[This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home]
Even after penning a pair of increasingly ambitious Spider-Man movies, No Way Home presented a multiverse’s worth of challenges for screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers.
The duo weaved together a script that combined three generations of Spider-Man films, with their ideas (along with behind-the-scenes negotiating from executives) helping convince retired Spidey actors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield to suit up as Peter Parker once again.
By December 2020, Maguire and Garfield were both secretly signed on to the project but had yet to receive any script pages. The pressure was on, as the production was hurtling toward filming the actors’ critical, third-act scenes that saw them team up with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, who inadvertently causes Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to open up a rift in the multiverse, leading to villains and Spider-Men to pour through.
McKenna and Sommers hunkered down before Christmas to get pages to Maguire and Garfield. The writers were relieved to find that the actors not only liked what they read, but were also enthusiastic partners in developing their characters further.
“They had thoughts, and it was really interesting and helpful to see their thoughts,” Sommers tells The Hollywood Reporter. “No one knows the character as well as — or gives as much thought to the character — as someone who has to then embody it and sell it. … It definitely shaped what we did.”
Maguire, who played Spider-Man in three films from 2002-07, wanted to keep things quite minimal when it came to revelations about his character post-Spider-Man 3. Garfield, who starred in two Amazing Spider-Man films from 2012-14, embraced exploring the dark path his Peter Parker went down after the death of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in Amazing Spider-Man 2. He also latched on to the notion that his version of Peter was the middle brother.
“They had great ideas that really elevated everything we were going for and added layers and an arc and we really actually started honing into the idea that these two guys were really helping Tom’s Peter on his journey to becoming who he ends up becoming,” says McKenna. “There’s a crucial, moral moment that they help him get through in the climax of the movie. So much of that was brought by Tobey and Andrew’s ideas and shaping of what they thought their characters could bring to this story.”
Director Jon Watts’ No Way Home has been a resounding success, one unprecedented in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. The Sony and Marvel Studios co-production has earned more than $1 billion globally and $500 domestically, the highest in Sony history. The team behind the film is even launching a best picture Oscars campaign.
McKenna and Sommers, who also wrote Homecoming (2017) and Far From Home (2019), dive into spoilers with THR, addressing that Aunt May shocker, what it means for Uncle Ben in the MCU, and the meaning behind that haunting ending.
It wasn’t always clear this would be a multiverse movie, or even that it would be set in the MCU due to a brief breakup between Sony and Marvel in 2019. Tom Holland has said a Kraven the Hunter pitch was among the possibilities. How many iterations were you involved with before landing on the multiverse?
CHRIS MCKENNA I feel like there’s always a Kraven the Hunter pitch. (Laughs.). Even on movies that aren’t Marvel movies, we’re like, “What if Kraven the Hunter showed up?”
ERIK SOMMERS We were pitching a romantic comedy and were like, “What if Kraven the Hunter shows up?” (Laughs.)
MCKENNA Once Sony and Marvel hammered everything out, we were like, “OK, we’ve got the team back together. What are we doing now with this giant reveal [in Far From Home, in which Peter Parker’s identity is made public]? We started playing around with what different ways that fallout could affect our character. The idea of It’s a Wonderful Life, “What if he somehow made a wish? I guess it would have to be Doctor Strange. Is there a way to put the genie back in the bottle?” That opened up a few different story avenues we started exploring. I think there were certain people who were like, “Oh, it’d be really fun if eventually we could tease these characters from the past movies.” And then I think it was one of our chief gods of our universe saying, “What if that’s just the act break? What if that’s the end of Act I? Stop hoping for a tag that teases it. What if we just did it?” We are like, “Oh, OK!”
You had a wishlist of previous actors you wanted as you were writing. How does that affect your script? Do you write and go, “OK, we’re going to have a scene in Doctor Strange’s basement. We just don’t know who is in it yet”?
MCKENNA All you can do is act like we’re getting everybody that we want and let the powers that be reach out to those people and see if this can actually become a reality. But let’s really start working as if we have this wish-list fulfilled. We have to generate an outline and script pages and all of that. Then we started hearing back, “Oh, certain people are interested. They didn’t hang up the phone. They are into it.” And so it was this crazy thing we kept on writing toward.
SOMMERS Once it was collectively decided that we were going to take this swing, we had to commit and we had to do what was right for the story. If we felt, “This is where this person should come in, this is how they would have an influence on this story and on Peter’s journey, this would be the right place. Let’s write it to have this person. If it doesn’t work out, then obviously we’ll scramble.” A lot of times when you have a creative constraint put on things, it ends up leading to some creative workarounds and decisions. We had to plan optimistically and it worked out.
None of the previous Spider-Man actors had to come back. How did you lure them? Are you showing them pages? Are you pitching them outlines?
MCKENNAThe producers and Jon got on with them and were telling them the basic idea. I think people like Alfred [Molina] and Willem [Dafoe], they just seem like they are game.
