SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING Tom Holland on his first solo outing as the webslinger. Also: what other Tom Hollands think of the new Spider-man!
HOW A LITTLE-KNOWN DIRECTOR AND A BRITISH KID BROUGHT MARVEL’S MOST POPULAR CHARACTER BACK INTO THE FOLD
In 1988, while growing up in Fountain, Colorado, a rural swathe of the Western United States in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the future Hollywood director was given a Marvel Comics Try-out Book. It invited its readers to pencil, ink, letter and colour a Spider-man adventure, with the promise of a possible job at the publishing house if they sent off the results. Unbothered by the fact the DIY comic was already a good five years old and the winners had long since been announced, the young Watts dived in, spending hours obsessively drawing the wall-crawling hero. “That,” he says, “was my personal introduction to Spider-man.”
Ultimately, though, it was filmmaking rather than comics which dominated his creative passion. A few years later, in the early ’90s, his parents bought a new PC, which came with a CD-ROM titled Cinemania. This digital encyclopedia introduced the teenage Watts to the film criticism of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, and included postage-stampsized clips of key scenes from movies such as Chinatown, Blue Velvet and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. He was hooked. He had to know more.
Soon Watts was making regular, 60km journeys from his small town to the nearest video store. Weirdly, it was Tim Burton’s Ed Wood that made him realise he could make films of his own. “It took all the mystery and glamour away from making a movie,” says Watts, now 35. “It was like, yeah, anyone can make a movie. Just try it. Even if the gravestone wobbles.” So that’s what he did, roping friends into making films with him using a video camera, studying film at New York University, then cutting his teeth on commercials and episodes of the Onion News Network.
It was Watts’ second feature, 2015’s low-key and little-seen indie crime drama Cop Car, which pulled him into Marvel’s orbit (rather than his 2014 debut, a horror titled Clown). Despite being scraped together on an Ed-woodian shoestring, Cop Car was no Plan 9 From Outer Space. The story of two runaway pre-teens who steal the wheels of a corrupt policeman (Kevin Bacon), it’s like Blood Simple done by Amblin. “It’s unbelievably tense, unbelievably clever, unbelievably well done,” says Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige, who promptly invited Watts to what the director thought was a general ‘get to know you’ meeting. Until, out of the blue, Feige asked if he’d be interested in Spider-man. That’s when the real try-out started.
IN A RARE
example of film studios putting aside competition, the Spider-manowning Sony Pictures agreed in early 2015 to give the Disney-owned Marvel Studios creative control of one of its most lucrative properties. The friendly neighbourhood crime fighter previously played by Tobey Maguire and
Andrew Garfield would be relocated to the wider cinematic world of the Avengers.
For Feige, it has long been the classic ‘whatif?’marveldream.now,withthe agreement of Sony’s then-head Amy Pascal, he was going to introduce an all-new Spiderman in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, before giving him a stand-alone adventure. The big challenge was to make it feel fresh for audiences; not only is this the sixth Spidey film in 15 years (and the second reboot, too), but also the 16th Marvel movie since 2008. To help achieve this, Feige cast 20-year-old British actor Tom Holland, whose Civil War cameo thankfully sent audiences wild. But he also needed to find the right director.
“They told me the central concept, which was really just as simple as, ‘It’s set in a high school,’” says Watts of that first meeting. “Well, I had been writing a comingof-age movie of my own, so I’d been watching every sort of high-school movie that exists:
400 Blows, the Apu trilogy and Todd Solondz’s Welcome To The Dollhouse, in addition to [the films of] John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. I found myself very well-versed in the language they were speaking.”
Over the next few get-togethers, he presented some homemade animatics which depicted, for example, Peter wondering if his danger-detecting Spider-sense was going off or whether he was just having strange feelings because a girl he fancied walked past. He also concocted a “fake trailer mood reel” in which he cut Marvel movie clips together with scenes from high-school films (“Nick Fury yelling at you as though you’ve fallen asleep in class”). Impressed by his resourcefulness, Marvel gave Watts the job — reportedly over the more experienced likes of Jared Hess and Jonathan Levine.
When Empire first meets Watts on set in Queens, at the end of September 2016, sheltering from the New York rain on a raised platform at 75th Street-elderts Lane subway station, we wonder if he worried about taking on a character already so familiar. Wasn’t this merely a reboot of a reboot?
