeat something that’s been done before and do more of it. You want to kind of like build new worlds and create new characters. And that was one of the most gratifying things about this film is that even though it was a sequel, it felt like we were building something completely new.

So, I’d like to talk about some of the bonus features that come with the home entertainment release. If fans were about to dive into them, which ones should they start on first?

There’s a couple of things. One thing I’d really recommend is watching after you’ve watched the film, watch it again with the “Filmmaker Commentary.” [It’s] great because you hear myself my fellow directors, Justin Thompson and Joaquin dos Santos and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, basically talking through the you know, like the entire film, and you get a lot of insight into to like the stuff that we were thinking about, as we were doing it.

There’s one feature I think it’s called, it’s the making of it. It’s the longest of it, like 15 minutes. And it’s great because it basically, we do interviews, not just with the directors, not just with Lord and Miller, but with lots and lots of artists behind the scenes from our VFX artists, to our story artists, to our animators. So that feature at I think gives the biggest, broadest picture about the 1,000 people in different contributions to the film.

Finally, I have to ask a fun question. If you were given your very own day pass to travel across the Spider-Verse, which three Spider-Heroes would you take along with you?

I probably take Miles. Obviously, Miles would be my first choice. I still love Peter B. Parker, I would take I would take him along just because I’m old and fat like him. You know, I got I think that you would get me. And the third one, I just think Spider-Punk. He is so hilarious and chaotic, that I’d probably bring Spider-Punk along to.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is available now on Digital, and will be released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD on September 5, 2023.