The superhero franchise’s latest instalment gleefully delves into the web-slinger's backstory. We speak to the latest director to tackle the tale of Peter Parker
The Spider-Man web widens with Homecoming
Spider-Man has been a Hollywood staple for the past 15 years. After Sam Raimi’s trilogy (2002 to 2007), starring Tobey Maguire as Marvel Comics’ web-slinging superhero, the character was rebooted and his origin story retold by director Marc Webb and star Andrew Garfield, across two movies (2010 and 2014). So you could forgive director Jon Watts for feeling a little trepidation at approaching the character a third time in the new movie Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Fortunately Watts, whose only previous feature films were low-budget efforts Clown and Cop Car, had a helping hand. Played by young British actor Tom Holland, Spider-Man and his high-school-kid alter ego Peter Parker were introduced last year by directors Anthony and Joe Russo in a glorified – and glorious – cameo in Captain America: Civil War. Recruited by Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), this acrobatic adolescent got to hang out with Marvel’s Avengers heroes.
Already, this put Watts in a good position. “The hardest thing is the origin story, because it’s such a heavy story and it takes such a long time to do it justice,” he says. “It’s nice to have to not kill another Uncle Ben.”
Indeed, when Spider-Man: Homecoming starts, Parker’s tragic loss of his uncle is already in the past; he’s now living in New York with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and the film begins by briefly recounting his trip to Berlin with Iron Man to fight
At the heart of Homecoming is Parker’s relationship with Stark, who rather unceremoniously dumps him back in Queens after the events of Civil War, leaving him to kick his heels fighting neighbourhood crime.
“He [Stark] didn’t realise by recruiting this kid that now suddenly he was going to be looking up to him all the time, and looking for advice,” says Watts, 36. “I don’t think he’s ever sought out someone to mentor, and this has fallen into Tony’s lap and now he has to deal with that.”
Watts notes this is “the side of Tony Stark that you’ve never really seen before”, but what really makes Homecoming work is Parker’s almost cherubic innocence.
As the title hints, the film builds towards his school’s prom, with our hero tongue-tied in front of fellow pupil Liz (Laura Harrier). Watts perfectly captures the growing pains of teenage years, notably when Parker and his friend Ned (the hilarious Jacob Batalon) go to Liz’s party as the uncool outsiders.
More than once Watts uses the word “fun” talking about Homecoming, a feeling that runs through its DNA.
“If you were that old and you had those [superhero] abilities, that would be the greatest thing in the world,” he says. “Yes, there would be problems and there would be stress. But more than anything else, you would be so excited. So I wanted to make sure we captured the fun of being a superhero, and Tom brings so much exuberance to the role, you can’t help but be excited watching him be excited.”
Despite Watts being one of six credited writers on the film, it doesn’t suffer from too many cooks. The humour, action and romance blend perfectly (with a lively score led by The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop). The set pieces are stunning – with scenes on the Washington Monument, the Staten Island Ferry and alongside Coney Island fairground all memorable.
Spidey is forced to face off against Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), also known as The Vulture – an enterprising criminal who has been selling alien-tech weapons on the black market.
The film’s biggest asset is Holland. Famously, his own abilities at performing somersaults and the like – all of which can be glimpsed on YouTube – helped him win the role. “Everything is him in some way,” Watts says. “Only very rarely was there a stunt that was way too dangerous for him. We did as much as we could with him on wires and harnesses, and even the things we couldn’t do with him, [such as] climbing up the Washington Monument, it’s his motion-capture performance. He was very, very sore by the end of the movie.”
Pitting Holland’s callow Spider-Man against Keaton’s grizzled Toomes is also a masterstroke. Previous incarnations of the character have seen him combat the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman and Venom, but Watts wanted a more-regular villain. “The Vulture really lent himself to that kind of a character.” The character from the comics gets betrayed by his business partner; this time, it’s the government clamping down on his operations, “a way to stay true to the spirit of the original character”.
Casting Keaton – who not only played DC Comics’ Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, but then riffed on the superhero universe in Birdman – was also a smart move. The veteran star is on a roll right now (especially after playing Machiavellian McDonald's man Ray Kroc in The Founder) and he’s fearsome in Homecoming, his confrontations with Spider-Man adding a real sense of danger to the film.
Hard-core Marvel fans will be delighted that, finally, Spider-Man has been reintegrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the Raimi and Webb films were unable to do this, for legal reasons). According to Watts, it’s what Marvel’s Stan Lee and Steve Ditko wanted when they first created the character, “to give a younger, fresher perspective on this superhero universe that they had been building. That’s what made Spider-Man a hit right away”.
Certainly, after the test-run of Civil War, seeing Spider-Man up close with Iron Man, Captain America and the others is what every comic fan has dreamt of. Watts smartly doesn’t overdo it, either. There are just the right amount of nods to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, with the Russos now filming a two-part Avengers movie – one that will bring together Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange and others – there’s plenty more of that to come.
Watts is favourite to direct the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming, currently scheduled for July 2019, arriving just two months after the second of those now-filming Avengers movies. Can this lust for comic book movies and superheroes continue? “I think as long as everyone is trying to show people something they haven’t seen before,” says Watts. “People will always want to see that.” It’s something that he has more than achieved with Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Spider-Man: Homecoming opens in UAE cinemas today