SPOILER WARNING: This story discusses many major plot developments in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” currently playing in theaters. Please do not read if you have not seen the film.
Of the many multiversal pleasures of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” one of the most satisfying has been how every single person involved — from director Jon Watts to producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal to stars Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Benedict Cumberbatch and Marisa Tomei — managed to keep the movie’s biggest secret: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were both reprising their roles as Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man.
What makes that feat so much more impressive is that everyone expected it to happen. Ever since news leaked that actors like Jamie Foxx and Alfred Molina were reprising their roles as various Spider-Man villains — news Molina happily confirmed to Variety back in April — fans across the globe have flooded the internet with a torrent of fan-made posters, trailers and movie stills depicting the team-up of Maguire, Garfield and Holland’s three web-slingers. And yet no one (not even Molina!) confirmed that the two earlier Parkers were indeed returning. That unified front to keep audiences guessing undoubtedly helped “No Way Home” become a must-see theatrical event, to the tune of $1.1 billion and counting in global box office gross.
For screenwriters Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna, watching so many fans enthusiastically pump out all manner of speculation about their movie was one of many unusually intense experiences while making it.
“We were so excited about these different surprises,” Sommers told Variety. “And then, suddenly, it seems like people had decided [Andrew and Tobey were returning], so maybe some of these surprises wouldn’t be so surprising. That was concerning, but at the same time, the sheer level of speculation and interest was really exciting. That was such great fuel to keep going and give [fans] something that would delight them.”
Finally free of (most) spoiler restrictions, Sommers and McKenna — who also wrote 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and co-wrote 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” with Watts, Christopher Ford, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley — talked with Variety about the long, complicated road to bring Maguire and Garfield’s Peter Parkers into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They also discussed the tragic fate of Aunt May (Tomei), the tricky logic of identity-erasing magic spells, how the heck Eddie Brock and Venom (Tom Hardy) squeezed into the MCU and their pitch for the future of all the Peter Parkers.
Start With “the Kitchen Sink”
When McKenna and Sommers first started talking with Watts, Feige, Pascal and the rest of the filmmaking team about Holland’s third Spidey feature, the multiverse wasn’t the first or even the second possible storyline.
“We had gone down a couple different roads with different story ideas that were not [the multiverse] that would then tease something like this at the end of it,” says McKenna. Finally, everyone thought, “Why tease the multiverse when you can just do it?”
They first started writing “No Way Home” in December 2019 — and they didn’t really stop until early 2021, when production wrapped. Pulling together a gigantic story that serviced a multitude of characters from three different “Spider-Man” movie franchises during the COVID-19 pandemic led to, as McKenna puts it, some “dark days” where it seemed like the movie would never come together.
One example: in March 2020, when the duo were still working on their first draft of the script.
“It was like, ‘Wait, you guys are asking about the script?'” jokes McKenna. “‘I’m buying weapons and generators and ramen and toilet paper!'”
Drawing from the end of “Far From Home,” in which Holland’s Peter Parker is outed as Spider-Man to the world, Sommers and McKenna knew their inciting incident would be Peter’s request to Doctor Strange (Cumberbatch) to cast a spell that would put his Spidey identity back in the closet, so to speak, which would crack open the multiverse. But they had to start writing without knowing for certain whether the actors who had played the previous Spidey characters would, in fact, appear in the movie.
So at first, every major previous “Spider-Man” character was in play.
The duo’s initial mandate: “Let’s write the script that is the kitchen sink and we’ll just act like we were going to get everything we wish for,” says McKenna. “And like Peter’s wish, it became a nightmare, and it required very, very talented people to help us not die at the end.”
In the final movie, many legacy characters — including Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy and Sally Field’s Aunt May — don’t appear. But the duo are reticent to discuss how those characters might have worked into the first draft of the movie.
“We went down different roads with different characters that just didn’t fit,” says McKenna. “We can’t get into the details of that because it might be the kind of thing where they’ll find a way to explore those ideas. So I’d hate to spoil anything, because I think we had a lot of fun.”
Suffice it to say, however, their early scripts had a lot of characters — too many to do justice. “The first draft, we bit off more than we could chew,” says Sommers. “Maybe some would argue that we still bit off more than we can chew.”
Speaking of biting, the screenwriters say that including Eddie Brock and his alien symbiote Venom in the film’s final battle was “definitely discussed.” The pair confirmed that Watts directed the post-credits tag on “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” which showed Brock zapped into the MCU. But Brock was ultimately relegated to the “No Way Home” post-credits scene instead. As for how a character who had never met any Peter Parker, let alone Spider-Man, could be pulled into the MCU by a spell specifically drawing people who had to know Peter Parker was Spider-Man? “The idea is that the symbiote has knowledge of other universes. Buried in his brain is some knowledge of that connection,” McKenna said.
