The Chinese Had One Note on Spider-Man

Tony Vinciquerra and Tom Rothman
Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
May 1, 2022

Here’s a crazy anecdote: Back at the end of 2021, Sony Pictures was stressing over whether Chinese regulators would allow Spider-Man: No Way Home into the country. The previous two Tom Holland Spideys, produced by Marvel Studios, had grossed $116 million and $200 million in China, respectively. So getting the film in, despite all the recent rejections of big-budget U.S. tentpoles, was a top priority for Sony’s leaders, Tony Vinciquerra and Tom Rothman.  

According to multiple sources, when the authorities got back to Sony, they had a request: Delete the Statue of Liberty from the ending of the film. Yes, seriously. As anyone who’s seen No Way Home knows, the entire climactic action sequence takes place with a trio of Spider-Men swinging over and around Lady Liberty as they battle the supervillains. Plus, without getting too into MCU plot points, the Statue plays a larger role in the Marvel movies. It was an outrageous ask.  

But… as is familiar to anyone who has debated censoring films for China, cuts often equal money. And Rothman loves money—this is a guy who projected a giant $3.3 billion figure, representing Sony’s recent box office gross, behind him during his Cinemacon presentation this week. Still, to Rothman’s credit, Sony immediately said no. (The studio declined to comment.) 

But the Chinese weren’t done. Then they asked if the Statue could simply be minimized in the sequence: if Sony could cut a few of the more patriotic shots of Holland standing atop the crown, or dull the lighting so that Lady Liberty’s visage wasn’t so front-and-center. Sony thought about this request, per my sources, but ultimately passed, knowing that it almost certainly meant forfeiting that potentially massive China payday. Could the studio have made the changes? Maybe, but the move would have caused a media firestorm in the U.S. and elsewhere. Plus, even with the alterations, there was no guarantee that No Way Home would get into the country, and even if it did, U.S. films just aren’t doing as well in China as they once did. Pretty easy decision.   

This is a trend, I’m hearing. The egregious examples of studios acquiescing to Chinese requests—the Red Dawn villains changed from Chinese to North Koreans, the Transformers sequence altered so the Chinese are the first responders—are becoming the rare exceptions rather than the norm. Now that the market isn’t as lucrative, and acceptance by regulators isn’t as common, there’s less incentive to do their bidding. Plus, studios must consider the rising anti-China political sentiment in the U.S. 

Remember, Sony also backed Quentin Tarantino’s refusal to omit the sequence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that features Bruce Lee. Of course, Sony ended up doing fine with that movie, and especially fine with No Way Home, which has grossed $1.9 billion (and counting) even without the company embarrassing itself to please China.