Swinging into Action: Jon Watts takes Spidey to school in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'

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Poor Spider-Man, née Peter Parker, hasn’t had much time to relax lately. Played by Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s early 2000s trilogy, he was rebooted—with Andrew Garfield in the blue and red tights—by director Marc Webb for 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and its 2014 sequel. There was time for a quick two-year catnap before Sony and Disney worked out a deal that would being Peter Parker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a supporting role in Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: Civil War. It would have been easy to get lost in the superhero shuffle, Civil War boasting as it did a main cast numbering in the double digits. Except this time around Spider-Man was played by The Impossible’s young breakout Tom Holland, who with his youthful charm managed to steal every scene he was in. And when your scene partner is Robert Downey, Jr., that’s no mean feat.

So now, fifteen years after Tobey Maguire got bitten by that radioactive spider and three years after Andrew Garfield took his last swing around New York City, Spider-Man is getting another solo adventure with another lead actor. And another director: Jon Watts, helming Spider-Man: Homecoming, in theatres July 7.

The necessary question for a character that’s been rebooted with such frequency over the last decade and a half is: What makes this Spider-Man different? Per Watts, the key concept this time around was to “keep him young and have it be a high-school movie.” That was perfect for Watts, who at the time he was invited to meet with Disney execs—he thought it would be “more of a general meet-and-greet sort of situation”—was already working on his own, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie. “I had been watching a bunch of movies and was really well-versed in that as a genre. So when they said Spider-Man would be a coming-of-age movie, I could immediately jump into all the tropes and the ways it would be different and the same if you had superpowers.”

For what it’s worth, “it’s definitely a lot more exciting when the high-school kid you’re making a movie about is also Spider-Man.”

You can see seeds of Watts’ high-school-heavy approach in Spider-Man: Homecoming’s trailers: Peter Parker nursing a crush on a classmate and juggling superhero derring-do with a pesky science quiz. Even the subtitle places this movie squarely within the coming-of-age arena. And then there’s the fact that Holland, 21 by the time the movie comes out, was actually in the neighborhood of high-school age when Homecoming was shot. (By comparison, Andrew Garfield was 28 when his first Spider-Man movie opened, Tobey Maguire a youthful 27.) “It was important to get kids that are actually kids,” says Watts of his casting process. “Having actual teenagers. Because you can really tell the difference between a 15-year-old and a 25-year-old playing a 15-year-old.”

Getting Holland was a coup for the MCU, his background as a dancer—he first garnered critical attention playing the lead in Billy Elliot the Musical—lending itself perfectly to Parker’s aerial acrobatics. Watts can’t take credit for Holland being chosen, as that was a Russo Brothers call; Watts recalls that he and Holland were hired “basically the same day.” But “if there was any question or hesitation” about whether Holland would have been his choice for the role, “it went away when I saw his screen test, and then when I saw him and Downey.”

“[His] physicality is really impressive,” Watts continues. “Not just being able to do the stunts, but performing with his whole body. So when he’s wearing the mask, he’s really giving an incredible performance. He told me he took a class to prepare that was called ‘Acting Without Your Face,’ where you have to communicate all of these complex emotions just through your body language. And he does it perfectly. He’s so good at keeping the character alive that it became a problem, where we can’t really have a stuntman do any of that stuff, or a double, because Tom brings so much to the performance that you can tell immediately. You’re like, ‘Something about that doesn’t feel right.’”

Watts is no stranger to working with younger actors. He even jokes that his brand has become “putting kids in danger.” In his first film, the horror outing Clown, a loving father (Andy Powers) is possessed by a demon that compels him to eat children. But it was 2015’s Cop Car, about two boys who take a joyride in a cop car they don’t know belongs to a corrupt sheriff (Kevin Bacon), that got Watts the Spider-Man gig. Initially sporting a fun, ’80s-esque Amblin vibe, Cop Car dips its toes into darker and darker waters so gradually that it almost comes as a shock at the end, when the lights come up, just how grim the movie’s gotten. Watts recalls going to festival screenings and “walk[ing] in like twenty minutes before the end, when it really started to get intense,” so he could see people’s reactions.

