5 Screenwriting Lessons from ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’
Ever since the first Spider-Man feature film was released in 2002, there have been 10 different sequels, reboots and re-imaginings that have played in theaters. They all have been unique in their own way but none have seemed quite as creative and original as the Spider-Verse versions of Spider-Man boasting a mix of animation styles.
In the latest film, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the audience follows two main Spider-People: Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) as they skip through multiple universes, meet several different Spider-People and attempt to fix a broken Spide-Verse that is hanging on by a thread.
It’s a wild, wonderful cinematic experience and offers a lot for screenwriters to take away, even if they’re not writing the next superhero tentpole film.
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Open with a Recap
It’s been five years since the last Spider-Verse film. Throw in multiple Marvel movies, a few live-action Spider-Man films and everything else going on in the world and the audience needs to be brought up to speed.
The first scene in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse does just that and explains Gwen Stacy’s role in the version of Earth she inhabits. A lot of things that you know about Spider-Man ring true including characters like Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson, George Stacy and others, as well as the origins of gaining the spider powers.
At the end of Act 1, Miles has his first moments of screen time where he starts off recapping what’s been going on since the last film and explaining his origins as well.
Not everyone follows every detail of an original film or idea, so having the recap is important. It doesn’t have to be long, but it’s a piece of exposition that helps the audiences engage better with the story because they have a greater understanding of what happened in previous films. Shazam!: Fury of the Gods is another recent sequel to use the recap at the beginning of the movie.
Vigilante or Villain?
There’s nothing more demoralizing than being a misunderstood hero. Just ask Spider-Man in several of his films or Batman, Superman, the Ghostbusters and the list goes on.
Gwen Stacy’s Ghost Spider starts off the film accused of killing Peter Parker and trying to reclaim the trust of those who want her captured; which includes her father who’s a detective. The hero who becomes a villain provides another level of challenges for the protagonist to overcome. It’s hard to beat a super-villain but having the whole world against you makes it so much harder.
While this device is used a lot in superhero movies, it works well in other genres. Legal dramas can pit a lawyer against a system who thinks they’re defending a guilty person (i.e. To Kill a Mockingbird) or an action-thriller where someone is on the run from the law and must prove their innocence (i.e. The Fugitive, Enemy of the State).
Often superheroes fight behind masks hiding who they are to protect their real identities and the people they care about. Spider-Man is no exception. For Gwen Stacy, she desperately wants to tell her father that she’s the Ghost Spider and that she didn’t kill Peter Parker, but she can’t reveal who she really is.
Miles Morales also can’t reveal to his parents that he’s a superhero crimefighter even when it impacts their trust in him.
Main characters with deep secrets are another way to make the hero of your story consistently in conflict. Not only are secrets something that the characters fight with internally, but it’s something they’re afraid will be found out.
For superheroes, a reveal of their secret identity is truly horrifying. On a consistent basis, they are fighting villains who want to hurt people so it’s no wonder they wear masks. Secrets are great tools for characters. Whether it’s a student who doesn’t want people to know she can turn into a panda (Turning Red) or a love affair between two men (Brokeback Mountain), secrets drive conflict both internally and externally for characters.
Exposition in Action Scenes
In the first major action piece of the film, Gwen Stacy hears about a supervillain causing trouble at an art museum and heads that way to stop him. It’s there that she encounters a Renaissance version of The Vulture and a battle begins. As the fight ensues, more Super-People from different universes show up. It’s during this action sequence that the audience learns who these new versions of Spider-People are and where they came from: Jessica Drew a.k.a Spider-Woman (Issa Rae) and Miguel O’Hara a.k.a Spider-Man from 2099 (Oscar Isaacs).
Exposition in action scenes is ridiculous when you think of it in the context of the real world, but is one of the best ways to fill the audience and the characters in on backstories and thoughts in film. As Gwen, Miguel and Spider-Woman try to capture the Vulture, they have a discussion about who the new Spider-People are and we learn of Gwen’s awe.
From car chases to hand-to-hand combat, if you’re looking for a place to add exposition, consider putting it into an exciting action set piece in your story.
Read More: 101 Enchanting Animation Story Prompts
Get Super Creative
Don’t hold back on creativity. While there is the standard comic book version of Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse offers a look into a unique, fun and unconventional way to tell the story. This is just one example of imaginative storytelling.
The Best Picture winner at the Oscars this year was Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, which was another multiverse story that had scenes where the characters had hot dogs for fingers. The Lego Movie was made with the characters mobility limited to how the Lego brick characters moved.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is another example of how you can find new and creative ways to share your story. Most important is not to be creatively unconventional for the sake of it, but rather to use it as a tool that best tells your story.
Superheroes are human. It’s important to remember that they have their own personal lives with everyday issues. Sometimes they revolve around family or school, other times it’s love or a death. In Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, both Gwen and Miles must deal with personal issues. And while they aren’t as menacing as a super-villain trying to destroy the multiverse, these are relatable conflicts that helps keep the audience engaged while adding another layering of problems for the hero.