MCKENNA At a certain point, you have to show pages. You have to live up to the concept. Getting two people there that were so crucial to act three of the movie. They had to make sure it was the right thing for them. Their coming in, it brings so much baggage to it. Their own baggage. The baggage of those series, that they just had to be sure that it wasn’t just a curtain call, that it actually was continuing their stories in a way that was meaningful to them, too. And was honoring everything that they had done and taking it a step further. Getting all the feedback from the actors was so crucial on every role. Hearing, “Oh Willem Dafoe wants to take a walk with you and talk about his character.” I’m like ‘Holy—! OK!’”
That sounds like quite a walk.
MCKENNAThat was amazing. [Then] knowing that we had to get pages to Tobey and Andrew. At a certain point, we had to get them Act III. We had to get those pages to them literally a year ago, we were holed up getting pages to them before Christmas of last year.
SOMMERS Yeah, we were really holed up.
MCKENNA We have to get these pages to them. It was so great. They were on board, but they hadn’t seen anything. They knew the idea, they trusted everyone, but we were in the middle of the war of making the movie, changing so much, but also — we were heading toward shooting them, so they had to see pages and basically see, “OK, we know there has been a pandemic. We know this thing has gone through a million changes, we know it’s been really difficult.” Luckily they read the pages and they were like, “Oh, OK, yes! We can work with this.” (Laughs.)
SOMMERS They had thoughts, and it was really interesting and helpful to see their thoughts. No one knows the character as well as — or gives as much thought to the character — as someone who has to then embody it and sell it. It’s always valuable to hear what the actor is thinking. It definitely shaped what we did.
MCKENNA They had great ideas that really elevated everything we were going for and added layers and an arc and we really actually started honing into the idea that these two guys were really helping Tom’s Peter on his journey to becoming who he ends up becoming. There’s a crucial, moral moment that they help him get through in the climax of the movie. So much of that was brought by Tobey and Andrew’s ideas and shaping of what they thought their characters could bring to this story.
You get to continue Sam Raimi’s and Marc Webb’s movies with small lines here and there. We learn that Tobey’s Peter is still with MJ. We learn that Andrew is in a dark patch and stopped pulling his punches after the death of Gwen. How much of a debate was that, figuring out what to reveal?
MCKENNA We were like, “We’ve got to make them each very specific.” As writers, we kept saying, “Where are these characters in their lives when they come into the movie?” Where is Tobey? We’re not de-agifying him. He’s a guy who is 43, who is entering this movie, and Andrew Garfield, where are they in their lives? The last time you saw Andrew Garfield, it was the death of Gwen, and that must have sent him down a dark spiral, maybe he never got out of. We don’t know, because there wasn’t a third movie that we saw. Where did he go? Maybe a really dark place. We wanted to be true to the characters in those movies. Really having conversations about specifying where they are, without giving away too much. Not coming in, spilling all the beans. “Tobey’s Peter is running Peter Parker Industries!” You just wanted to have little hints of that without it being all this exposition as fan service.
Did Tobey and Andrew give input on that?
MCKENNA Tobey wanted to be very minimal about how much you know. Very, very minimal. Andrew really loved the idea of he’s still tortured over what happened in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and where that left him, and how they could bring that to Tom. “We can empathize with you. We do know what you are going through. If anyone in the world knows what you’re going through, it’s us.” But also, “We can be beacons.” Tobey especially has come through that darkness. We thought it was cool that Andrew’s Peter was still in the midst of that darkness. They weren’t just here to go, “Two awesome Jedi knight heroes who show up and are going to help you take down the bad guys.” They are going through their own things. We were trying to write up to the characters that they did such a great job of creating and really being true to those characters and those stories and those worlds so that it didn’t feel like we were doing curtain call, fan-service.
I get the sense that Andrew’s Peter is in a better place at the end of this movie. The look Andrew gives after saving MJ is one of my favorites.
MCKENNA So moving. I loved MJ’s, “Are you OK?”
MCKENNA I think the last third of the movie is my favorite part of the whole movie. You get to that point and you’re like, “We could have really dropped the ball and it would have been our fault.” Because these guys were game. They showed up and we reworked all those scenes when they came on [with] the actors, the producers and the director. We reworked the rooftop school scene and all that stuff and there was so much fun improv of those guys. Andrew really leaned into the lonely, middle brother. That’s one of the things we started saying. “He is the middle brother!” You have the elder brother, Tobey, who is the wise one. The middle sibling thing, he feels like he’s not getting the attention of the other two. It works so great for that character. Andrew leaned into middle brother syndrome. “The baby one is getting all the attention! What about me?” (Laughs.) He’s obviously hurting. I think he has so many great flourishes. So does Tobey. I think that dynamic of brothers, that’s why it’s so great when Andrew says, “God, I always wanted to have brothers.” While simplistic, it is a great paradigm for the three of them coming together and you want it to feel like, “Oh, it’s not just doppelgangers.” They are different. They are not the same person. They are born of the same experience and the same spider-bite. They are like brothers. No one knows the heaven and hell if what it is to be in an experience quite like your sibling. No one knows what this family is like. At least they got a sense of, “You’re not alone. There’s a community. You guys have each suffered in your own way.” And then to get help heal each other, it was wonderful to be a part of getting there.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) did not say “Avengers Assemble” until Endgame, and it became all the more impactful because of it. Did you consider having “with great power…” earlier in your Spider-Man trilogy?
