Big Swings: Across the Spider-Verse’s directing trio reflect on spinning childhood dreams into Spider-Man movie magic

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) hang about in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) hang about in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse directors Kemp Powers, Joaquim Dos Santos and Justin K. Thompson reflect on working as fans first, filmmakers second—and what they owe to those who watched their movie in cinemas.

We had a story that felt personal to us, that we were excited about, that used these characters that not just everyone else loved, but we loved them. We felt like we had a right. It’s like when people say, ‘Are you thinking about the fans?’ Well, we’re thinking about us. We’re fans, too.

—⁠Kemp Powers

Taking one of the world’s most popular intellectual properties and turning it into Letterboxd’s highest rated film of 2023 is no mean feat. But for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s three directors—Kemp Powers, Joaquim Dos Santos and Justin K. Thompson—their primary goal was impressing each other. “I was really just worried about what Joaquim and Kemp thought,” says Thompson. “I was just like, ‘I hope they like what I’m doing.’ They were the only two people I really worried about.”

Their drive to create something personal—a treasure for comic book fans old and new—is what makes Across the Spider-Verse so special, and what the animation community has responded to: up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, it also has seven nominations at the Annie Awards. On our awards podcast Best in Show, Letterboxd’s comics king Matt Kolowski swung in to speak with Powers, Dos Santos and Thompson about The Empire Strikes Back comparisons, recruiting legendary comics artist Rick Leonardi and why VFX is just as important to animated movies as the animation itself. Listen above and read below.


Congratulations to you three and the entire team responsible for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, highest rated film of the year on Letterboxd. Not too shabby.
Kemp Powers: Wow, that is awesome. Thanks, man, appreciate that.
Joaquim Dos Santos: That’s awesome. What an honor, man.

Did the three of you always start out with the goal of making something better than The Empire Strikes Back?
JDS: Empire was sort of a comparison in terms of, [Across the Spider-Verse has] got to be a legit follow-up to the first one, but it’s got to carve its own path, it’s got to have its own voice, much in the way that Empire was.

KP: Empire is a seminal memory for me; growing up in Brooklyn, it was one of the first times I went into the city for anything, and that was to see Empire in theaters. It was the most devastated I’ve been as a kid, [by] that ending. And when Empire came out, people forget that we didn’t know Return of the Jedi was coming. You poured out onto the street and were just like, “Oh my god, what just happened to me?” It’s a core memory for all of us because we’re all pretty close in age.

Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson at their film’s premiere.  — Credit… ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson at their film’s premiere.  Credit… ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

You can only push the boundaries as far as you want when the fans show up for the end result. So honestly, the fact that people actually showed up for this film the way that they did, I really hope that opens the doors for more people to take these kinds of big swings.

—⁠Kemp Powers

Justin, I’ve heard you call Across the Spider-Verse the world’s most expensive independent art house film. As directors, can you talk to me a bit about how you foster an environment like that, and the desire to maintain that freedom in a project like this?
Justin K. Thompson: When we set out to make something that was unique and set apart from [the first film], but still lived up to the legacy of that, we knew we had to try and do something really radically different than we’d even done on the first film. We sort of threw out the book and said, “Let’s just think about this as a complete story, as its own film. How can we build from the ground up? Could Miles’s world look even better?”

We added a ton more to Miles’s world, and then thinking [about] our characters and what we were trying to say with them internally, we built all these external things that you’re seeing on screen around the characters. We thought about who they were as people, who they were as characters, how we wanted the audience to feel about them and hopefully get the audience to feel something that these characters couldn’t express with words—that you could actually be immersed within the feelings and the emotions of these characters.

That led us to start developing all kinds of visual ideas, like the walls crying when Gwen couldn’t—the paint dripping down and the wall crying for her. Or if we’re talking about Miguel, the idea that he’s in this perfect version of the future that really hides this dark underbelly underneath it like he does. Then we just stayed committed the whole time to trying to make sure that the art wound up on screen. We held the line between anything that would dilute that. That was something we learned when we were making the first film, but then this film, I think we gave ourselves even more license to put even more of it on screen, and make sure that the things that you see in the art of the book would actually wind up there in the movie.

Miles Morales in Across the Spider-Verse.
Miles Morales in Across the Spider-Verse.

JDS: I would say that was an active rule we had: it has to look like the thing that’s in the book. It can’t get vanilla-ed out and have all the edges shaved down. I will say, I was paranoid once Into the Spider-Verse started doing what it did critically. [Kemp and Justin] and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller gave me the 1950s slap across the face and said, “Wake up, man! This is the permission. Now we have permission to do the things we wanna do.” I was like, “Oh, all right, here we go.”

KP: It sounds simple, but I don’t think people realize how hard it is to do, to just make sure that it stays personal. This film was personal to all of us. We didn’t wanna be beholden to anyone’s expectations but our own.

I understand that these characters are iconic and they have a great history, and lots of people might expect lots of different things based on the comic books or even the first film. We didn’t want to be held in by any of that. We had a story that felt personal to us, that we were excited about, that used these characters that not just everyone else loved, but we loved them. We felt like we had a right. It’s like when people say, like, “Are you thinking about the fans?” Well, we’re thinking about us. We’re fans too.