The screenwriters knew the central pull of a multiverse story was nostalgia for the past “Spider-Man” movies, but they were steadfast in preventing that from becoming what drove their story.
“The most important thing is this wasn’t just going to be a bunch of fan service. It wasn’t going to be just curtain calls for everybody,” McKenna says. “We had to figure out a way that this [movie] told the story of this Peter Parker right now, organically coming off of where we left the last movie. That was always our north star. Yeah, it’s a big fun idea. Let’s not forget Peter. You can’t get lost in the mix. It has to be his emotional journey.”
Peter Parker and Peter Parker Meet Peter Parker…
As McKenna and Sommers wrote, they came up with a handy nomenclature to differentiate between the three Peter Parkers: In honor of Sam Raimi, who directed all three Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movies, Maguire’s Peter was called “Raimi-verse Peter” or “Raimi-verse Spider-Man” (depending on whether he had the mask on or not). Similarly, Garfield’s Peter was called “Webb-verse Peter” or “Webb-verse Spider-Man” for “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” director Marc Webb. For simplicity’s sake, Holland’s Peter was just called Peter. (When discussing the Peters with Variety, however, McKenna and Sommers also used the actors’ names.)
This was presuming both Maguire and Garfield were on board. Thankfully, the screenwriting duo got periodic — and optimistic — updates from the producers on securing the actors.
“Pretty much all we were hearing is, ‘Yeah, we reached out. He’s interested. He thinks that sounds neat,'” Sommers says. “We’re like, ‘Really?! Oh, great!’ But nothing was guaranteed.”
At first, they had planned a very different introduction for Maguire and Garfield’s Peters: They arrive just after the death of Peter’s Aunt May (more on that in a bit), and not by happenstance.
“They are brought by a Marvel character going, ‘Here are the saving graces and they’re going to help you through this,'” McKenna says (though he declines to say which character it was). “It was just more of a deus ex machina.”
And that’s how it stayed even as the film started production in the fall of 2020. By last Christmas, however, it was clear that they needed a much better way to bring in the other Peters.
“We were changing the story so much,” McKenna says. “We were already two months into production. And we were having to now take another whack at act three, which we hadn’t had time to because we were shooting act one and act two.”
Worn down by the punishing schedule, constant uncertainty and brand new COVID-19 protocols, the duo were terrified of screwing up the crucial moment in the whole movie. So they holed up together over Christmas and came up with what is now in the film: Ned (Batalon), messing around with Strange’s teleporting sling ring with MJ (Zendaya), accidentally conjures a portal to Garfield’s Peter Parker while wondering where Holland’s could be, causing all three to panic (delightfully) at the total weirdness of the situation.
“It was a beam of light in darkness,” says McKenna. “It was such a gift, particularly at that point in the writing process, to be writing for those two characters. It the darkest part of the year, the darkest part of production, the darkest part of the story development, and it was like, Oh! Now we get Tobey and Andrew.”
…and Have a Big Talk About Power and Responsibility
Another crucial discovery was allowing all three Peters to realize that they’d all been told variations on the immortal Spider-Man credo — “with great power there must also come great responsibility” — by the relative most dear to them, right before they died.
“There was a big discussion of how much to use that phrase,” Sommers says. “Those words are so loaded. You have to be very careful about where and when you employ them. We had decided to have May say it to Peter, but would we bring it back as something that helps the three of them identify this uncanny cosmic link that they have? Or would that be too much to hear it again? Ultimately, the team decided, let’s hear it.”
The scene also allowed McKenna and Sommers to reinforce that the other Peters were not just there to save the day. They could instead lean into what makes them unique: While Maguire’s Peter would be more settled into adulthood, Garfield’s would still be mourning the death of Gwen Stacy at the end of “Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
“We can really differentiate these two characters, establish that they’re in two very distinct parts of their own journeys in life,” McKenna says. “We could really lean into, for instance, Webb-verse Peter having troubles — he’s in a dark place in his own life.”
That realization also led to what is, for many, the most emotional moment of the film: During the climatic battle at the Statue of Liberty, MJ starts to fall and Holland’s Peter is unable to catch her — so Garfield’s does instead, immediately bursting into tears. Both screenwriters credit Watts for coming up with the moment, which they first experienced watching a pre-visualization reel showcasing ideas for the final battle.
“There was an animatic of all these different things [potentially] happening in the finale,” McKenna says. Garfield’s Peter saving MJ “was one of the ones that we saw and were like, ‘How are we not doing something like that?'”
