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It was Monday, Feb. 9, 2015 when the news was announced that would send shivers down the spines of superhero fans everywhere. Disney and Sony had finally, finally agreed to incorporate Spider-Man into his rightful place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Speculation immediately focused on whether Spidey would make his MCU debut in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, a sequel that had already been nicknamed Avengers 2.5 for the wide array of crimefighters squaring off against one another. The web-slinger was a major presence in the comic storyline, so why wouldn’t he be in the movie?
Turns out Marvel had been prepping for the possibility of a Spider-Man role in Civil War since the earliest stages of the film’s development. “At one point we were told, ‘Run scenarios for a movie that Spider-Man would be in. We don’t have him yet, but we might ask,’” Christopher Markus, who penned the film’s screenplay with longtime collaborator Stephen McFeely (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Pain and Gain), told Yahoo Movies.
Markus and McFeely had started working on a follow-up to the still-unreleased Winter Soldier in late 2013 (the second Cap standalone movie opened in April 2014). Their marching orders to start experimenting with Spidey plot threads came as soon as the threequel became Civil War. When exactly that happened inside Marvel headquarters is not known, but the movie was publicly announced, sans Spider-Man’s inclusion, at the studio’s unveiling of its Phase Three slate in October 2014.
“So we worked up some scenes and had some spots for him, and then he was out,” Markus explained. “And then relatively late in the day he came back. And because he always appeared in [a] recruitment section, we were able to leave that kind of baggy and self-contained, and not tied to too many other things, so he could come and go if we wanted him. Plus, we could expand or contract Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in the movie to sort of fill the hole if Peter Parker wasn’t going to be in the movie. So we had good options.”
‘Civil War’ screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus (Getty)
The screenwriters characterize Spidey’s stature in the development process as “in and out.” That might explain why, when Yahoo Movies, along with about a dozen other outlets, visited Civil War’s suburban Atlanta production in June 2015 — two weeks after reports surfaced that a half-dozen teens, including eventual role winner Tom Holland, had auditioned for the part on the film’s set — that the filmmakers were so cagey about admitting that Peter Parker even had a role. This was despite the facts that journalists overheard crewmembers mention “the Spider-Man scene” and listened to another discuss his costume at length. “I don’t even know if he’s going to be in the movie, honestly,” producer Nate Moore said at the time. Markus echoed the company line that day: “I don’t know to this day that I get to use Spider-Man.” Asked how prominently Spidey factored into the film, co-director Joe Russo answered facetiously, “You know, not prominently at all.” (Which, actually, we can’t say is fully inaccurate.)
This was all either a classic Marvel misdirection, or the filmmakers, despite casting Holland shortly thereafter and having a tentative plan to shoot Spidey’s scenes, not knowing with 100 percent certainty that they would have contractual all-clear to use the footage in the final cut. An Entertainment Weekly story — with interviews conducted on set around the same time as our visit, finally confirmed Spidey’s participation, with Robert Downey Jr. spilling the beans in a piece published last December.
“It was like a creative dream,” co-director Anthony Russo told Yahoo Movies at the film’s recent press junket (watch below). “Can we possibly get this character in this movie? We are eternally grateful to [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige and all the folks at Sony for figuring out a deal with one another that actually made that possible. It’s the rarest of occurrences in the way Hollywood studios cooperate with each other. But it worked, and Spider-Man’s in the movie.”
In crafting Marvel’s new-and-improved take on Spidey, Markus and McFeely said they didn’t revisit any of Sony’s five films starring Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield to look for clues on what worked with the character and what didn’t. “We wrote a teenage boy,” Markus said simply, to which McFeely expanded on: “'Realism’ was always the watchword. So it was always going to be [he] lives in a fairly large apartment building, and he stammers, and the humor is sort of out of nervousness.”
In Civil War, Spidey is recruited to battle by Tony Stark, who has monitored the adolescent’s amateur-hour crimefighting and turns up in his Queens apartment under the guise of offering him a scientific grant. Then they’re off to the clash of the titans. “[He has] genuine excitement at having the powers and at being exposed to these other superheroes,” Markus said. “This is a guy who can’t believe the entire time that it’s happening. Which worked out well, because you have just by the very nature of this movie, however many normal Avengers there are seeming pretty jaded about being superheroes, and some of them not even wanting to be superheroes anymore… So you have this kid who’s the representation of fun, both for the audience [and for him], so it’s a great injector of levity right when things are getting very heavy.”
The audience has indeed had fun with him: the Spidey sequences have been roundly praised in early reactions to the film, and Holland (The Impossible) has gotten high marks across the board both for his wise-cracking and butt-kicking. It’s already making fans more excited for what would likely been cynically viewed as yet another Spidey reboot, 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is being co-produced by Sony and Marvel.
It may have taken some tangled web-weaving on Marvel’s behalf, but the studio has reclaimed Spidey, and everyone wins because of it.
Captain America: Civil War opens Friday.