As movie posters go, the latest one-sheet for Spider-Man: Homecoming pretty elegantly encapsulates the film everyone involved seems to have set out to make. In it, the teenage superhero reclines on a wall bordering the East River, wearing a bright yellow jacket imprinted with the name of his high school. Across the wide body of water that separates Manhattan from Long Island, the Avengers Tower looms. He is almost literally lying in its shadow.
This image reflects in skillful shorthand what I learned when I visited the film’s Atlanta set back in August. While the two previous cinematic Spider-Man series (Sam Raimi’s 2002-2007 trilogy and Marc Webb’s two Amazing installments in 2012 and 2014) saw Peter Parker take off the training wheels relatively early, Homecoming will present us with a more grounded portrait of the young superhero – both literally and figuratively — and one that wouldn’t look out of place in a classic teen movie, albeit one set in a recognizably modern version of high school.
For one thing, Peter has just barely emerged from puberty this time around. While both Raimi and Webb gave us brief glimpses of Peter’s high school life before quickly moving on from the milieu, Homecoming will keep him there for the duration of its running time. To ensure a higher dose of realism, producers made it their mission to cast younger than they had previously, eventually settling on rising British actor Tom Holland, whose attachment was announced shortly after his 19th birthday. By comparison, previous “Peters” Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were both already in their mid-twenties when cast.
“From the very beginning the idea was to cast somebody who was a kid, who had that kid sensibility, who you felt it was a kid with the weight of the world on him – and only a kid can feel like a kid no matter what,” said producer (and former Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair) Amy Pascal while chatting with reporters in a trailer adjacent to the Homecoming set. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted to get that feeling this time. And we did from the very beginning want it to take place in high school. The other movies have taken place in high school too, but not in the same way that we’re doing it in this movie.”
Luckily for director Jon Watts, who won the Homecoming job partially on the basis of his critically acclaimed 2015 Kevin Bacon-starring action vehicle Cop Car, his pitch aligned nicely with what the producers already had in mind. “A big part of my initial pitch was that when you’re in high school, everything seems like the most important thing in the world,” said the director, who had Holland and his young castmates watch ‘80s teen classics like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (which actually inspired a chase scene in the film) as well as Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks prior to shooting. “Everything bad seems like the end of the world. So it’s like, if you have a zit, or a girl doesn’t like you, or you have to fight a supervillain, those things when you’re 15 are all [at the same level].”
As described by those involved, Homecoming sounds almost as much like a high school movie as it is does a superhero blockbuster. While it would be naïve to expect it to stray too far from the money-minting formula established by Marvel (Homecoming is the first Spider-Man film to be co-produced by the Disney-owned studio), all parties on set that day seemed keen to distinguish it from previous films in the Spider-Man series, not to mention previous MCU installments.
“The other [Marvel] movies have shown — I’ve described it as like the penthouse level of the Marvel world,” said Watts, who also directed last year’s Eli Roth-produced horror film Clown. “Like, what it’s like to be Thor or to be Iron Man, to be a billionaire playboy and all of that stuff. But what’s great about Spider-Man is he’s a regular kid. So by showing his story, you also get to show what the ground level is like in a world where the Avengers exist.”
In visualizing that metaphor, the decision was made to set Homecoming in the “outer borough” of Queens. While technically just across the river from the posh Manhattan digs inhabited by Tony Stark (who will play a pivotal role in the film) and company, symbolically it’s much further away than that. “If you think of New York, people usually think of Manhattan,” said production designer Oliver Scholl. “So it’s a very conscious tonal choice to say he is not in Manhattan. Manhattan stands for the big guys. It’s always across the river.”
Scholl was instructive in providing a better sense of the creative pull Marvel now holds over a character who for nearly two decades has been the sole property of Sony Pictures. When it came to establishing the look and feel of Spider-Man and his world on screen, Scholl was given full access to Marvel’s extensive library and archive in a design process heavily overseen by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “The ultimate design rule is Kevin’s opinion on stuff,” said Scholl, before backpedaling a bit: “And actually, the [entire] creative team’s opinion [as well].”