WHEN THE future of Spider-Man’s next feature-film identity seemed still up for debate, a group of Washington-area filmmakers took notice and waited.
Some rumors suggested Marvel Studios, having recently acquired rights from Sony to share the character between the studios, was considering using Miles Morales as the Spider-Man who would team with the Avengers. But that ended up not happening. Tom Holland was cast to play Peter Parker, and is set to make his first appearance as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the upcoming “Captain America: Civil War” movie.
Not lost in that casting news, however, was the Sony email leak that pointed to a mandate that any Spider-Man with Sony’s name on it be a Spider-Man of a certain type. More or less, no one who could ever be mistaken for the biracial Miles Morales.
In the wake of Holland’s casting and that Sony leak, Washington-area filmmakers Chad Horn and Ivan Kander decided that if Miles didn’t have a chance to make it into a Sony/Marvel movie, that they’d just make a film themselves.
“Every year, we know that our summer is going to get a little slow, and we try to fill it up with some fun project that we can do,” said Horn, who runs Bard Tales Productions in Falls Church, Va. Kander “was kind of following the [news] about Miles Morales not being included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we said this might be an opportunity for us.”
That first meant having to discover their own Miles, so last spring, Horn and Kander cast their Spidey net for an actor.
“When we put out a casting call, it was probably March or April,” Horn said. “We were sent a bunch of headshots and a bunch of resumes, and we filtered through that. I rented a studio in downtown [Washington], and we invited people out to an audition.”
It was at their Washington casting call that the production team members met their future Miles Morales: 24-year-old actor Demetrius Stephens.
Stephens was a “cold audition,” Horn told The Post’s Comic Riffs. No one in the production crew had met him.
Soon, Horn had one of his stunt coordinators “fake-punch” Stephens in the stomach a few times, to see whether the performer could act — and roll — with the punch. Then Stephens was asked to read an early scene, in which Miles looks up at a Peter Parker memorial, unsure whether he can live up to the Spider-Man legacy. Next, Stephens had to deliver some laugh lines, to see whether he could encompass the character.
When the audition was done, Stephens moved to the top of their list.
“Demetrius has an incredible amount of charisma,” Horn said. “He’s a local actor, and I think eventually you’ll see him other places [on screen] because I think he’s got a terrific presence. He’s serious when he needs to be, and lighthearted when he needs to be.”
Shortly after his audition, Stephens was home playing video games when he received the call. He’d won the part. A chance to be the first person to portray Miles Morales in any live-action form — even for a short film — gave the actor reason to celebrate.
“I knew a little about Miles Morales, but I didn’t know too much,” Stephens said. “I figured it would be an awesome opportunity.”
Stephens, an Augusta, Ga., native who has lived in Fredericksburg, Va., for the past decade, headed to the closest comic-book shop he could find and dove into Miles Morales’ mythology.
“As an actor, you want to try to embody someone as much as you can,” Stephens told Comic Riffs. “I watched this video about his origin story. That’s where I learned about Peter Parker dying” in Marvel’s Ultimate universe.
One aspect of the character that particularly intrigued Stephens was how Miles acts in moments of doubt.
“I loved how he struggled with wanting to be Spider-Man,” Stephens said. “I think Peter Parker is a great character, but I feel like you can relate to Miles more. A lot of us struggle with decisions every day like that. Who do we want to be? What do we want to be? I’m in my 20s now, and I struggle with that.”
The star of “Spider-Man Lives” was ready to suit up. The film cast and crew of nearly 50 people — most of whom worked for free (minus the union actors who had to be paid) — were hired. The next step was securing a filming location. A film office in Frederick, Maryland would serve as part of the project’s “New York.”
“Hopefully, we did a somewhat convincing job of pulling that off,” Kander, the film’s director, told Comic Riffs. “The Frederick film office was very generous. They gave us a lot of really awesome locations, which probably wouldn’t have been possible in New York because it would have been more difficult to achieve permits. [Frederick] can look like a small little town, and then look like a big city.”
With less than 10 minutes of screen time to work with, producers had to decide how those precious seconds would be divided. Beyond the action, the audience naturally would need to get a sense of who Miles is, and where he comes from. To do that, the movie opens with Peter Parker’s death announced on the news. Miles hears his parents debate whether Spider-Man’s presence in New York was a good thing.
“I think if you just jump into an action scene without any form of framework, it doesn’t really work,” Kander said. “Especially because of Miles being a different character, and I don’t know how familiar the general population is with him as a different character. So I wanted to introduce him as a person before he jumped into any sort of action.”
Kander had a hand, too, in the film’s limited special effects. He acknowledged that he was grateful that Miles Morales doesn’t have organic web-shooters — as Hollywood’s Spider-Man did in his first movies under Sony.
“We wrote in these specific things that we thought we could pull off. From a character standpoint, he doesn’t have organic web-shooters. He can’t swing from things,” Kander said. “That was a huge favor for us, because making convincing web-work would have been really difficult. That’s something that I intentionally avoided.”
Stephens’s favorite scene was when he got to do some wall-crawling, despite the difficulty that came with making it look real.
“They only showed it for a second, but with acting, you do the take over and over again — and I remember they put this harness under my clothes and they hold you up,” Stephens said. “It was a little uncomfortable, but at the same time it was fun. I remember hanging and you see all these people on set and you say to yourself, ‘Wow I’m really doing this.’ ”
Stephens also appreciates to play a biracial comic character, ascribing significance to the role, not matter how small the movie. “We look up to superheroes,” Stephens said. “So to play a character that represents more than one group, it’s a great thing.”
So how did this small movie play to the larger world?
“Spider-Man Lives: A Miles Morales Story” debuted on YouTube about two months ago, and has now been viewed nearly 450,000 times. Horn said that a company in Russia contacted him to ask for a version of the film without dialogue, so they could overdub it in Russian. And the filmmakers said that unauthorized copies have popped up in Brazil — a twist that flattered them. Horn said that no one made money off the production of the film, so if someone wants to go to the effort to pirate it, he’s not upset.
Amid social-media reaction from as far away and China and Mexico, Stephens said the best compliment he has received was when someone asked whether the movie could turn into a series.
And the best comment Stephens received, he said, came from his mother. After Stephens admitted to being a little down that Marvel Studios had decided not to put Miles Morales on the big screen, his mother told him to look at it another way. She said to her son: “Well, you know, when people type in Miles Morales, [now] they’re going to see you.”