How Marvel and Sony have sold the third entry in the web-slinging franchise
Spider-Man: No Way Home arrives in theaters this week at the end of what can easily and legitimately be described as a weird year for Hollywood and the entertainment industry. At the beginning of 2021, Covid-19 vaccines were only just beginning to become widely available and many new movies were still going straight to streaming or VOD if they weren’t being delayed indefinitely.
Now the theatrical release picture has gone back to something approaching pre-2020 normal, including how only franchise blockbusters seem to score any level of success at the box office. But there are headwinds building, including new Covid variants, that could skew things going forward.
Into all this comes the third film in Sony’s third (or fourth depending on if you count Into The Spider-Verse) Spider-Man franchise. Tom Holland returns as Spider-Man/Peter Parker, as does Zendaya as Michelle “MJ” Jones-Watson and Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds.
The story revolves around Parker turning to Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to undo the revealing of his identity as Spider-Man that occurred at the end of the last movie. But when the spell goes wrong a rift in the fabric of the universe occurs, leading to intrusions on the MCU Spider-Verse by characters from Sony’s previous two Spider-Man series.
announcement and casting
In late summer of 2019, well before the movie actually moved into production, the press was dominated by reports that the tenuous partnership between Sony and Disney that had allowed Spider-Man to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had fallen apart. Both sides blamed the other, saying parts of the deal had been reneged on and a new agreement was impossible to reach that would allow the crossover to continue.
Things seemed destined to go back to their pre-2016 status quo, with Spidey unconnected from the MCU until Holland himself exerted pressure on the heads of both studios, making the fan outpouring clear to them, resulting in a new deal that would at the very least allow for a resolution to the character’s arc within the MCU instead of an abrupt, unexplained exit.
In October reports emerged that Cumberbatch would be reprising his role as Doctor Strange in the film.
Sony moved the movie by a month on the release schedule in July of last year while the Covid-19 pandemic was still causing massive disruptions. In September it raised a lots of eyebrows with the news Jamie Foxx was returning as Electro, a role he played in 2014’s Spider-Man 2 with Andrew Garfield,
Production was underway, as marked by Holland in a timely mask-related post, in November of 2020.
Additional casting news came fast and furious in December of last year, when Molina, Stone, Garfield, Dunst and Maguire were all reported to be coming back, lending credence to the rumors this movie was going full multiverse.
Zendaya spoke briefly about the movie late last year when doing publicity for other projects.
In February speculation as to the movie’s official title came to head when Holland, Zendaya and Batalon all shared a few new stills along with totally fake-out title cards, a planned stunt to get fans talking and sharing. It all culminated when Sony shared a video featuring the three leaving Watts’ office frustrated by his refusal to share the title of the film, only to walk past a white board with that title written on it along with a handful of rejected contenders.
Molina confirmed in April he was returning as Doctor Octopus, but Andrew Garfield in May denied he was involved saying he hadn’t been contacted by anyone about the project.
The movie, along with other upcoming MCU entries, was name-checked in the “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video from early May.
marketing phase one: spectacular
The first good look at the characters, including hints as to what the story may involve, came when Marvel released photos of some of the toys and collectibles in early July.
The trailer leaked in mid-August, causing Sony to go through the paces to try and have it taken down from the various places it popped up.
When it was finally released by both Marvel and Sony (107.5m combined views on YouTube), it shows Peter is still dealing with the fallout of the last movie, including police suspicion he killed Mysterio. With his secret identity now public, he goes to see Doctor Strange to see if anything can be done about that. But Strange’s spell to reverse what happened goes awry – in part because of Peter’s nervous meddling – it opens up a portal to the multiverse. That means there are glimpses of characters like Green Goblin, Electro and, dramatically at the end, Doctor Octopus.
Sony addressed that leak as it showed off the trailer and other footage to attendees of CinemaCon in August.
A first TV spot from the day after the trailer came out touted how successful it had been as measured by both video views and social media conversations generated.
Cumberbatch talked about what the story has in store for Peter and Stephen when he appeared at the Telluride Film Festival to promote some of the other films he had being screened there.
As Garfield was doing the media rounds for his other projects he kept being asked whether or not he was appearing in this movie, consistently denying any cameos had been filmed.
The release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage in September included conversation about this movie because of a mid-credits sequence that hinted at Eddie Brock/Venom, played by Tom Hardy, finally meeting Spider-Man in this film because of multiverse craziness.
Holland talked more here about what it was like to finish the trilogy with Watts as well as how he was super-excited to work with Molina. Around the same time a profile of Zendaya covered her experience on this franchise as well as her other recent work. More stills were released in an Empire cover story that had Watts talking about overcoming the seemingly impossible task of assembling so much of the talent from all the previous films.
marketing phase two: amazing
The first poster wasn’t released until early November, over two months after the trailer came out. It’s surprisingly restrained for this franchise but still shows a lot, including Spider-Man balancing on one of Doc Ock’s arms while Green Goblin is seen in the background along with hints of Sandman and Electro’s involvement.
The next one-sheet came out just a week later, this one showing Spider-Man huddled with Doctor Strange against the encroaching enemies.
More small hints and comments came from Cumberbatch on “Kimmel” in November during the press cycle for The Power of the Dog.
