“How the MCU Was Made” is a series of deep-dive articles that delve into the ins and outs of the development history, production, and release of all the Marvel Studios movies.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe was more than off and running in the mid 2010s, having successfully launched individual superhero franchises, sequels, and unprecedented Avengers movies, there was still at least one major property Marvel didn’t have in their toybox: Spider-Man. And they wanted him. Badly. For years, fans had clamored to see what Marvel Studios could do with the famous webslinger in their fold, but the rights to the character were under license with Sony Pictures. The rival studio helped jump-start this era of superhero movies in the first place with Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man, and they weren’t about to let go of their crown jewel—despite dwindling box office returns.
Then the unprecedented happened. Instead of giving Spider-Man back, Sony agreed to a groundbreaking arrangement with Marvel Studios, one that benefitted both studios in very different ways. This is the story of how Spider-Man: Homecoming was born.
While fans had been itching to see Marvel tackle Spider-Man ever since The Avengers launched in 2012, the general thinking on the matter was it would never happen. The Spider-Man comics and character were the only superhero property that Sony had, and there was no way the studio would give that up in the midst of a superhero movie craze. Most assumed Sony would just simply keep rebooting, retooling, and relaunching Spider-Man movies forever.
But unbeknownst to the public, Marvel Studios—and in particular Marvel president Kevin Feige—were keen on getting Spider-Man back themselves, and had begun making quiet overtures to Sony in 2014 following the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Sony’s Andrew Garfield-fronted sequel performed fine at the box office, but received scathing reviews and a ho-hum response from fans, even though it was meant to serve as the launching pad for a series of interconnected Spider-Man Universe films. Smelling blood in the water, Feige and Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter made their move.
The ask was this: let Marvel Studios help reboot Spider-Man and use the character in their upcoming MCU film Captain America: Civil War. Then-Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal was understandably hesitant despite numerous sitdowns with Feige, and complicating matters was the fact that Perlmutter thought any deal between Marvel and Sony should benefit Marvel, to the tune of Marvel getting a 50% stake in the next Spider-Man film while Sony would only get a 5% stake in Captain America: Civil War (per reporting in the Ben Fritz book The Big Picture). As you can imagine, Sony balked.
By Fall 2014 a deal between the two companies had yet to be struck, and Marvel was under the gun because production on Civil War was gearing up. Internally, Sony was considering rebooting Spider-Man themselves in a Sinister Six movie written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods). But just when Goddard delivered his first draft, hackers hit Sony, releasing a copious amount of private emails into the world. Now the public had become aware that Sony and Marvel had discussed bringing Spider-Man into the MCU, and with the studio’s back against the wall, Sony reapproached Marvel about that whole co-producing idea.
On February 9, 2015 a groundbreaking deal was announced. A new Spider-Man would debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, released by Disney, and that same Spider-Man would star in a new standalone movie released by Sony in 2017, produced by Marvel Studios. The financial agreement reached was far less complicated than Marvel’s initial offer: each studio would fully invest in and keep the profits from its respective features, meaning that Marvel Studios makes zero dollars from Sony’s new standalone Spider-Man movies and Sony makes zero dollars from Civil War. Instead, the annual fee that Marvel pays Sony to keep the toy and merchandising profits to the Spider-Man character at Marvel would be reduced from $35 million if the new Marvel-produced Spider-Man movie grossed over $750 million (it did). Moreover, the two studios get the satisfaction of making a great Spider-Man movie while giving the character an added spotlight in multiple MCU films.
Immediately, work got underway to cast this new Spider-Man so he could shoot his scenes for Captain America: Civil War. Per the Sony-Marvel deal, Sony retained final approval over casting, but would work in concert with Marvel to find the right actor. Both sides agreed they wanted to cast a much younger Peter Parker this time around (the MCU was already full of thirtysomething and fortysomething heroes), so they were looking for an actor of 15 or 16 years of age.
Casting shortlists surfaced in late April 2015, after Civil War filming began on April 27, 2015. Marvel and Sony considered actors such as Nat Wolff, Asa Butterfield, Timothee Chalamet, Liam James, and of course Tom Holland for the role of Peter Parker. By May, Marvel and Sony were testing actors opposite Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, at which point Butterfield and Holland emerged as the frontrunners. On June 23rd, Holland was cast as the new Spider-Man, and literally days later he was on the Civil War set shooting his scenes.
At the same time that casting for the new Spider-Man was underway, Sony and Marvel were looking to find a new creative team to spearhead the standalone Spider-Man film scheduled to arrive in theaters a year after Civil War. In May 2015, it was reported that the filmmakers in consideration to direct the new Spider-Man movie included Jonathan Levine (50/50), Ted Melfi (St. Vincent), Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (Game Night), and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite). Clearly they were looking for a filmmaker with a young sensibility, possibly skewing towards comedy, as Marvel ideally wanted to capture a John Hughes-esque tone with a story set in high school.
A month later, the directing sweepstakes continued with favorites narrowed down to Levine and Melfi, but this is also the first we heard of Jon Watts entering the fray. At the time he was a surprise inclusion, having recently helmed the Sundance indie Cop Car, but by June 23rd he had the job. Feige explained what made them choose Watts over the other candidates:
“We met with a lot of people and came down to a couple of very, very, very good finals candidates. Jon just—we really liked his movie Cop Car, we met with him four, five, or six times, and each time he had more and more interesting things to say. And at Marvel, it always comes down to ultimately, “We can make a movie with this person for two years, we could spend almost every day with this person for two years. Let’s go.”
Watts followed Holland to the set of Civil War and not only shadowed the Russo Brothers to see how to make a Marvel movie, but also consulted on the depiction of Peter Parker.
In July, Daley and Goldstein—who were previously in the running to direct—were hired to write the screenplay for the new film. All involved agreed not to rehash the origin story and to instead hit the ground running with a coming-of-age tale set in the “life or death” stakes of high school.
The story continued to develop for what would eventually be titled Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Robert Downey Jr. was added to the ensemble in a mentor-like role to Peter Parker—although the actor was able to shoot all of his scenes in just three days.
As for choosing the villain of the film in the wake of the numerous Spider-Man movies that have already been made, Spider-Man: Homecoming producer Eric Caroll revealed that nearly every director who came in and pitched on the movie had Vulture as the Big Bad:
“We told all the writers and directors that came in, ‘Pitch us anything,’ because it’s one of these best idea-type scenarios—if someone came in with the greatest Doc Ock pitch of all time and we’re like, ‘This is it. It feels new, it feels different, it feels MCU specific,’ we would have done it. But frankly I think all but two people came in and pitched The Vulture to us. So we were, again, leaning that way anyway but then we heard all these great ideas, and especially the one that Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley first pitched we were like, ‘Yeah this is cool. It feels MCU, it feels unique, it feels like you haven’t seen it before.’”