“If there was any feeling of that, it was immediately washed away when I started talking with the Marvel crew about what they had in mind,” he says. “And then it became,
‘Oh my God, what can’t we do?’ There are so many possibilities when you say, ‘I’m not gonna tell an origin story — I’m going to put it in this universe that already exists.’ And then when they told me about introducing him in Civil War, and how Tony Stark was gonna pluck Peter Parker out of obscurity — the eight-year-old Peter had seen Stark say, ‘I am Iron Man,’ on TV — I was like, ‘Oh, I’m so in.’ This is going to be a completely different Spider-man than anyone has ever seen before. And it’s gonna be the closest to the spirit of what Spider-man was in the first place. It’s not a reboot at all. It’s a return to where he belongs.”
Hence the title? “Right. Yes.” Watts laughs. “Oh! Did we do that on purpose?”
WHAT MOST OBVIOUSLY
marks Homecoming out from previous Spider-mans is the MCU context. “For the first time,” says Feige, “we can see the environment in which he existed in the comics.” But this isn’t just about Tom Holland sharing more scenes with Robert Downey Jr. It’s about highlighting what makes Spider-man different from other superheroes.
“The genius of [creators] Steve Ditko and Stan Lee back in the day was saying, ‘We have this world full of heroes. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a kid who’s as strong and as powerful and as noble as any of them, but still has to do his homework?’” Feige explains. “You got bits of that in the other [Spider-man] films, but you’ve never had him as young as he is in our film.”
In Homecoming, Peter is only in his second year of high school — namely Midtown High, a magnet school for high achievers in science and maths. He’s had his amazing spider-powers for less than a year, and his time is torn between impressing his first crush, occasional comic-book love interest Liz Allan (Laura Harrier), by joining her Academic Pentathlon team, and impressing his new sorta-mentor Tony Stark. “I almost feel like he’s auditioning to become an Avenger,” says Holland, when we meet in his trailer beneath the subway tracks. “And sometimes he does the wrong thing.”
The action unfurls on what Watts describes as “the ground level” of Marvel’s cinematic world. “I remember loving John C. Reilly as Corpsman Dey in Guardians Of The Galaxy,” he explains. “I wondered what his day-to-day life must be like. I’ve always thought that when I watch these huge movies. I’m like, ‘Okay, I get what all the big superheroes are doing. But what is it like for that guy?’ Homecoming became my opportunity to play with that idea.”
It’s not just ‘regular’ kid Peter Parker and his friends who live on that ground level. It’s also the film’s villain: Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture. As well as being unused in previous instalments (though rumours over the years have linked John Malkovich and, mindbogglingly, Larry David to the role) and offering Watts a “nice, back-to-basics” feel (what with the winged, elderly villain being only the second bad guy Spidey ever encountered), Toomes also provided an opportunity, as Watts puts it, “to see if you could take a regular guy and turn him into a villain”.
That guy’s “regular” job, it turns out, is cleaning up superheroes’ mess. According to co-producer Eric Hauserman Carroll, we first encounter Toomes as part of the crew repairing New York after the events of The Avengers… only to have his alien-tech-salvaging crew edged out of business by a new organisation called Damage Control (named after a Marvel mini-series from the late ’80s), just as he’s got himself into heavy debt. “That puts him in a pretty desperate situation. So with one of the trucks they’ve already loaded up, he and his crew, with the help of a character called the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), start stealing more of this exotic tech — Chitauri, Dark Elf, even some Stark stuff — to retro-fit and sell on the black market.”
This concept appealed to Michael Keaton when Marvel approached him to play Toomes. “It’s such an interesting take on a villain,” he says. “Adrian Toomes has a very strong argument to make, which is: ‘Everybody has taken theirs,
and they’re in the power position. Well, I’ve been a hard-working guy all my life. What about me?’ That gave me a good starting point.”
Even after his experiences playing Batman and Birdman, bringing the Vulture to life for bouts with an interfering young, web-slinging punk was an exhausting process for the 65-year-old. “Thomas is a tough guy to keep up with, man,” Keaton laughs. “He can go.”
HE SURE CAN.
On 1 October, Empire is invited to the Franklin K. Lane Educational Center on the Queens-brooklyn border to watch Peter Parker skip school. As only
Peter Parker could.
Today, Tom Holland is in Parker civvies rather than Spidey spandex, and stands on one side of an imposing, wrought-iron spiked fence. A crane towers overhead, with two wires stretching down from its tip to a harness beneath Holland’s costume. Poised and focused, he stretches his neck from side to side and practises a balletic jumping pose that’s a little reminiscent of Trinity from The Matrix, and certainly a reminder that this kid once played Billy Elliot on a London stage.