The official trailer (58m YouTube views from Sony) came out in mid-November. This one skips some of the setup about Peter wanting to make everyone forget his super hero identity and gets straight to the incoming threats from the multiverse. After the challenges become clear, Peter learns that all these villains die in their home universe, something he’s determined to prevent before closing the rifts and sending everyone back. Doctor Strange isn’t on board with that, but Peter and his friends won’t be stopped.
Sony held events screening that trailer in various cities, with Holland showing up at a couple of them to get fans even more excited.
The star was profiled in GQ, sharing some thoughts about this movie as well as what he sees for the future of Spider-Man on film.
At this time Liberty Mutual began running a cross-promotional campaign that worked the idea of Spider-Man saving the city into the company’s commercials about saving people money and hassle. There were also commercials from Hyundai that showed Peter getting picked up by Ned in the middle of nowhere as he tries to clear his name.
More TV spots were released that cut down the message of the second trailer to a shorter runtime while still conveying the multiverse nature of the story and the attendant villains.
Tickets going on sale was announced by the cast in a Fandango video on what was called “Spider Monday,” the Monday after Thanksgiving. Another video had Foxx joining Holland. AMC Theaters promised those buying advance tickets a free “eco-friendly” Spider-Man NFT.
An interview with producer Amy Pascal, who’s been involved with the franchise since she was the head of Sony Pictures, had her confirming there will be future Spider-Man movies, that those will be made in cooperation with Marvel Studios and that Holland wasn’t quite done with the suit yet.
The IMAX poster released at the end of November shows Spidey swinging through a distorted cityscape, hinting at how the universe is unraveling because of what’s happened. The Dolby poster shows him swinging through the city, this time upside down.
Lots of different elements are brought together on the theatrical poster, which has Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and MJ at the center of a twisted reality vortex as the various villains swirl around them. Electro, Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus all got individual posters as well.
Just leaving these here.
Two movie-inspired costumes were added to the Spider-Man video game from Insomniac.
At CCXP in early December there were a couple promotional moments, including a video of Molina, Dafoe and Foxx together talking about the legacy of their characters and working together for the first time, at least in this series, and how production technology has changed since the last time they suited up.
G Fuel released a commercial for its cross-promotional campaign, including new drink flavors and movie-branded cans and packaging.
Holland talked about the movie on “Late Night.” In another interview he cast more doubt on his future in the series while also reflecting on his involvement as being one of growth and enjoyment.
Liberty Mutual came back to the campaign to sponsor Daily Bugle newsstands in New York City filled with newspapers that had Spider-Man pictures and news.
A video of the Paris kickoff to the cast’s press tour was released.
An ESPN commercial that had fun with some of the rumors circulating around the movie and its cast was part of a larger element of the campaign focused on what was or wasn’t known. That included the cast discussing fan theories amongst themselves and then later asking those who had begun seeing the movie not to spoil anything for those who hadn’t yet.
Holland, Zendaya and Batalon all appeared on “GMA” to promote the movie while those three were joined by Cumberbatch for an appearance on “Kimmel.” Marisa Tomei showed up on “Late Night” by herself, though.
Literally everyone, including Marvel’s Kevin Feige and costars Tomei, J.K. Simmons, Jon Favreau, turned out for the red carpet world premiere. Even Jared Leto, who stars in the upcoming Morbius, was there. That event was sponsored by Hyundai and TikTok, which had been a major promotional platform for the movie to date, offering clips, filters, stickers and more. It even released its own commercial touting the features.
PlayStation put out a clip showing the disagreement between Peter and Strange that causes some of the story’s conflict.
One more video of the cast warning against spoiling the movie came out right at the end of the campaign.
First: We have to address the very last part of the campaign, the one where the cast of the film was enlisted in the War Against Spoilers. While I get that there are a lot of plot twists and surprising characters, the entire premise of the story is that the multiverse is coming together, which means that anything is possible. So learning that X has been cast as a character they played previously isn’t exactly an outlandish statement that can upend one’s enjoyment of the film.
Second: You have to love how the three leads – Holland, Zendaya and Batalon – have seemingly formed this tight knit group over the course of three movies. Putting them all together in various components of the campaign, from the title announcement to press appearances and other videos, only works because they’ve clearly bonded and are now a family, with an easy rapport that makes the banter believable.
Third: Everyone needs to get their stories straight regarding Tom Holland’s future in the Spider-Man series. He seems to be pulling a Daniel Craig-esque “Yeah, I had a good run but I’m done” move while Pascal and Fiege are trying to pull him back in. The latter may just be marketing positioning by the executives who don’t want to blow up audience expectations, but then someone needs better media training.
Fourth: If you are brining back Willem Dafoe but also still putting him behind a mask that doesn’t allow for his natural expressiveness to come through, you’re doing it wrong. But am I right in understanding that the one villain from the Holland movies still alive – Michael Keaton’s Vulture – isn’t in this while almost all the villains from the other series are? OK I guess…
Fifth: I forgot what this was going to be.
Sixth: The campaign has a lot going for it but it might actually be too much. While super hero movies tend to be plot-heavy this feels excessively so. Still, it gave us this extremely relatable Doctor Strange GIF so it wins on points.
Finally: While the reviews have been generally positive and anticipation for the movie seems high, it’s hard to believe the $150m opening weekend projections will wind up being accurate. We’re fully in the midst of a Covid-19 surge (thanks, everyone refusing to get vaccinated!) that is already causing Broadway shows to close, sports teams to cancel games and more. It might be big, but it won’t be that big. And if it is, it might be the last one to reach that mark for a little while here, at least until the spring.