‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Screenwriters on Wrangling the Superhero Epic

Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna discuss the film’s origins, cameos and ending with TheWrap

Sony Pictures

Watching “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is a dazzling experience, with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) being visited by villains from other avenues of the franchise (including Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin), and having to deal with some pretty seismic ramifications of being outed as Spider-Man at the end of the previous film. But no matter how complicated Parker’s life gets in the film, it pales in comparison to what it was like putting the film together.

TheWrap chatted with “Spider-Man: No Way Home’s” screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers about what it was like to craft the ultimate live-action “Spider-Man” film – how close did Kraven the Hunter really come to being in the movie, how long did it take to figure out that climax, and whether or not any of the Marvel Studios series on Disney+ impacted the production of their film.

Extreme spoilers for “Spider-Man: No Way Home” follow.

When you guys started off, was everybody signed on? Was there an idea that everybody would be a part of the movie?

Erik Sommers: Well, when we started off pursuing this idea, we all aspired to have everyone that was ultimately in the movie, and we were writing as if, but we didn’t know for sure. So that was just something we just had to keep going and try to tell the most satisfying story we could, hoping that everyone we were aspiring to have would indeed be willing and able to do it.

Were you in production before people had totally signed on? How close to the wire did it come?

Sommers: No, I think by the time production started, what we found overall was just a lot of goodwill and willingness. Everyone who — and this might be better answered by a producer — but people were pretty much on board, were interested in doing it. I can’t say I recall or ever knew all the details of those discussions, but we were writing with these aspirations of trying to have these people, and what we were hearing as they were reaching out to folks, folks were pretty intrigued and interested in doing it.

Tom Holland said something about how there was a draft where Kraven the Hunter was the villain. Can you talk about that and what that story would have entailed?

Chris McKenna: I don’t think there’s been a draft of any of the “Spider-Man” movies where Kraven the Hunter didn’t-

Sommers: Wasn’t the villain, yeah.

McKenna: We come with very few ideas and we all just go like, “Kraven? Kraven’s cool.”

Sommers: Kraven is cool, he’s got the fur and the thing.

McKenna: Before the whole idea of this movie, there were other ideas. Because we don’t come with any ideas, we all sat at the table once the ink was drying with the Sony/Marvel deal, and all we had was, we ended the movie, the last movie with Peter’s identity being spoiled by Mysterio, and that was our jumping-off point because at least we could cling to that. OK, we know that we’re dealing with the fallout from that, what would happen? That led us down different story roads that were not this story. And then, I think, I don’t know if it was Kevin’s idea, the idea of doing something with the other villains and teasing at the very end of this, almost in a tag, was floated.

We were coming up with different storylines that were just right for the tag like that, so inevitably we were like, “Well, what if Kraven, what if other villains?” We were kicking around a lot of different ideas. And then finally one day, I think for various reasons, there were reasons why we couldn’t do certain storylines that, I think it was Kevin goes, “Remember that idea with all the villains that we were talking about for a tag? That Sinister Six idea? Why don’t we just do it in the movie, this movie be about that?” Then that just blew everything open, and how do you get there? Because we were already talking about the idea of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Peter going to Doctor Strange and trying to reverse the fallout from everything, so it was already in the air that he was going to Doctor Strange to help clean up this giant existential mess that had happened to him. So then it all started coming together.

You’ve also got to remember, though, when we started breaking the story and even started writing the script, we followed “Doctor Strange 2” in the timeline. So then during pre-production, things got pushed and changed. Obviously, we were supposed to start shooting in July 2020, and it became November 2020. Our release date got pushed from July 2021 to December ’21. It was a lot of things flipping around. But some of that’s too much inside baseball. But I will say that we were also, though, dealing with the idea, if we’re going to use Doctor Strange, where is Doctor Strange in his life and how are we coming off of that movie and how is it going to affect this story?

Well, was there ever a different mentor for Peter for this one? Or was it always Doctor Strange?

Sommers: I think we were gravitating towards Doctor Strange. When I say “we,” I mean the whole team, from a pretty early time. The strongest reason, probably, just being that if Peter is going to seek to somehow undo this mess, that just seems like a logical person you would go to. This is a person who has the ability to do things like that.

So not only is he a great character who we’d love to see team up with Spider-Man and there’s lots of awesome canon in the source material of Strange/Spidey team-ups, but it just seems, like Chris said, the one thing that we knew we had to deal with, which was a gift more than a curse, the story engine of Peter’s identity has been exposed. We knew that’s going to drive this whole thing and there were different ways he could deal with it. Could he go out and try to clear his name and find who sent that video to J. Jonah or something? But wouldn’t it be way cooler if he went to Doctor Strange and they tried to use magic? Just immediately when you say it, it’s like, “Oh, that’s way more fun. Let’s do that.”

McKenna: A two-hour trial.

Sommers: We definitely discussed for weeks just a long, really dry courtroom drama.

McKenna: A lot of sidebars, precedent.

Sommers: We bring back Matt Murdock but not in an exciting or interesting way at all. Really dig into his legal strategies and stuff like that.

