Brian Michael Bendis On What Made ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ Unlike Any Other Adaptation

With great power there must also come – – great responsibility! Those words, originally written by Stan Lee in 1962 for Amazing Fantasy” #15, have appeared and reappeared in numerous comic books, cartoons, and films. They are the backbone of every Spider-Man narrative. For the character of Peter Parker, they represent a moment of shame, an instant in which he used his gifts for profit over altruism. The words are a memory of betrayal to his Uncle’s selflessness that ultimately resulted in his murder. They are a call to action; an oath to never again falter on the lessons of the father figure that sacrificed so much for his welfare. Peter Parker has a gift, and he must use it for the benefit of those that don’t.

Those words, however, do not belong to Peter Parker. They belong to anyone who needs them. They belong to us.

In the year 2000, Marvel Comics was looking to revitalize their line by rebooting a few key titles. Brian Michael Bendis was brought on board to rediscover the relevance behind those words. For eleven years, in the pages of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” Bendis explored the motivation that drove Peter; he put a fresh coat of paint on his rogue’s gallery, expanded and played around with his large cast of supporting characters, and pushed them to conclusions the regular line of comics would not possibly dare to venture.

Peter Parker died. His last moments spent fending off the Green Goblin on the front lawn of Aunt May’s home. His shame finally redeemed; his responsibility fullfilled. The words though, they stuck. They remained inside the hearts and minds of Peter’s family, and they waited for another who needed them.

Along came Miles Morales. Created in 2011 by Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Miles spun into his own “Ultimate Spider-Man” title as a response to the outrage spewed on the internet after a rumor circulated that Donald Glover wanted to play Spider-Man. A white face is not a requirement for the wall-crawler. Anyone can put on the mask; anyone can absorb Stan Lee’s mission statement.

So, yes, 56 years after his creation, we’ve seen Spider-Man and his mantra portrayed in numerous ways. Tobey Maguire has ruminated over the words, Andrew Garfield had a turn, and Tom Holland most recently got to the core in Captain America: Civil War without actually ever uttering the famous line. Pretty nifty trick.

I thought we were good. There was no topping Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yeah, well, we now know that the quintessential web-head adventure is truly here and its name is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This film is one massive celebration of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, along with producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, scream Stan Lee’s message to the heavens. Heroism is not bestowed; it is snatched.

Brian Michael Bendis was there from the beginning. As Miles’ co-creator, he was at the ready whenever the filmmakers had a question or an argument that needed arbitration. He’s found himself consultant on several Spider-Man films, but he knew something was different about Into the Spider-Verse almost from day one. He was giddy watching the film come together, and he was giddier still when he realized that it wasn’t going to fall apart.

I spoke to Bendis over the phone just days after the film was named Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards. We talked about how surreal this entire experience has been for him, and he explains the whirlwind of emotions that whip through your mind when such an announcement strikes. We discuss the key ingredient that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse understood that previous versions might have lacked. Our conversation leads into the importance of representation, our possibly misguided reverence for Stan Lee’s characters, and the health scare he experienced that put everything into perspective.

Here is our conversation in full:

I gotta start this conversation with a great big Congratulations! The Academy Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. That’s got to be surreal.

Beyond surreal, not fully unpacked in my head yet, so.

What was your initial response when they announced the film the winner?

It’s a very surreal experience — the whole thing’s surreal. So, the Golden Globes happened, and everybody was floored beyond comprehension. Everyone’s coming up to me shaking me by the arms, “Can you believe it!?” And I can’t. I’m with everybody on this. Right? Then, by the next day, everyone in my life, everyone I’ve met, everyone on Twitter, everyone I come across says, “Oh, it’s gonna win the Oscar, it’s a done deal.” I go, “No, it’s not. What done deal? Yesterday wasn’t even a deal; now it’s a done deal?” So, it was a lot of that, just the way the wheels turned, and I did not accept any of that, by anyone on any level, because that’s weird and not gonna happen. So, yeah, I was genuinely surprised and delighted when it happened, because I don’t know how that other thing is – that predestined thing. It was weird.

What’s astonishing to me, regarding Into The Spider-Verse, is that I thought I had seen the best possible adaptation of the Spider-Man character in Homecoming, and then here comes this animated film that almost feels like the perfect copy of the perfect comic book iteration of the character. How does that happen?

I’ve always been a big fan of Lord and Miller. From their earliest work, I was a big fan, and we kind of cut from the same cloth in certain areas and the team that gathered around them was perfect. It really was a well-cast behind the scenes kinda thing, like Peter [Ramsey] and Rodney [Rothman] and Bob [Persichetti], they all brought something very special that was just desperately needed for this project, right? Just from talking to them over the years, you got the sense that they knew this wasn’t just a gig. Do you know what I mean?

