One of the greatest feats of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” a movie that really does walk a highwire act in terms of cramming multiple characters from various strains of the franchise into a single cohesive narrative, is its third act. This is when all of the characters (heroes, villains, new and old alike) come together for a final showdown. Every character gets their moment and every set-up is paid off. Few modern blockbusters are this satisfying, and the triumphant third act is a big part of it. (This would also go a long way in explaining its impressive box-office tally.)
So when TheWrap talked to Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna, the screenwriters behind “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” we had to ask what went into shaping that third act.
The climax of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” involves the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Peter Parker (Tom Holland), joined by Peter Parker from other series – Tobey Maguire from the original Sam Raimi trilogy; and Andrew Garfield from the two “Amazing Spider-Man” films. Additionally, all the villains that are introduced earlier in the film (including Alfred Molina’s Dock Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin) attempt to thwart our heroes while our heroes attempt to “cure” them before sending back to their own respective universes. Plus, you know, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) shows up to try to cast a spell to make everything right. It’s a lot. And in recent interviews with Holland, he admitted that they didn’t really know what the third act would be while they were shooting.
“Well, the third acts are traditionally tricky,” Sommers said. “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 just more moving pieces, we had all these other characters. So yes, we were working on it all the way through.”
The idea that there wasn’t a third act, though, was untrue, according to Sommers. “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, Amy Pascal and Jon Watts, it’s never just, ‘OK, well, let’s just rest on our laurels. That’s fine.’ It’s 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,’” Sommers explained. “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 broke down some of the moving parts, which included curing the villains and even who the main villain was going to be, an idea “honed during pre-production as we stripped stuff away.”
“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,” McKenna said. “It 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.”
As our MCU version of Peter finally learns in this movie, with great power comes great responsibility.
But there was more to juggle – specifically, magic! There are two key components to this. There is the magical spell that Doctor Strange casts that initially allows for these characters from other universes to invade our own, and a magic box that, if activated, would send the characters back to their respective worlds but probably kill them in the process. “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?” McKenna said. “Because they are these, they make fun of the term goobers in ‘Into 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?”
That’s right: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” had goobers too. Peter B. Parker, a true quarantine icon in his baggy grey sweatpants, would be proud.
“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, 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?” McKenna said.
This affected the very end of the movie too, as the MCU Peter Parker tries to reconnect with his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), which was another late addition.
“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,” McKenna said. “That all evolved while we were in production, I think that was all taking shape I would say November, December of last year.”
Sommers said that they really had to balance several factors in crafting the last hurrah for the three Peter Parkers. “When you’re facing an 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,” Sommers said. “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.”
According to Sommers, Peter’s journey was the “north star” of the production and always on their mind while figuring out the finale, describing it as a “refining process” to maintain that objective. Of course, they also wanted to provide the most “satisfying, fun three-act finale.”
Mission accomplished. On all fronts.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is in theaters now.