There is something intrinsically youthful about the Spider-Man character to Jon Watts. He can personally recall when, in the second grade, his mother first bought him a Marvel Try-out book starring the wall-crawler and Doctor Octopus. He imagines that association of Spidey with childhood memories is universal, whether it be from the equivalent of an old Marvel coloring book or this month’s highly anticipated Spider-Man: Homecoming. Either way, the character just appeals to all ages, thanks in large part to artist Steve Ditko’s original sleek design.
“I think there’s something about him you just can’t help but like when you’re a little kid,” Watts muses during our one-on-one interview. “Because you’re like, ‘He’s like me!’ There’s just something about the design of his face that is so approachable as a little kid. I think there is just something undeniable about just the core design of Spider-Man.”
Perhaps that is what made the jump to blockbusters so easy for Watts since, in many ways, he is continuing to color and design Spidey’s adventures with Spider-Man: Homecoming. The picture carries the monumental weight of being the first Spider-Man movie to be produced by Marvel Studios after a complicated deal was negotiated with Sony Pictures to make it happen. Yet Watts is taking the reins of directing and co-writing duties on the project after only one previous movie: the terrific, but little seen, crime comedy-drama, Cop Car. Still the secret for reimagining another cinematic Spider-Man was, for Watts and Marvel, the naturalness with which the character fits into the studio’s cinematic universe.
It’s an element none of the previous Spidey movies could have and for the Homecoming director, it’s one of the defining characteristics.
“He was created, like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him, to give a different perspective on the superhero universe,” Watts says while considering the character’s early comic book history. For example, the very first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1963 featured Peter Parker recklessly attempting to join the Fantastic Four, much as how Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is overeager to become a fulltime Avenger in Spider-Man: Homecoming. So while Watts confides that he compartmentalized the pressure of the project, lest “I freak myself out,” he found it natural to focus on the storytelling opportunities presented by working within the MCU.
Watts says, “So you go back and read the old books and you’re reminded, ‘Oh that’s why Spider-Man jumped out so much when he was originally introduced.’ He was giving a regular guy’s perspective on this crazy world. As soon as that clicked in for me, I felt like that was such a clear viewpoint to drive everything.”
Hence why the director found fitting into the MCU, and within the parameters traditionally associated with Marvel Studios, surprisingly easy. There have been stories in the press over the years of some directors not being as keen on joining the MCU, but Watts dismisses feeling any sort of creative limitations. To the contrary, his movie actually has the narrative drive of Peter Parker desperately wanting to be a member of the Avengers, but finding Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) will let his his assistant constantly run interference, so as to reduce Pete’s facetime with the invincible Iron Man. As a result, Spidey feels like an outsider looking in at the MCU, which allowed Watts to build even bigger castles inside this sandbox.
“You just expect to hit a wall or for someone to say ‘no’ or be like ‘you must do this,’” Watts says. “And weirdly, that never happened. Like I might be benefitting from Spider-Man really wants to be a part of the bigger world and he’s not really let in yet.”
He adds, “I had my own ideas about just the visual concept of the movie, but it was important that it didn’t seem like it was from a completely different universe. Because for me, the whole thing was the original intent, which is to show like a different perspective on this universe. So I wanted it to feel like it did fit in and try to make my mark on the film in that way.”
Hence the very opening of the movie, which is a new vantage of Peter Parker’s small role in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, except now told via the web-head’s own selfie videos. It’s the same world, but one informed by an exuberant Holland and that familiar, overexcited relatability.
Also to bring out that youthfulness, much has been made in press materials about this movie evoking a “John Hughes movie,” which for the most part is associated with the teen movies of the 1980s like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. However, there is also a palpable snappiness to how Holland interacts with his younger co-stars, including Zendaya and Jacob Batalon, that feels a little more current. That too is by design.
Says Watts, “I think John Hughes is an amazing filmmaker and writer, and I think the term ‘John Hughes’ gets used by a very specific generation to just refer to high school movies, because that’s their high school movie. Like when I think of high school, I think of Chicago high schools [where Hughes movies are set] before I think of my own high school! Because those were mainly the high school movies I saw. But if you were a little bit younger, you think more of You Can’t Hardly Wait or 10 Things I Hate About You, or Clueless. It’s like an eternal genre in that way; there’s always going to be teenagers. So yeah, capturing that spirit was really important to me.”
That slight change in perspective also can relate to how the Vulture was developed for the film. While in the comics, the Vulture was a near elderly man of exaggerated, rarified airs, the one Michael Keaton plays in the movie is decidedly more blue collar. He also is reminiscent of authority figures from those high school movies, kind of like a deadlier school principal who means it when he says don’t mess with the bull or you’ll get the horns.
Watts still points out that Keaton’s Vulture is similar to the comic book one in that he is “an older guy getting screwed over in some way,” but he found it compelling to emphasize at a greater degree the generational contrasts between Holland’s Peter and Keaton’s Adrian Toomes.
“I thought if we’re going to make Spider-Man be the ground level superhero, let’s figure out what a ground level supervillain would look like,” the director says. “Like if we wanted to show a regular kid who gets these powers and becomes a superhero, what if a regular guy gets the ability to be a supervillain? And so that’s the main thing Michael and I talked about: How do you ground this guy in the universe and how do you make him be a believable guy at the beginning of the story, so it doesn’t feel cartoonish or too arch in that way.”
The result is not just the induction of a great Spider-Man into the MCU, but one of its better villains. Indeed, both Watts and this writer think the best scene in the movie is just one where Keaton and Holland break things down for each other via dialogue, as opposed to fists.
“That makes me so happy in this big, crazy, action-packed superhero movie, that the most dramatic scene could be almost that,” Watts says.
And audiences will get their chance to see for themselves when Spider-Man and the Vulture square off in theaters on Friday, July 7.