Sure, their fandom bleeds from the screen.

Yeah. Like, “Oh you know, gigs are great, but this isn’t just a gig.” And if everyone in the room has decided it’s not just a gig, then it won’t be. It will be art, and I’ve been in that situation before, and so when I walked into their situation and saw that – “Oh, they’re taking this very seriously.” And I was like, “I really hope this turns into something.”

Now as a consultant, I saw the earliest cuts of the movie. Very, very early cuts. And sometimes those early cuts are filled with all kinds of cool stuff that slowly gets cut out of it as they get it ready for release. All the fun stuff slowly disappears, but in this instance, the opposite happened. More and more stuff kept finding its way in. I remember just watching that and being like, “Ooh.” It’s like watching someone play Jenga or something, like, “Oh, oh, oh, it’s stressful!” Like how much crazier can this movie get? Can it handle Spider-Ham? Can it? Can it handle it? And it could. That kinda stuff is really exciting to be part of and watch.

Well, take me through that a little bit. What does it mean to be a consultant on a film like this?

It literally means whenever they need me, they can call me. Sometimes they call you for the big stuff. And sometimes they call you for little stuff. You’re often called because they’ve been fighting for hours about something and they need a tie-breaking vote.

I’ve had that happen on quite a few projects, and where I didn’t even understand that’s what was being asked of me. They would just ask me questions, and then I would answer. And then the whole group would break out into a huge fight amongst each other ’cause they’d been fighting about this for months. They decided whatever I say is the answer. I accidentally made some headlines during the Spider-Man movie – the Andrew Garfield one. When they were developing that they called me and they go, “They need you in right away.” And I go, “Oh yeah, sure I’ll come in.” And I came in, and they sat me down at a table with Amy Pascal and Avi Arad and all the producers, all the writers, and they said, “Web shooters: organic or mechanical?” I said, “Mechanical.” And the room broke out into a crazy frenzy ’cause they had decided my vote was the answer.

Well, that is the right answer.

So it was things like that, and then there were things like this where I would get a 2 o’clock in the morning email from Phil Lord asking what day was this character born and what is their middle name?. You know, that kind of stuff. Or it would be, “Here please watch this entire cut and give us elaborate notes. It could be anything from that to that.

You yourself have been in the position where you’ve had to re-interpret the character of Peter Parker in the Ultimate Universe comics. For you, what is the key to the character? Not just Peter Parker, but for anyone picking up the mask?

Well, it’s “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s that phrase. From that phrase, from wherever you are in the world, whatever your perspective is, whatever your experience is, that phrase can mean different things as applied. And different actions can be applied to it. I have studied this phrase and written about it under more than Miles and Peter, under other characters as well. I can tell you that you can base a whole religion on this idea and be very successful. It is an idea that is so pure, and bulletproof and applies to everybody.

That’s it. Don’t worry about designing the costume; everyone is always worried about that. I see all these Spider-Personas, and they’re awesome. They are awesome! But when you’re developing your character, it’s how they react to the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” that will tell the story of that character.

So, in your own experience, how do you know if you are remaining true to that concept or if you’re straying too far from it?

I think…for me…for Miles, I have the benefit of a scenario where Miles heard the phrase from Gwen Stacy in the comic books – not the movie. So hearing it from Peter’s best friend, he heard it from the source. And he got to meet Aunt May, right? He heard that phrase first as an abstract idea; he had to figure out what it meant to be Spider-Man. Then he got to go to the source, and for me, it felt like when a musician becomes a rock star based on the philosophy of another rock star, and then they get to meet that rock star and see what it was like for real, you know? I got to do that with him. Not until Miles heard, “With great power comes great responsibility” did he act like a hero. And he had powers for years before he heard that phrase.

Miles Morales solidifies this idea that we need to stop getting hung up over what one character should look like or even how they behave. Yes, “With great power comes great responsibility” is essential, but it can be interpreted and filtered in numerous ways. Many people, many characters could inhabit the philosophies of our favorite superheroes, and that’s what Miles does for Peter. If Spider-Ham can stand and fight for what’s right, so can you.

Part of writing and writing on a global stage – you can call it a global stage because people all over the world speak in the data cloud and you get such a great dialogue going – you get such great feedback from people. They give you their perspective. They give you their experience, right, on how Spider-Man affected them. It’s there, and you realize that’s what diversity is really talking about and what it looks like, but what we’re really writing about is the experience and the perspective of the character. That is why we can tell new stories, from all over the world, with this character.