SOMMERS I don’t think there was much impetus to put it into the other two movies. This iteration of Spider-Man didn’t start by telling the story of losing Uncle Ben. We started at a different place with Peter. Those words are so tied to Uncle Ben, there didn’t seem to be a natural place for it. We weren’t even thinking necessarily, “Oh, we have to do it in this one.” As the story started to develop, and as we got to the scene with May, we realized, “This is going to be Peter’s Uncle Ben,” and the words are going to come out. For the scene on the rooftop, where the three Peters meet, we felt pretty strongly that we need something to really, finally crystalize it for these three guys that they are the same, that they are brothers. And that they are bound in a cosmic way by something and having them share those words in common seemed like the thing to do.
MCKENNA [screenwriters Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely and the Russos were so smart with Civil War to side step rehashing the origin story. You just leap over it, but it leaves so many questions and gaps. Some people [ask], “Oh, did Uncle Ben die? Was he guilty [of Ben’s death]? Are we losing that gravitas as part of that character?” I think that’s something we’ve always discussed. “What is the deal with his Uncle Ben? Is it a total parity — is it one to one? Is it absolutely the same way?” We started thinking, “Well maybe it’s not. Maybe his mentor is May and she’s instilled this thing in him. He doesn’t say, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but he says something to that effect in Civil War, which is, “When you can do the things that I can do and you don’t do anything, then you are responsible.” It’s that same sentiment that I think has been instilled in him from May, but you start realizing that May really is the moral guide of his life and he’s had a father-figure.
Hopefully you start seeing this is a different Peter Parker. They are all different. They have had different origins. They have had different contexts and this Peter is the only one of these three who has had a Tony Stark in his life. So he chases the fame. He chases this father figure and approval from this billionaire, philanthropist playboy. Then he realizes, “I don’t want to be an Avenger. I’m chasing the wrong thing.” And the next movie was, “I can’t be Iron Man. I can only be Spider-Man.” In this one, there is a whole new way he has to get tested about what these other two guys have been tested by. By the death of a loved one at the hands of a villain. What are you going to do about that? They help him get there. I think people can draw from it what they want, but these were the things we were working with as we were moving towards the creation of this story for him and really taking him down a dark path. I think it’s the darkest place he’s ever gone.
By the conclusion of No Way Home, Peter is stripped down to a guy with no Stark tech — and no friends even. Did you write this thinking this is the last Tom Holland Spider-Man? It’s both an origin story to a stripped down Spider-Man, but it also could serve as a satisfying conclusion.
SOMMERS We knew we were going to end up in that place. As far as what it means, whether or not there are going to be more? All we could do was try to service this story and tell what we felt was the best version of this story. It’s ended in a place where it could feel like a satisfying to this particular Spider-Man, or it definitely could keep going. We get this team together in a room — and again, each one of these movies has had a big thing from the previous to react to. To be a story engine. If there were to be another one, we have this big change at the end that would be a huge story engine to what comes next. I think it could be a satisfying conclusion or just another really fun, inciting incident for another story. I hope they do more. But I don’t know.
MCKENNA I think it’s a fitting ending if it had to end this way. We never know. “Oh, is Tom doing another one? Will we be a part of it?” At a certain point we just got to keep our eye on the one in front of us. “Is this a satisfying story that doesn’t just feel like we are ending on a cliffhanger that is trying to trick you in to the next one?” I do feel with this ending, Peter makes a sacrifice. There are all these Marvel movies about him trying to figure out what it is to be a hero, what it is to be Spider-Man, what it is to be Peter Parker, how to balance both, how to have it all. He gets to have it all at the end of the last movie, right before that tag and then it’s all stripped away. “Oh no! What are they going to do next time?” This one feels like it’s more mature because it really is, as Doctor Strange says, “You are trying to have it all. You can’t have it all. You’ve got to make a choice.” Whereas the Goblin is telling him the entire time, “You’re a God. You can have it all! Stop trying to make a choice.” But we know that the right thing is he can’t be endangering his loved ones. He loves these people so much that he can’t be a part of their lives and he knows that for now — is it going to be an Andrew Garfield life? No. I don’t think so. Andrew Garfield went into bitterness and darkness. I don’t see that for this one. He’s hopeful. He has chosen this life. He could spill the beans and get MJ and Ned back and he could convince them of everything and have everything he wanted when he walked into Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. He could get it, but now he has a choice and he doesn’t make that choice because he knows ultimately there’s a sacrifice that has to be made if he’s going to be the person that May raised him to be. This is the responsibility that he now has to live with. In a lot of ways, this is the other two [Spider-Men] helping him get to a place where maybe they got to before he did. This is the great sacrifice. The death of May is the turning point in his life and really turns what it means to be Peter Parker and Spider-Man into a different place for him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.