‘Challengers’ Writer Justin Kuritzkes Calls ‘Spider-Verse’ Line a ‘Nod’ to Zendaya and Sony’s Amy Pascal | Video

As Zendaya’s star rises in the wake of “Dune: Part Two” and now “Challengers,” the tennis film reminds viewers that she also has Marvel’s “Spider-Man” franchise with Tom Holland under her belt.

“Challengers” watches Zendaya play a fierce and ambitious woman whose career-stopping injury puts her in the position of coaching her professional tennis-playing husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). Strategizing, she decides that a low-stakes Challenger tournament in New Rochelle might get some of Art’s mojo back — but things get complicated when the washed-up Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) takes the wild card slot to try and qualify for the U.S. Open. Patrick dated Tashi when she was in college at Stanford alongside Art, who used to play doubles with Patrick when they went to boarding school.

A line in the film calls to mind the actress’ rendition of “MJ,” aka Michelle in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her character Tashi’s daughter Lily (A.J. Lister) asks if they can watch “Spider-Verse” together one night.

“She was always supposed to be watching a movie,” writer Justin Kuritzkes told TheWrap at the Los Angeles premiere of the film. “It was not originally ‘Spider-Verse,’ but that’s a nod to Zendaya and to Amy [Pascal] who produces the Spider-Man movies. I’m almost positive that was Luca’s idea.”

Kuritzkes praised director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name,” “Bones and All”) for taking the script to the next level cinematically.

“Luca brings so much to any film. He’s one of those people who speaks the language of cinema fluently. It’s really in his bones,” Kuritzkes said. “So immediately when I started working with Luca, knowing that he was going to be the director, I was trying to think about how we could take this thing that was at first meant to just exist on a page and make the reader try to visualize the movie, and all of a sudden make it something that was going to be done by real people.”

“And the realest person at the start of that process is the director, so it was really about making space for Luca within the script so that he could get what he needed creatively out of it,” the writer added.

Kuritzkes cited his inspiration for the script as having watched an intense showdown between tennis greats Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams in 2019 at the Rogers Cup Quarterfinal. Williams received a penalty in the match based on attempted coaching from the sidelines, which proved controversial. Kuritzkes had never heard of this rule, which planted the seed for the story — in which tennis is made even higher stakes because of the love triangle at the center.

“I knew a little bit about what was going to happen, but most of what I knew was I just saw this image of these three people on a tennis court, and I was really asking myself, ‘why are they all looking at each other, like this matters more than Wimbledon?’” Kuritzkes said. “’Why are they looking at each other with all this tension and all this history? What’s going on?’ And so I was really just trying to fill in the blanks of that. So I surprised myself a lot throughout writing it.”

“Challengers” is now in theaters.

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