Sony Pictures

Did the TV side of the Marvel Studios operation complicate anything? There’s been some discussion about Spider-Man swinging over the finale of “Hawkeye” at the very end, for instance.

Sommers: We were already going down this road, we were already down this road when that “Loki” finale happened. Correct me if I’m wrong, Chris, but I felt like we all felt like that would really, this really helps, this is great because it shows that there’s trouble in the Multiverse.

McKenna: Yeah. I think one of the things we dealt with, originally, we were writing this where Strange was going to be involved, but it was after the events of “Doctor Strange 2,” and so where is he, where is his head? So that’s something that we were kicking around. And then now it seems to be more like, “Oh, this actually gets him interested in pursuing the Multiverse as a concept.”

I feel like there are other people who are better at keeping all the larger strands of the MCU, like Kevin, but I think we talked about it. With a concept like this, you are, “How do we pull in all these other awesome things that you’re doing?” But this movie’s already so overstuffed. There are Easter eggs, I’m sure, that I don’t even know about that VFX and Watts have placed in this movie that people will be discovering for weeks to come. I don’t give it more than weeks, knowing how great the fandom is.

But I do think that we’re always going, “How…?” It’s such a huge sandbox, how can we play with all this stuff? Whether certain things that were happening in “Loki” line up in terms of the timeline exploding, and is that the same time that Doctor Strange is casting this spell? I don’t know, I don’t know. There are, I’m sure, the Marvel talking points to that. But we were aware of a lot of the different things that were going on and we could draw on those, how would it be affected by this thing? But, ultimately, we had our own story, giant story bear to wrestle with. We had a first draft that we had lots of other characters in, because it was really the kitchen sink version of this is a big idea, let’s try to put all these things in and then get it as quickly as we can.

The earth went off the cliff with the virus and everything else that transpired, when we were able to get a draft in, I think we were all at least still sane enough to go, “There’s a lot of fun stuff here, but not all of them fit together. We have to start stripping and honing.” At that point though, obviously, our producers and our director are dealing with, “Are we actually going to get all of these actors who have scenes in the movie?” But I think, as Erik said, it seemed like our wishlist was really coming true early on. It seemed like a lot of people were just enthusiastic about everything and thought, “OK, this sounds cool. Tell us more.”

Sommers: I think a lot of that is a credit to Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel and to Amy Pascal and Rachel.

McKenna: And Sony, it was just one of those crazy things. We already had done the impossible by having Sony and Marvel get in bed together, we’re really now going to be able to pull people, all these characters from the old series and bring them into this?

Sommers: I can’t speak to it in any detail because I was not involved in any of those conversations, but I just feel like those folks, probably, I would imagine they felt comfortable that this team of people is going to try to do this in a good way. This is not going to just be fan service for its own sake, this is not going to be just some sort of cheap gimmick or something. I think this team of people is going to…

McKenna: No matter how hard they tried.

Sommers: …This team of people is going to try to do this in a really satisfying way, which was our goal all along. We’re not just doing this for its own sake. If we’re going to do this, let’s try to really honor all of these characters and all of these movies and make it feel like we’re doing it for a reason, a story reason that has to do with our Peter Parker, but also treats those characters with respect and honors those properties. I would imagine a lot of those folks, hopefully, felt some of that comfort and that’s why they were interested in participating.

Can you talk about any of the characters that fell off the table?

McKenna: I don’t know if we’re allowed to honestly, but there were big characters. But almost too big, because it always became a balancing act of how do we tell not only a story with all these awesome villains that we know we want to bring into this movie, the classic ones, but also how do we make this still a Tom Holland/Peter Parker story so that he’s not completely overshadowed? Because at the end of the day, it’s not going to be a great Spider-Man movie if you’re not telling an emotional Peter Parker story. We had these riches that we had to … This giant idea [with] all these great actors, but also we had to tell a story that felt like we were telling a personal story for our main character.

What’s so amazing about this movie, too, is it serves both Marvel Studios and Sony if they aren’t speaking again next week, because Peter is totally divorced from the MCU. What was it like landing that?

McKenna: I think we’re always trying to tell an organic story with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, knowing that we can’t be reliant on anything else other than he’s got to go his own way at the end of this movie, each movie, and not be reliant on something that we … God knows, I think it’s been incredible, we’ve been a part of this collaboration with Sony and Marvel Studios, and Amy and Kevin. I think we always know that it’s total hubris to think, “Oh, we’re going to end with a certain cliffhanger that will require things that we can’t depend on.”

This should be a satisfying story unto itself. If it ends here, great. If this is the end of this, if this is all about, “Oh, this was all …” If you look backward and go, “This was an origin story that took place over three stories to get this Peter Parker to this place where he’s stripped-down, anonymous, has no billionaire benefactor, has been through the sacrifice of what it really means to have this power and what that responsibility that goes along with that is, and is now having to look for how to pay rent.” I think that would be really satisfying, I think that’d be really cool.

Spider-Man No Way Home
Sony Pictures

What was it like interfacing with the returning actors? Did Toby [Maguire] and Andrew [Garfield] have ideas about what they wanted from their characters? We’ve heard Willem Dafoe talk about what he wanted, and I was also curious how he wound up being the central villain again.

