[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.]
These days, Kemp Powers is juggling a lot. Coming off the $120.7 opening for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the co-director just returned from San Francisco, where he helped his son move out of his college dorm.
“I’m here in L.A. right now, just scrambling to get a lot of stuff done,” Powers told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday morning. On top of its box office success, the Spider-Verse sequel received rave reviews from both critics and audiences, following in the footsteps of the Oscar-winning debut film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
“When you work on these things for years, sitting in dark rooms with people, you get to a point where you don’t even know if it’s good or bad anymore. You’re like, are we the only ones? It’s really validating to see the outpouring of love for it,” says Powers.
The film has been non-stop for years, and the team worked up until the last minute to perfect it. In fact, one of the best kept secrets of all came late in the game for the Spider-Verse team. It’s a major cameo from Donald Glover, who previously appeared in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe as Aaron Davis in 2017 MCU film Spider-Man: Homecoming.
While Glover has yet to appear again in the MCU, the brief cameo always left fans hoping the door would be open for the world of Miles Morales to join Tom Holland’s universe. In the Spider-Verse sequel, Glover briefly appears as an alternate version of the Prowler, locked up in Miguel O’Hara’s (Oscar Isaac) Spider headquarters in Nueva York. Ahead of a June 2 premiere date, Glover’s cameo was one of the finishing touches on the movie, filmed just two months prior on April 5.
“You have to understand that these things happen very spontaneously,” says Powers.
Known for the critical success of his debut 2013 stage play One Night in Miami, Powers has worked his way across every medium, from theater to live-action moviemaking to animation (he also co-directed and co-wrote the Oscar-winning Pixar animation feature Soul). One Night in Miami was later adapted for the screen by Regina King in 2020, in which Powers received another Oscar nom for best screenplay.
“Personally, coming from the stage and playwriting really lent itself to working directly with a lot of our cast on a lot of these performances,” Powers says of his theater background. “It’s about having action in storytelling, even when it’s discussions, not just someone swinging from a web. Also never losing sight of character. You remind yourself all the time. All these other big, bombastic things that happen, no matter how big they are, have to be in service of the characters, whether it’s Miles or Gwen or Peter or Hobie.”
Across the Spider-Verse brings back Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Velez, Mahershala Ali and Jake Johnson, and includes franchise newcomers like Issa Rae, Daniel Kaluuya, Jharrel Jerome and Jason Schwartzman. It’s a blend of voice acting veterans to established screen actors new to the world of animation.
Powers spent much of his time on the film directing actors in the recording studio. In a rarity for animation, some of the actors recorded together and were able to play off of one another’s performances.
“A great example of that would be the scene near the end with George Stacy (Shea Whigham) and Gwen (Steinfeild) when she returns. It’s a pretty dramatic moment,” says Powers. “We recorded them separately, but then we also decided to go ahead and put Shea and Hailee together for a recording session, and it really elevated that scene. It’s whatever it takes to pull the best, most authentic emotional performance out of it.”
And with the varying schedules of actors in the recording studio — and the secrecy surrounding the project — some actors didn’t know who they were sharing scenes with — including some who knew each other in real life.
“At the end, I remember recording Mahershala, [who plays Uncle Aaron], and his scene, talking about the other Miles Morales, and I was like, you know who plays the other Miles Morales, right? He’s like, ‘No,’ and I was like, “It’s Jharrel Jerome, I think you know him from Moonlight,” recalls Powers. “He’s like, ‘That kid?!’ Because everyone is so sworn to secrecy. I give actors credit — they really do keep it secret.”
Among the dozens of cameos and meme references in the film, the director was surprised at what struck viewers most. “One of the biggest laughs, honestly, was the Lego Spider Man,” he says. “When Miguel pops up on his wristband and says, ‘You’re one of our best Peter,’ and he goes boop, boop. That’s one of the biggest laughs in the entire film.”
And while playing around with references is loads of fun, Powers emphasizes that the overarching story takes ultimate priority. “At the end of the day, Miles Morales and his family have always been our North Star,” the director says. “As it flushes out, that’s when you do a lot more spitballing of funny gags and things like that. A lot of times those things come about very organically in the moment. Like Metro Boomin ending up being a character was a coincidental thing where he was doing the soundtrack, and Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] were like, ‘Hey, you want to come record a couple of lines?’”
He adds: “Ultimately, we’re trying to make ourselves laugh. We’re sitting there watching this in edit, and we’re cracking each other up. I’d like to think that, at least in our own minds, we all feel like we’re people who have pretty good taste.”
Like the first film, Across the Spider-Verse enlisted three directors. This time, it was helmed by Powers, Joaquim Dos Santos and Justin K. Thompson. While Powers and Dos Santos were new to the franchise, Thompson had worked on the first film as a production designer. At the start of production in the middle of COVID-19 quarantine, the co-directors didn’t meet one another in person for a full year into working together. And while each director brings their own unique strengths and expertise to the film, Powers notes that they all “really do everything.”
The directing trio will return for the third installment Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, which is set for release on March 29, 2024. Considering the fact that the second film took nearly five years to complete, a third installment slated for less than a year away is an ambitious turnaround for the team. While the filmmakers have previously said they’re not sure if the film will make that release date, Powers declined to speak on the final chapter in Miles Morales’ story.
“I can’t really comment at all on the third one,” says the director. “I’m sorry to just give you a big ol’ non answer. But really, it’s only because people are so desperate for information, and everything kind of ends up getting misread or misquoted. I’ve been sworn to silence. As soon as you say Beyond the Spider-Verse, my mouth closes.”
As to whether or not the writer’s strike has affected the ongoing production for the third installment, Powers declines to comment once more. In the meantime, the director is proud of what they’ve accomplished with the sequel. “I think we made a really good movie,” he says. “And that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Paving the way for the third installment, Across the Spider-Verse leaves off on a shocking cliffhanger, as Miles faces off against what is likely to be his greatest challenge yet.
At the climax of the film, Miles discovers that his very existence within the Spider-Verse is a mistake — the radioactive spider that bit him was meant to go to someone else in an alternate dimension. In the final minutes of the film, Miles returns home, or so he thinks, to save his father from a tragic fate. Turns out, he’s not home at all. He’s on Earth-42, the origin place of his radioactive spider, where things have gone awry without Spider-Man. Miles’ father Jefferson is dead instead of Uncle Aaron. Left without a radioactive spider, this alternate version of Miles, known as Miles G. Morales is a villain — the Prowler. Voiced by Jerome, Miles G. and Uncle Aaron capture our Miles, while Gwen assembles a familiar team of Spider-Man’s to save their friend, lost in the multiverse.
“We did some tweaks to it after screening it for audiences, but that cliffhanger was pretty much in the cards for for a long, long time,” Powers says. “It was about making sure that while we did end on a cliffhanger, we had complete emotional arcs for the main characters for miles and for Gwen, so that we see them evolve from one place in the beginning of the film to another place at the end of the film, and that they have complete emotional arcs.”
And according to Powers, there’s much more to come from Miles G. Morales. “It was such an exciting character, it was actually hard for us to keep it a secret,” Powers says of the alternate Miles. “Oh, man, the design is so different, it’s such a visual departure. And to explore how Miles might have developed if he were in a different world where he didn’t have his father, he was mentored by his uncle, what kind of kid would he be? For people who see Miles G. Morales at the end, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. There’s a lot to learn about that character. It’s a very, very interesting character.”