Watts calls action, and Holland strolls oh-so-casually towards the fence, away from the entrance of the campus, which is standing in for Midtown High. He casts a furtive look over one shoulder, then leaps, both arms and one leg raised. The crane tugs him airwards, up and over those spikes (which look no less worrying for being sheathed in foam padding) and back down the other side, into a pile of cardboard boxes and crash mats. No Spider-stuntman required.
This is the final thing which makes Homecoming different from all that’s gone before. Not only is Tom Holland the youngest actor to play Peter Parker, he’s also genuinely gymnastic. According to Feige, “Everything you see is either Tom in a suit, or Tom doing all the motion capture for what would become the suit.”
It’s been, Holland admits, a pretty brutal shoot. “I was on wires nearly every shot. Upside-down, flipping around, climbing walls, swinging, flying, all sorts.” The movie has three major action sequences, including a fight at the Washington Monument, a climactic battle on the outside of a jet screaming over New York City, and a spectacular rescue attempt involving the Staten Island Ferry, for which a four-storey, hydraulics-mounted replica set was constructed at Pinewood Atlanta Studios.
They are all, promises Watts, “big sequences with lots of moving parts”. Despite the fact he’s never done action before — “I’ve shot, like, one gunfight in Cop Car” — it sounds like he’s taking inspiration from the right sources. “I like how Spielberg directs action sequences, because you know exactly what’s going on, and they have lots of fun little mini-stories within the larger story, which is slowly escalating over time. Like the fight on the airplane in Raiders, or on the tank in Last Crusade.”
Holland may be able to go (as Keaton puts it), but today is the second-to-last day of principal photography and he’s pooped. “I’ve loved it, don’t get me wrong,” he says, chomping on a cream-cheese bagel. “But it has beat me up. The hardest thing is jumping from high places and landing in a Spidey pose. My right knee is just done. It needs a big old break, my right knee.”
DOESN’T SOUND AS
if it’s going to get much of one. In February, Holland returned as Spider-man for Avengers: Infinity War, and there’s more to come. “There’s a strategy that goes through the next four films,” says Feige, referring to Homecoming, the two Infinity War Avengers films and “whatever Spider-man: Homecoming 2 will be called”.
Not even the world-threatening antics of Thanos can stop Peter Parker’s education, it seems. Early on, Feige and his team agreed that they wanted to keep him in high school for as long as they could. “Harry Potter became the example,” he says, “though Peter’s clearly not as young as Harry was in his first film. There’s certainly a fun potential three-film structure that can be had, between sophomore, junior and senior year.”
As for Holland himself, he’s in no more of a rush to graduate. “It’s been a dream come true, man,” he enthuses. “I’ve wanted to be Spider-man since I was a little kid. You know, I even had Spider-man bedsheets.” He describes putting the full, Stark-built suit on for the first time as “a magical experience” (even if a loo-break requires a 45-minute warning) and confesses to making web-shooter noises — “Fsssewww! Fsssewww!” — behind the mask every time Spidey wrist-squirts his sticky fluids.
He also cryptically mentions an idea he’s had which, if adopted, would see him playing Peter even beyond the current four-movie plan. “Peter Parker is a character we see [in the comic books] as a 15-year-old boy and then as a 35-year-old man,” he says when Empire re-joins him in April, at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Los Angeles. “So I have an idea of what I’d like to do, and I’ve pitched it and it’s already been taken into the boardroom. It would be really cool if it pans out because it means I would be Spider-man for a very long time.”
We’ve seen a lot of Peter on screen of late, but Holland insists the character still has plenty of places to go. “By the end of the movie,” he promises, “we’re not even a third of the way through in figuring out how his powers work.”
Holland has proved himself. Jon Watts may have aced his try-out. But Spider-man himself still has plenty of growing up to do.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING IS IN CINEMAS FROM JULY 6.
Bash machine: Spider-man surveys the ATM carnage. Below left: Producer Kevin Feige and Holland love hearing Robert Downey Jr’s jokes. Below right: Iron Man and Spider-man head out for a night on the town.
Right: Michael Keaton as supervillain Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, with his side-kick Phineas Mason/the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus). Below: Keaton ready for action in his Vulture suit. Bottom: Oh, what a tangled web Spider-man weaves.