McKenna: I think one of the highlights and most frightening moments of my life was being told, I was on set during production and it was, “Willem wants to take a walk with you.” We were down at what used to be Pinewood Studios, but Willem wanted to go and talk about Norman Osborn and where he is and what we were going to do with the character. We just talked for an hour and it was incredible. He really approaches every role he does so professionally, and he talked about the continuation of his character, but what can we do that continues along that story about where he is?

Because that was also part of it. We’d already seen the movies so many times, trying to figure out where each character’s coming from their movie. Erik and I, for us, we kept on going, “This is the moment in the movie that he comes, you have to know…” It was all that, just immersing ourselves in those movies. Willem, Alfred was just fun to be with, he just obviously was just so in love with being on set again and playing this old character. He was so delightful.

Then Andrew and Toby came and we had ideas about how to dig into their characters, and they, obviously, had their own ideas that were great and it was a “yes, and …” With this whole idea of three brothers, older brother, middle brother, younger brother, really I think just worked for us, worked for them. Toby bringing this Zen-like attitude, he’s been through a lot, but he is this elder brother. Organically, looking at where Andrew was, where we were coming from, he obviously was on the same page and just built on it, the idea of after “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” let’s be true to where he was at the end of that movie and maybe he’s not in the best place right now and maybe he has something to prove to himself and to others, maybe he’s cut himself off from other people and this is an opportunity.

I think that line where he’s like, “I’ve always wanted to have brothers.” I think he’s leaning into that idea of he’s cut himself off from others after the end of “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and this can be a journey for him too to start healing and finding a light in that darkness that he’s found himself in. Leaning into all those things were just part of our conversation with each other, making sure that each character was distinct and specific and it wasn’t just a curtain call for any of these characters. We really wanted to just organically pull them out of their movies and their lives and their journeys, where they are, be specific to that and it can’t just be showing up without any context.

Tom has talked about when you guys started shooting, there was no third act, or the third act was not solidified. How did that process evolve?

Sommers: Well, the third acts are traditionally tricky, because we know it’s going to involve a big action sequence and we know we’re drawing everything to a close and so it’s always a challenge and it’s always something that you’re working on through production, trying to hone down and sharpen. This one was no different, except for the fact that I would say just overall the degree of difficulty was higher on this movie because we had more moving pieces, we had all these other characters. So yes, we were working on it all the way through.

There always was a third act, but it was always being worked on. That’s the great thing about working with this team of people, Sony, Marvel, Pascal and Jon Watts, it’s never just, “OK, well, let’s just rest on our laurels. That’s fine.” It’s just like, “Let’s keep trying to make this as good as possible, let’s keep working on it as long as we can to make it as good as we can.” We were always working on it, and all the way up to the day we’re shooting it, we’re working on it. I’m just so glad it turned out the way it did.

McKenna: Yeah, we had the moving parts of, obviously, curing the villains was part of it, who was the main villain was an evolving idea, but was honed during pre-production as we stripped stuff away and we really started really leaning into the idea of Goblin being our main villain. And the death of May is something that evolved as something that we thought was just, in terms of story, just necessary, it just felt organic that she would willingly know, that she knew that there was great sacrifice in her code of living and Peter has to learn that there is great sacrifice too.

But it was also, we had these two things, we had the magic spell and we had this magic box, and we knew we had these two things. It was during production we were writing documents about what the spell did, what the box did. I think it was November of last year, it was Erik and I working on this document while we’re doing daily pages, while we’re shooting, really trying to hone what does the spell do, what does the box do? How do we clarify these things? Because they are, they make fun of the term goobers in the Spider-verse. But it really is, it’s like how many goobers can you put in this movie that also has all these characters?

We were really trying to refine those goobers and it was, at a certain point, the idea that his identity would get erased was baked in at a certain point, but it was for a different reason. Then it became this idea that that was how we would do it to stop this influx of people. But then when would he do it and when would he know it was a lifetime sacrifice? That changed too, and that then became the donut shop scene where he thought he was really going to walk into that scene and reveal who he was and get these two loved ones back into his life, and then he makes the last hard decision of his life in that moment. That all evolved while we were in production. I think that was all taking shape, I would say, November, December of last year.

Sommers: When you’re facing any Act 3, you ideally have set up a lot of things and you need to pay them off and draw them to a close and everything. But, more than anything, you need to draw your emotional story of your main character to a close in the most satisfying way. You’re trying to tell the best story, so everything has to be in service of that. So that’s why we keep working on these things — it’s not just because, “Oh, this will be the coolest visual thing.” That’s all considerations, of course. Always. But it’s all in service of the character and the journey of Peter Parker.

That’s your North Star, and that’s what’s guiding you. And so when we keep working on these things it’s just because we want to make sure to have the most satisfying fun Act 3 finale of this movie that draws all this stuff to a close in the most satisfying exciting way, but it’s all in service of telling Peter Parker’s story, and so that’s the refining process that is always happening.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is now playing in theaters across the Multiverse.