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‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ tried to hide its lineup of villains. One leak upended a Marvel-ous strategy

A man with mechanical tentacles wearing sunglasses
Alfred Molina as Doc Ock in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
(Sony Pictures)

Originally, general audiences weren’t supposed to know about Alfred Molina’s epic return as Doc Ock until “Spider-Man: No Way Home” hit theaters.

Then people spotted the actor at a hotel in Atlanta — where the latest “Spider-Man” installment was filming — and it was game over.

“We ended up putting his picture on the poster — that wasn’t the plan,” said Sony Pictures Chief Executive Tom Rothman, gesturing to a giant character poster of Molina as the tentacled villain at the film’s world premiere. (Molina’s menacing “Hello, Peter” wasn’t supposed to be in the trailer either. But here we are.)

“We friggin’ tried to tell him to wear a hood out of his hotel. I mean, they were closed sets, but it was impossible. People ... just put two and two together.”

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Once the octopus was out of the bag, other major casting reveals followed. Next came Willem Dafoe, who starred opposite Molina in director Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” trilogy as Green Goblin. By then, Jamie Foxx had already been confirmed to reappear as Electro — Spidey’s nemesis from Marc Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man 2" — and soon Rhys Ifans’ Lizard from “The Amazing Spider-Man” and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman from “Spider-Man 3" were thrown into the sinister mix.

Ahead of Monday’s premiere screening in Westwood, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” producer Amy Pascal said the studio initially wanted to keep all of the returning foes a secret. But ultimately it decided to openly advertise the nostalgic comebacks — just one of many ways “No Way Home” pays homage to the previous Spider-Man sagas.

A man crouching in a red and blue Spider-Man suit
Tom Holland as Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
(Matt Kennedy / Sony Pictures)

Directed by Jon Watts, the third entry in the Tom Holland trilogy sees the lives of Peter, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) spiral into mayhem after Spider-Man is unmasked and a multiverse — chock-full of familiar faces from alternate timelines — is accidentally unleashed.

That’s where the long-spoiled appearances from Molina, Dafoe and company come into play.

“Whatever lengths we went to [contain spoilers], we failed,” Rothman said.

But certainly not for lack of trying: Dafoe recalled the intense “cloak and dagger” routine he was required to follow and “didn’t mind doing” while shooting the Spidey sequel. (The veteran character actor first faced off against Tobey Maguire’s web-slinger in 2002’s “Spider-Man.”)

“The second you got out of a car at the studio, they’d throw a black cloak over you,” Dafoe said on the red carpet. “Any time you were wearing the costume, it was covered when we went from soundstage to soundstage. It was pretty serious. ... They were very careful about comings and goings.”

A man in a green suit surrounded by a vortex of dust
Green Goblin in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
(Sony Pictures)

Marvel and affiliates have been forced to employ increasingly drastic spoiler-proof measures to preserve as much suspense as possible in a cinematic universe where leaks are practically canon. Especially after the rise of social media, where hordes of rabid fans are constantly circulating convincing theories and fake material in a never-ending effort to suss out — or manifest — the next Big Plot Twist.

For example: Countless Marvel enthusiasts have fiercely speculated that Maguire and Andrew Garfield, who portrayed the titular teen hero in the “Amazing Spider-Man” films, are featured in “No Way Home” along with their adversaries — despite Holland and Garfield repeatedly claiming otherwise.

“It’s tough because everyone wants to know everything really fast, and everyone wants to be the one with the first information,” Batalon said.

“It’s definitely a tough thing to navigate, but we try our hardest to keep it away from people.”

Who are the villains in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”? How many Peter Parkers will we see? Is Doctor Strange OK? And more MCU questions.

And even with the villains unveiled in its marketing and rampant speculation online about what other actors may appear, “No Way Home” still packs plenty of surprises in its trilogy-capping narrative. Without giving too much away, the talent, screenwriters and executives all agreed that Watts went above and beyond mere stunt cameos to honor earlier iterations of the webslinging franchise while still spinning a fresh adventure for Holland’s Spidey.

Visually, for instance, Watts saluted Raimi by occasionally smash-cutting to Dafoe’s face, while a standout scene from the trailer in which Zendaya’s MJ plummets backward in slow motion closely mirrors Gwen Stacey’s (Emma Stone) fatal fall in Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

“What’s really awesome is that Jon absolutely edited in those villains’ specific type of shots from their movies,” Batalon said. “He’s very meticulous like that. And Jon the greatest and the smartest, so he knows how to clearly pay respect to all of them.”

Three people staring up at something
Tom Holland as Peter Parker, left, Zendaya as MJ and Jacob Batalon as Ned in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
(Matt Kennedy)

“Jon is a true aficionado, in addition to being a terrific director in his own right,” Rothman added. “He had ... tremendous respect for Sam and Marc. ... He approaches it like a fan, and he’s a fan of those earlier movies. ... It took a director who was a real student of all of that to pull it off.”

While writing the screenplay for “No Way Home,” Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers frequently engaged in conversations with Watts about how to dodge clichés and blend elements from the various “Spider-Man” adventures in an authentic, dynamic way.

Arguably the year’s most anticipated movie had its world premiere on Monday, and fans are likely to rejoice at what’s in store.

“How do we incorporate iconic moments from the movies that don’t just feel like we are doing an empty tipping our hat?” McKenna said. “Because everyone’s gonna get really tired if we’re like, ‘Oh, how do we get the upside-down kiss?’”

“We wanted to give echoes of the other movies, pay homage, but you can’t do those moments for their own sake,” Sommers added. “They have to service the story you’re telling. ... Otherwise, it’ll feel cheap, and the audience will know it.”

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” swings into theaters Friday.


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