Peter Ramsey knows how closely the entertainment industry is following the movie he just co-directed.
After all, that film, the animated “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse,” is supposed to blow the doors off the end-of-year-box-office, save a major studio and also rocket mature animation and superhero film categories into a new future. You know, minor goals.
“People are saying that, aren’t they,” Ramsey said, with a small laugh. “The funny thing is we were scared this whole time. We didn’t know if any of this made sense. It was only a month ago where we thought ‘maybe this could work. Maybe.’ ”
Over the past 20 years, Hollywood has churned out about 40 movies featuring classic Marvel characters and more than 150 big-budget animated movies. The two categories are among the most lucrative in the entertainment business. Marvel-based films alone have grossed more than $25 billion around the world.
Never before in the modern movie era have animation and superhero elements been brought together and certainly not in this way. “Spider-Verse’s” irreverent humor, its blend of digital and 2-D animation and, of course, the fact that a superhero story is being told without live action ensures “Spider-Verse” will stand out from the voluminous product Hollywood pumps out this time of year.
So the potential, and pitfalls, are great. When the Sony Pictures Animation production opens in theaters this weekend after sparkling reviews, it could mark the beginning of a bold new era — or a fantastically high-profile blip that falls off the side of a building.
A successful release could inspire other studios to change how they approach making both animated and superhero movies. A failed attempt — that is, if the multiple-demographic effort manages to reach only children, or only teenagers, or neither — would have competitors carrying on with the kinds of movies long released to theaters and make it even harder for future offbeat animated and superhero projects to get off the ground.
In other words, the world may not hang in the balance. But the future of much of Hollywood product and profit just might.
“Spider-Verse” tells a story of Miles Morales, a would-be Spider-Man introduced in the comic beginning in 2011 but not rendered on-screen in the three movies Sony has put out since (or the three that came before).
The introduction of a more inclusive, mixed-race Puerto Rican-African American teenager, significant in its own right, is just the beginning.
There are multiple Spider-Men (and women) in parallel universes brought together by a time-space continuum foul-up. An unusual animation technique that gives the movie both a high-tech and hand-drawn quality. A track star’s pace of quips and references meant to appeal to older viewers.
And a meta spin that has “Spider-Man” taking place in a world in which, well, Spider-Man exists; (Morales reads Spider-Man comics).
More than any big-budget animation movie in recent memory, the film, which cost an estimated $100 million to produce, embraces an ethos of action.
And more than any superhero movie in recent memory, this one harks back to its gleeful illustrated source material.
“I’m a huge fan of all these comic book movies; I’m a sucker for ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Winter Soldier’ and the Batman films. And ‘Ant-Man’ I thought was great,” said Justin K. Thompson, an Emmy winner for the Star Wars “Clone Wars” series who served as production designer on “Spider-Verse.” “But I have often felt there was a disconnect. Characters in those movies for whatever reason wind up wearing military SWAT gear, and it doesn’t really make sense. We wanted to make a movie in which we don’t apologize for Spider-Man running around in his underwear.”
The result is not just a film that feels different but could perform differently.
Animation and superhero movies each tend to play to disparate audiences: the former mainly to children under 12 (and the parents who escort them) and the latter to teenagers, seduced by the story of the dispossessed rising above.
“Spider-Verse” wishes to attract both groups. The film is PG, to make sure children come. But its relentless action and focus on a brooding high schooler misunderstood by his peers aims it squarely at teenagers.
“The movie is certainly different in that way,” said John Fithian, the head of the movie-theater trade group the National Association of Theatre Owners, referring to its multiple audience targets. “And I think in part because of that it could do more business than some people expect.”
But such wider aiming of course also comes with a risk — go for everyone, and you could hit no one. Children could find the movie too in-jokey and long (two hours, with two sequences after the credits began to roll). Teenagers could simply not want to see an animated movie.
Pre-release tracking puts “Spider-Verse's” opening weekend total between $35 million and $40 million — a decent start, though whether it soars past $200 million or flounders in the $100 million range will be determined largely in the many moviegoing-heavy holiday days beyond.
(For comparison, the poorly reviewed “Venom” has grossed $212 million. “Incredibles 2,” an analogue, if a wobbly one, stands at an unreachable $608 million.)