It’s a story we’re trying to tell. Again, that sounds like a very simple thing, but when you’re dealing with something that so many people have so high expectations for, it’s actually really hard to block it all out. I tell people all the time: I don’t see what we do as making “content”. That’s kind of a dirty word to me. When I say we wanted to make a little work of art, that’s not being flippant. I think the film stayed really personal. It stayed really small, in that the only people we were really concerned about winning over were the other people in the room.

On my first watch in theaters, I remember seeing Spider-Man 2099 on screen, and then you started to see a bit of his backstory and his world, and I remember thinking, I’m getting hardcore [comics artist] Rick Leonardi vibes even in this scene. As a fan, there’s just so many levels that it goes so deep, the love of the characters. It’s so gorgeous.
JDS: I think we’re lucky that we are all of a generation where that stuff was happening. 2099—I can remember when that book dropped, everybody went, “Whoa, what the heck is this?” It was the first real foray into something that felt very different for the Spider-Man universe. Just being able to scratch at that and peel that back and expose it to new people that weren’t aware of it. That was a thing that landed at a very specific time and exposed people to that was exciting.

JKT: For the deep-level fans, we did bring on Rick Leonardi to work with us, and our special effects team developed a tool with him to actually simulate his line work and the shading, and he was giving notes on it. For us, it was like being kids back in the comic book store, being fourteen years old again, and being like, “Look at Rick Leonardi’s drawings!” And then, “Look, now they’re moving!”

KP: We cannot give enough love to our VFX team on this film, by the way. One of the most satisfying things is that often, particularly with animation, people don’t notice the VFX work that goes into it. And we always tell people every shot of this film is animated, but it’s also a VFX shot. It’s been so encouraging to finally see people give a lot of love to the VFX team because, Jesus, what they pulled off, it almost felt impossible at times. It really did.

Spider-Man 2099, voiced by Oscar Isaac.
Spider-Man 2099, voiced by Oscar Isaac.

Have you seen The Prince of Egypt from DreamWorks? I watched it for the first time, and I was blown away by how stunning that movie is. I was listening to the behind-the-scenes, and Jeffrey Katzenberg was talking about something that I hear from the production of these movies, which is that pushing [of] the envelope for creative freedom of the animators, and seeing how far they can go.
KP: I mean, you can only push the boundaries as far as you want when the fans show up for the end result. So honestly, the fact that people actually showed up for this film the way that they did, I really hope that opens the doors for more people to take these kinds of big swings. I hope people understand that you can only take a big swing if you actually show up for the end result. Appreciating it in hindsight years down the road isn’t going to enable people to do more, because there’s a lot of big risks you’re taking, and it’s been really humbling to see the fans globally really just show up for this film. That’s a big deal.

JDS: We cite The Thing a lot, in terms of a film that has reached an incredible cult status, and people recognize it for the amazing feat that it is. It didn’t quite do what it was meant to do when it first came out, but it gets that recognition over time.

The icky part of it is that we’re artists that are also working in the business of selling these films and making sure that people come out to these films. So the fact that so many stars aligned on Spider-Verse and, like Kemp said, people came out to see it. That’s the sweet spot; that’s our little Goldilocks right there.

JT: Going back to what you were saying about Katzenberg and the animators on Prince of Egypt, because it is a beautiful film—I think the animation in that film, they did do something that was very different at the time… On this film, the reason why the animation probably stands out is [due to] Alan Hawkins, our Head of Character Animation, and his team of animators. We really encouraged them to dig into the story with us, and find within their own lives ways that they could express the movement, the expressions, the physicality of those scenes in a way that was personal to them.

They did so much footage where they would show us take after take after take after take, and they would show us all these different versions. Sometimes we’d have a mosaic [of takes] on screen, and we’d say, “Okay, maybe take the first half of this take that you did and the second half of that take you did and combine them together.” But they were really personal performances of these animators.

We literally made rules: don’t use the moves that you’ve used on other films, don’t look at the past, don’t look behind you—just look at your own life, and bring that to the film. I think that’s one of the reasons why these performances combine with these incredible performances that our voice cast gave us, why it is such a moving experience, even for me. I was shocked when I’d be in dailies, and I would see Hailee [Steinfeld]’s voice come out of these [characters], and the subtlety that our animators were able to get into these characters.

And then Hailee would see some of the takes and she would respond, “I need to go re-record and react now that I’m seeing the visuals and everything.” It was incredible. It wasn’t just us—the whole crew wanted to make a piece of art.

Spidey and his crew reach for the personal.
Spidey and his crew reach for the personal.

Lastly, Is there anything you wanted to say to the Letterboxd community who rated this highest for the entire year?
JKT: Huge thanks to the Letterboxd community. It is a dream come true as a kid growing up loving films, loving comics and being such a fan myself, to be able to give something back to the little kid that grew up loving, watching movies, to be able to be embraced by that same community and see that love come back to us, is incredibly humbling.

It’s an incredibly moving and touching experience to know that something that we have made together mattered to anyone, and that you have taken this little thing that we made for ourselves and made it your own, and embraced it the way you have. Thank you so much.


Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ is now streaming on Netflix, and available to buy or rent on-demand.

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