Doctor Strange, Timeline Shenanigans, and the Death of Aunt May
While Sommers and McKenna were still writing the script, the pandemic pulled another rug out from under them: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which was initially supposed to open before “No Way Home,” was pushed to open after it.
“We were actually working off of things that were happening in ‘Doctor Strange 2,’ and trying to incorporate them into our script,” McKenna says. “When we started writing, [Strange] knows firsthand the dangers of screwing with these things. Then we changed it so he was a person who doesn’t know that much about the multiverse. But that makes it even more frightening, to start fooling around with these things, because it’s the fear of the unknown. Either way, he was the voice of reason going, ‘You don’t mess with the fate of an individual’ — and Peter Parker being naive enough to go, ‘Why not? Why can’t we save these people?'”
Holland’s drive to save the Spidey villains — including Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Molina) and Electro (Foxx) — before sending them back to their timelines is driven by the moral code of his Aunt May, who instills in him the belief that people are worth saving no matter what. Unfortunately for May, that also doomed her to die.
“We were at a point where we felt like there needed to be a loss, a sacrifice, that Peter needed to pay a real price for this decision to try to save the villains,” Sommers says. “I think it became pretty clear to a lot of us that losing Aunt May was the thing that would really drive home the point we were trying to make: making this the movie where Peter Parker experiences the loss that the other ones did in their first movies.”
Maguire and Garfield’s Peters both felt guilty for the death of their Uncle Bens because they shirked the responsibility Uncle Ben tried to teach them. For Holland’s Peter, it was quite the opposite: After the Green Goblin escapes, he kills May right in front of Peter.
“He was trying to do what May taught him and that made the sacrifice that much more difficult, because it blew up in his face and it got her killed,” McKenna says. “Then he started questioning that morality in a way that he never really questioned because he hasn’t been put to the test in that way.”
The Problem With Memory Canceling Spells
May’s death was a step in the filmmakers’ mission to strip everything away from Holland’s Peter and leave him, by the end of “No Way Home,” much closer to his true comic book origins: a scrappy kid with almost no resources beyond his intellect and superhuman abilities. That culminates with his decision to repair the widening rift in the multiverse by having Strange cast a spell that makes everyone, everywhere forget him as Peter Parker.
Since Holland’s Peter still exists in the MCU, his decision has a litany of wide-ranging — and persnickety — problems attached to it: Does this mean all records of him are gone too? Does he still have a social security number? Are the photos of MJ and Ned gone from his phone? And so on.
Asked about these questions, McKenna and Sommers grimace.
“This is the first time that we’ve ever discussed this,” Sommers deadpans.
In truth, the filmmaking team talked at length about the implications of the anti-Peter spell and how the movie could address them. “We were like, do we do a ‘Back to the Future’ kind of thing where you see him fading out of photos?” Sommers says. “Does he still have a driver’s license or a passport? It just led to more questions.”
So they punted. “We decided, let’s try to do it in the most satisfying way and just focus on the emotion of it,” Sommers says. “And then if people have questions about some of those details that didn’t get answered here, we’ll answer them hopefully in another movie somewhere down the line.”
“Obviously, some sort of magical redaction has occurred,” McKenna adds. “At the end of all this, we didn’t want a lot of people trying to do magical math in their head.”
Pascal suggested looking to the 1978 Warren Beatty comedy “Heaven Can Wait” for a solution. “People had these experiences, but they start forgetting the person they knew, but they were still affected by the events that happened,” McKenna explained.
Besides, it was more important to have the scene where Holland’s Peter encounters MJ while she’s working in her doughnut shop and decides to not try to win her back. “You want to have that doughnut scene be him making the last piece of the sacrifice,” McKenna says, adopting Peter’s inner-monologue: “I could tell them everything. I can try to get my friends back. But I’d be going right back to the place of endangering my loved ones by bringing them into my life. And I can’t have that.”
Peter and Peter, Private Eyes?
McKenna and Sommers, like basically everyone else involved with “No Way Home,” speak generally about the possibility of making another “Spider-Man” movie with Holland, without committing to when, or whether, that would happen.
But what about future “Spider-Man” movies with Maguire and Garfield?
“I would hope so!” McKenna says. “I would love to see more of their journey. We even talked about, ‘Oh, we could do a [post-credits] tag with this one! We could do a tag with that one!'”
“‘Can we do a TV show with the two of them traveling around in a van solving mysteries?'” adds Sommers.
McKenna smiles, happy to joke around about a movie he’s had to be so circumspect about for so long. But then he squirms a bit, realizing they’ve gone too far. “Like, ‘No, you weren’t supposed to say that,'” he jokes. “We are doing Tobey and Andrew in a van going from town to town!”