If “Spider-Verse” succeeds, it could change the way studios do business. One high-profile animation executive who asked for anonymity because he did not want to be on record talking about a competitor said that “everyone in the industry is watching this movie to see what it does and what they should do."
Kristine Belson, who runs Sony Pictures Animation, said in an interview last month the movie was made with those high stakes in mind. Hollywood animation, while still lucrative, has to the minds of some experts grown stale, well-executed but hardly surprising.
“ ‘Incredibles’ changed things. ‘Despicable Me’ changed things,” she said, alluding to new forms of storytelling championed by Pixar and Illumination, respectively, back in the 2000s, with a new kind of action being layered in with the former and a different sort of off-kilter sensibility introduced with the latter. “I hope ‘Spider-Man’ can redefine what an American animated film can do.”
The studio is particularly wanting for hits. While Sony has had reasonable successes with series like “Hotel Transylvania,” it lags in both industry stature and box-office receipts behind the three current powerhouses: Disney, Disney sister company Pixar and the Universal-owned Illumination.
That urgency to find something fresh, incidentally, helped liberate filmmakers, not least because Sony had taken a shot with so many “Spider-Man” movies before.
“There’s a pipeline that had calcified of every one of these films, so I think we had the luck of being given a hammer to break the pipeline,” said Robert Persichetti Jr., another “Spider-Verse” co-director.
“And we were lucky — they were working on another ‘Spider-Man’ a lot of the time we were working, so a lot of attention went to getting that ship to float,” said the third co-director, Rodney Rothman, referring to 2017 reboot “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Those involved with this film say they know what is on the line and not just for them. A success, they say, will inspire studios to take risks and spend big on the animators who want to break the mold.
“Hopefully there’s a continued push, and in 10 years people look back at ‘Spider-Man’ and say, ‘that seems conservative,’ ” said Chris Miller, who produced the film and helped develop the story.
“The tools are so sophisticated that I think every studio is looking to innovate; they know that to get people’s attention in a crowded landscape, they have to do that,” added Phil Lord, Miller’s longtime creative partner who co-wrote and also produced the movie.
Such optimism is well-founded, given the pair’s own history, which involved turning R-rated comedy on its ear with arch in-jokiness in the “21 Jump Street” franchise and subverting branded-character conventions with enough meta humor to fill a 2,000-piece kit in “The Lego Movie.”
But the “Lego” instance also offers another lesson: Promises of great change often come to naught.
The movie, a 2014 sensation from animation also-ran Warner Bros., became a blockbuster precisely by breaking the mold. At the time, it was pronounced by industry pundits as the start of a new era in animation, in which wit and layered references would accompany frenetic action and exaggerated voices, bringing a windfall of various kinds.
That did not happen. Many of the leaders continued on their current course, whether the at-times scatological humor of “Minions” or the heartfelt lesson-learned vibe of much of the Disney-Pixar canon.
Hollywood caution is partly to blame; a studio with more on the line tends to take fewer chances. Lord and Miller themselves were on the receiving end of that tentativeness when they were removed from the director chairs on “Solo” by Disney-Lucasfilm in 2017 after seeking to push in directions that made the studio uncomfortable. (The pair declined to comment on specifics but said “Han Solo was a maverick figure, and we tried to tell his story in a maverick way, as we do with all our movies.”)
Ramsey, the co-director, said that if studios are willing to roll the dice more, they will find it financially rewarding. “If American studios try to do what you see animated studios do around the world, with all different kinds of storytelling, it won’t shrink the audience, it will make the audience grow.”
But industry-watchers also say such audacity could be difficult to pull off, even for those willing to try.
“I’m not optimistic about the long-term influence of this movie, because it’s not an imitate-able hit,” said Michael Phillips, a critic at the Chicago Tribune who closely follows both animation and superhero realms. “ ‘Let’s make it wittier and classier’ are words that are too mysterious to too much of Hollywood.”
The filmmakers who worked on “Spider-Verse” may soon have a chance to advance the cause themselves. The movie sets up numerous potential spin offs, involving those with alternate-universe characters such as “Spider-Woman” voiced by Hailee Steinfeld; “Spider-Ham” from comedian John Mulaney; and Spider-Man Noir from Nicolas Cage.
“I think what we desperately want to do is take the same philosophy we had making this and use that to move the medium forward with our future work,” Persichetti said. “You hope to be inspired to change the formula. And then someone else will come along and change that.”