In Cop Car and Clown both, good things happen to bad people. Who’s to say whether Spider-Man: Homecoming also gets grim—at the time I interviewed Watts, he was still working on postproduction—but Watts does admit that the coming-of-age films that he personally likes are “a little bit darker and weirder. I love Welcome to the Dollhouse. That feels the most like what middle school actually felt like. There’s a really great French-Canadian movie called Léolo [by Jean-Claude Lauzon]. It’s a very strange, surreal movie about a kid growing up. And then The 400 Blows was the beginning of it all.” Fellow favorites are Say Anything and Almost Famous, both of which have “a Cameron Crowe sweetness that I always really responded to.”

Watts is also a fan of Paul Feig’s short-lived cult classic “Freaks and Geeks”—fittingly, as one cast member, John Francis Daley, has a screenwriting credit on Homecoming, and another, Martin Starr, plays a teacher at Peter Parker’s school. (Lindsay Weir herself, Linda Cardellini, is already part of the MCU as Hawkeye’s wife Laura Barton. No word on whether Watts was able to convince Disney execs to let her character take a day trip into the Big Apple.) High up on the list of Watts’ inspirations is the mid-’90s’ “My So-Called Life,” a grungier, more grounded alternative to the more glammed-up teen dramas that would follow in the aughts. “‘My So-Called Life’ has a really similar starting point compared to Spider-Man,” says Watts. “It starts with [Angela Chase, played by Claire Danes], she’s gone to Europe with her friends and had the most amazing time in the world, and felt like an adult. And then had to come back to high school.”

Watts stresses that Spider-Man: Homecoming, though it does “go to a massive scale and scope,” does so through a “much more grounded lens” than other Marvel movies. “That’s just a key component to Peter Parker the character. He’s the most relatable superhero because he’s just a regular kid. He’s filled with self-doubt, and he’s never really sure if he’s doing the right thing. Nothing ever really works out perfectly for him. That’s what makes you love him.”

The wider world of Homecoming, too, is more “ground level” than, say, Age of Ultron, Thor or the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. (Literally, in the last two examples, as they take place in outer space.) “We’ve seen what it’s like to be a billionaire playboy. We’ve seen what it’s like to be a demigod. But I was really interested in how things would work on a ground level, on the criminal side. What does the lower-level crime look like in a world where the Avengers exist?” ponders Watts. That’s by no means the focus of Homecoming. It’s rather a “raw concept” that Watts, who was part of the screenwriting process from the beginning, integrates into the film: “You open up a very ripe universe for future stories without having it be a specific seed that’s going to grow into something later.”

Something else Watts and his screenwriting cohorts worked into Homecoming: Easter eggs. “I love hiding little treasures in the movie for people to find. There’s no better place to do it than in a superhero movie.” (An eagle-eyed Twitterer already spotted one: A car seen in the trailer has the license plate “SM2-0653.” The first comics appearance of the supervillain Vulture, played in Homecoming by Michael Keaton, was in “Amazing Spider-Man #2,” published May 1963.)

One thing you won’t see in Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter Parker’s origin story. With Spider-Man already having been introduced in Civil War, suited up and ready to go, there’s no need for Watts to go back and cover material that’s been beaten into the cultural consciousness through sheer repetition. Radioactive spider. Dead uncle. “With great power comes great responsibility.” You know the drill.

“That was another ‘Thank you, Russos’”—the first was casting Holland in the first place—“for the way they set that up,” says Watts. “It really frees you up to show people new things.” Apart from the burden of having to put a new twist on something we’ve already seen, “it’s a really heavy, sad origin story. If you’re going to tell it, you can’t rush through it, because you want it to have the emotional impact. But then that becomes the whole story. So by meeting Spider-Man already in progress, that opens up new possibilities for me to just sort of have fun with that.”