It was a career bounce-back moment for the ages: Just 614 days after they were fired as the co-directors of Solo: A Star Wars Story, creative provocateurs Phil Lord and Chris Miller won the Academy Award for best animated feature for Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
“There’s 800 filmmakers who pushed boundaries and took risks to make people feel powerful and seen,” Miller said of the film’s vast creative team and their four-year effort to deliver the animated epic.
For a tandem that built its reputation thinking outside of the box, the Oscar win represented sweet redemption. The duo’s wild-card creativity delivered commercial hits with 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs but in 2017 their approach got them exiled from the Jedi universe when Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy grew exasperated with their freewheeling approach to blockbuster filmmaking.
With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Lord and Miller flipped the script on their career narrative and delivered a a genre game-changer with a lean $90 million production budget and, so far, $360 million in global box office since its mid-December release. (Solo: A Star Wars Story, by the way, reached theaters with director Ron Howard’s name on it, cost $275 million to produce and finished its theatrical run with $375 million in worldwide box office.)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has been hailed widely as a bold, fresh and evocative new approach to animation filmmaking thanks to its retro, hand-drawn spirit and Lord and Miller’s eagerness to reinvent the standard industry animation approach, which had, in their view, created a flat and homogenized predictability to Hollywood releases in recent years.
Adding to the spirit of revolution, Spider-Verse is only the second theatrical animated film ever based on characters from Marvel Comics (the first was Big Hero 6 in 2014, which featured relatively obscure characters from Marvel’s mythology) and it veered from every previous big-screen Spider-Man adaptation by featuring a new version of the hero — a bilingual, mixed-race teen named Miles Morales (given voice by Shameik Moore).
Accepting the Oscar, Lord said the reaction to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and its commitment to diversity and representation has been inspiring for the filmmakers. “So when we hear that somebody’s kid was watching the movie and turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me’ or ‘They speak Spanish like us’ we feel like we already won.”
The movie also had a hip-hop soundtrack, sound effects written-out visually on the screen (like the Batman TV series in the 1960s) and twisty, trippy plot about alternate universes and multiple versions of the wall-crawling superhero (including an anthropomorphic, wise-cracking pig version called Spider-Ham). Taken collectively, it’s almost as it Lord and Miller made a checklist of all the rules they could possibly break with one film.
Lord and Miller were producers on Spider-Verse but it was directed by the trio of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman. All five shared the Oscars honor. The film overcame a challenging field of competitors in the category: Pixar’s long-awaited The Incredibles 2, Disney’s crowd-pleasing Ralph Breaks the Internet Studio Chizu’s evocative Mirai and Wes Anderson’s eccentric canine epic Isle of Dogs.
The Incredibles 2 from writer-director Brad Bird would have been widely called the presumptive favorite for most of 2018. Bird’s The Incredibles (2005) won the Oscar in the same category and the sequel was a well-reviewed smash hit, finishing the year as the third-highest grossing film of 2018.
The timing of Spider-Verse gave it an extra emotional resonance, too, arriving in theaters in December, just weeks after the death of one Spider-Man co-creator (writer and Marvel icon Stan Lee, at age 95) and a mere six months after the passing of the other (legendary artist Steve Ditko, who died at age 90). This year is also the 80th anniversary of Marvel Comics, the publishers of superhero characters such as Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor and Captain America.
UPDATE: Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Picture’s Motion Pictures Group, framed the Oscar night victory by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as watershed moment for Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Imageworks. In a staff memo obtained by Deadline he said the film “will endure” and shows the mettle of its makers.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse became one of the few non-Disney films to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar in the history of that award,” Rothman stated in the memo. “It’s sweet indeed to see the Academy honor originality, diversity, and revolutionary animated craftsmanship. And it recognizes SPA and Imageworks’ rightful place among the first rank of animation studios, under the leadership of Kristine Belson and Randy Lake, respectively. It truly took a village to make and market this film worldwide and I am grateful to all the many talented filmmakers, craftspeople and colleagues who did so. It will endure.”