“Sounded Like An In-Joke”: Challengers’ Spider-Man Reference Explained By Director


  • Zendaya’s appearance in the
    trilogy is slyly referenced in
    , adding a fun Easter egg for fans to enjoy.
  • Director Luca Guadagnino chose
    as a movie within the film, creating an unintentional connection to Zendaya.
  • The inclusion of the
    reference was not a deliberate inside joke but rather a coincidence guided by the unconscious.

Director Luca Guadagnino accidentally inserted an inside joke into Zendaya’s Challengers. Zendaya famously starred in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man trilogy, where she played the clever student MJ. Challengers is fairly removed from the Spider-Man trilogy, as it follows three tennis prodigies rather than a super-powered hero swinging through New York City. The R-rated movie has a reference to Zendaya’s previous role, however, as one character watches Spider-Verse during the movie.

While the Spider-Man reference is a fun nod to Challengers‘ impressive cast, the inclusion was actually completely unintentional. In an interview with EW, Guadagnino explained that he was merely looking for a movie already available through their producer. He happened to choose Spider-Verse, viewing it as something that a typical girl might watch. By sheer coincidence, it tied into Zendaya’s previous work. Check out his full explanation below:

When you get rights for something to be used in a movie, it’s very complicated. Amy Pascal, our amazing producer, was of help there. I said, ‘Amy, can we use one of your catalog titles so it’s going to be easier to clear them?’ [Lily]’s a girl; she’s not going to choose to watch
The Social Network
The Post
, but maybe she’s going to watch a Spider-Man cartoon, so I said, ‘Why not
?’ Now I realize that it sounded like an in-joke, which, you know, the unconscious guides us all the time.

Zendaya’s Career Has Been Impressive

MJ Is Just One Of Zendaya’s Stand-Out Roles

Zendaya has a long history of starring in beloved IPs that have taken the forefront of popular culture. She began her career as the co-lead of Shake It Up and went on to star in Euphoria, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Greatest Showman, Dune, Space Jam: A Legacy, and now Challengers. She even appeared in Dancing with the Stars and finished as the runner-up. It is an impressive career made more interesting by the fact that her first on-screen TV or movie role came in 2010, meaning that all of her work has come in relatively short succession.

Zendaya’s Top Movies

Worldwide Box Office

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

$1.9 billion

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

$1.1 billion

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

$880 million

Dune: Part Two (2024)

$700 million

Dune (2021)

$430 million

The Greatest Showman (2017)

$430 million

Joining the cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017 propelled Zendaya’s career to new heights, and she has been dominating the box office ever since. Challengers is Zendaya’s latest movie and has already become the top movie of the weekend, despite the tennis drama having an R-rating. Though, its $15 million weekend pales in comparison to her previous projects. Two of Zendaya’s Spider-Man movies have earned over $1 billion at the box office, and her Dune movies each earned over $400 million. The first, which earned $430 million, likely would have more if not for the tumultuous pandemic box office.


Challengers Review: Zendaya’s Sexy Tennis Drama Is As Thrilling As Any Action Blockbuster

Challengers is visceral, exhilarating, & sexy: power dynamics shift with the force of tectonic plates & tennis matches are staged like action scenes.

Even if the effect was unintentional, acknowledging Zendaya’s previous movies was an excellent way to reference her impressive career. The movie’s entire plot centers on her character, so the subtle nod helps to acknowledge just how much of a box office draw Zendaya is becoming. Guadagnino may not have meant to nod to the Marvel Spider-Man movies, but the Challengers reference is still a clever acknowledgment.

Source: EW

Challengers Poster


Challengers is a romantic sports comedy film by director Luca Guadagnino. The film stars Zendaya as a retired Tennis legend who, while trying to coach her husband and lead him to victory in an upcoming Tennis match, discovers his coming opponent is her ex-lover.

Luca Guadagnino

Release Date
April 26, 2024

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer , Pascal Pictures

Amazon MGM Studios

Justin Kuritzkes

Zendaya , Josh O’Connor , Mike Faist