You mentioned earlier that you’ve been working on Into the Spider-Verse for years. Animated films are a mountain to climb; they take time. But you’ve been a consultant on most of the Spider-Man adaptations. Was there a moment during this production that separated it from the others?

Yeah. It felt different from the get-go. It felt different even from the animation style. As a storyteller, I was just curious to see what the final product was gonna look like because, the earliest versions – as people can now see in the Art of Spider-Verse books, I’m so glad people can see that stuff online and know what I’m talking about – because literally for years, I was the only person who, outside of the studio, who had seen this stuff but I couldn’t talk about it, and the design was so illustrative and some places old school and some places as future-forward as anything I’d ever seen. And I’d say, “Wow, what is the final product gonna look like?”

Then here comes Spider-Ham and I was like, “Oh, I hope that works.” It was, by the way, pre-John Mulaney, like all the pieces were there. My head goes to “What’s the worst version of Spider-Ham showing up?” Right? It was like, the horrible version of Spider-Ham showing up. We didn’t get that. We got the good one. So, all of that, I tend to get very Zen about it because there is no other way to do it. I watch it, and I offer my studious opinion. I really make sure my opinion is studious and not just a know-it-all. I realize that me just standing there over them is frustrating enough. They don’t need me pontificating, but I’m fascinated as a craftsman by the process of it all, that I kinda get lost in it too. It didn’t matter to me how the movie did or even if it came out. I was already having a great time.

Miles Morales is a creation shared between you and artist Sara Pichelli. Now, you’ve given him out to the world. You’ve left Marvel comics, and you’re playing around in the DC comics sandbox. What’s it like to let go of Miles, and to see him interpreted by other people?

I’ve had that experience with other things, but this is like the full-let-go. One of the reasons I felt good about letting go was because I had lots of room with Donny Cates and Matthew Rosenberg and Ed Brisson and Kelly Thompson. There was a stable of awesome writers at Marvel given to me. I was like, “Get out of their way. People got out of my way to let me come back, so why don’t you get out of their way?” Right? I told them as I left the house, that nothing would make me happier than you taking these characters and going nuts. You will go to places I would never go. Scare me. Make me open up a comic book website and go “What did they do?” I want that.

Because that’s what Stan [Lee] offered me when I was coming in. He gave the freedom to just go nuts. We were talking years and years ago, and he told me, “Look at my first two years as editor-in-chief of Marvel and look what I did to The Avengers. I ripped up the Avengers and threw them out by Issue 16. I replaced Captain America and Ironman with Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch. People were furious.” He goes, “There is a good chance you wouldn’t even recognize the Marvel universe if I was still in charge.”

Awesome. So true.

He goes, “You guys are way more flattering about my work than I am.”

Yeah, true. That’s a fact.

Right? He said this to me and Joe [Quesada], and we were so empowered by that. Anytime you feel that “Oh you don’t wanna break that toy?” You respond “No, Stan told us to.” Right. So I damn well made sure that I told them and that they didn’t need my permission. We let them know, ’cause we see each other on Twitter, that I want them to go as nuts as possible.

Have you read the new Miles comes from Saladin Ahmed?

I will. I’m not alone on this – other writers will let you know – you sometimes need a little buffer.

Sure.

You need a little break. Remember this is a little different for me. Last year I got real sick and almost didn’t make it. And I had one more issue of Spider-Man left to go on my 18-year run. I didn’t think I was gonna get to write it. Right? In fact, I was told I wasn’t gonna get to write it, not from Marvel, but from my doctor. So, the fact that I did get to write it, and got to write it to reflect everything that had happened to me over that period, was such an emotional over-powering thing that then was slotted in with this movie happening. I’ve been a little overwhelmed emotionally about my illness and what it’s meant, and what it’s meant to my daughters and everything. So, I’m gonna take a break, and then I will get back to reading. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it makes total sense.

Okay good.

Well, Brian, I’m going to let you go here, but I just wanted to say that your work has meant a lot to me over the years. When my wife and I first started dating, she wanted to understand my comic book obsession a little better, so I gave her your Ultimate Spider-Man. She’s been an obsessive ever since, and she thought I was cool because of those books. So, thank you for that.

Awesome. Tell her I say “Hi.”

Oh, I will. Don’t worry. I’m gonna play her this whole damn interview.

[Laughter] Well “Hello” to her and I and can’t wait to see you guys online.


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is out now on Digital and is available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD on March 19th.

Brad Gullickson :Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.