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].”
The capitulation to Marvel’s longtime desire to fold Spider-Man into the MCU is no doubt a sensitive topic for Sony. But with the fan-derided Amazing Spider-Man 2 making it clear that a new direction for the franchise was needed, the deal provided Sony with the surest way forward. And for Marvel-Disney, of course, it was a boon. Said Marvel Director of Development and Homecoming co-producer Eric Carroll of the deal: “It was like your dad handing you the keys to the Lamborghini.”
The Lamborghini metaphor is an apt one for Homecoming’s version of Peter Parker as well. With the character now firmly ensconced in teenager-dom, we’ll get to see a more reckless, lighthearted side of the webslinger than ever before. To that end, Holland took inspiration from both Maguire and Garfield’s performances while also forging a new path forward.
“It’s difficult to not take influence from Toby and Andrew, ’cause they both had such great versions of the character,” said the actor, who spoke to us while on a break from shooting a scene set in the laboratory of Michael Keaton’s villainous Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. Vulture. (We have a lot more on Keaton’s casting and approach to the part in an accompanying piece.) “I think from Toby I’m taking the sort of less cool side of things, whereas Andrew is very cool and very sort of contained. But then with Andrew, I thought his Spider-Man was fantastic. When he was in that suit, I thought he really came to life.
“[But] for me, it’s just making sure I feel like a kid on set,” Holland continued. “And really be the kid that everyone wants to be and just have fun with it and see a superhero really enjoy having his powers.”
The series will remain rooted in the teenage realm for at least the next couple of sequels, as Peter juggles his superhero responsibilities with life at Midtown Science and Technology High, an updated version of the school first established in Amazing Fantasy #15, the 1962 comic book in which Spider-Man, co-created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, made his debut. “One of the things we want to do is keep him in high school as long as possible,” said Carroll, who noted that Homecoming is set at the beginning of Peter’s sophomore year.
To get the actor ready, Marvel sent Holland – who had only ever attended single-sex prep schools in London – to a similar science and tech school in the Bronx, where for three days he was forced to try blending in with the other students. “I had like a fake name and I put on an accent,” said the actor, who admitted that unlike Peter he isn’t particularly suited to left-brain-oriented subjects. Nonetheless, he made the most of the experience.
“I actually have videos on my phone of me interviewing people and asking them what they thought of the new Spider-Man in Civil War,” he told us. “[Some would say] ‘Oh my God, he’s great, I love him!’ And some people were like ‘Nah, I don’t love him.’ …And I’m standing right in front of them.”
Aside from the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education] angle, new emphasis was placed on surrounding Peter with students of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds (though it’s worth noting that no actors of color were seriously considered for the role of Peter). Among the cast: Filipino-American actor Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned; biracial actress Laura Harrier as Peter’s main love interest Liz Allan; Guatemalan-American actor Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson; and Atlanta creator/star Donald Glover — who previously voiced Peter Parker successor Miles Morales in the animated series Ultimate Spider-Man – in an undisclosed role. This diverse casting was partially spurred on by Watts, whose pitch included a “look book” of what the school and its student body should look like.
“I lived in New York for like 13 years, and it should look like a school in New York, you know?” said the director. “It shouldn’t look like a school in the Midwest in the ’50s.”
“I don’t want to sound like we were trying to be politically correct, because that would be a drag, but it was really important [to have a diverse cast],” noted Pascal. “Because it’s the world that we live in. We don’t live in that other world anymore. And we needed to catch up with the way that the world really is, and the people who go to the movies, and people want to see themselves. It was too long. Took too long. But we did, and it was important.”
The supporting cast member who garnered the most attention upon being cast was biracial former Disney star Zendaya, who endured racist backlash when she was rumored to be playing the role of Peter’s most famous love interest, Mary Jane Watson. Contrary to reports, the actress and singer was later confirmed in the role of Peter’s classmate “Michelle,” a bookish character described by Watts as “some version of Ally Sheedy in Breakfast Club, or what Linda Cardellini is like in Freaks and Geeks.”
But back to the controversy. Though Zendaya wasn’t on set during our visit, her attachment and the ensuing uproar was a hot topic during Q&As. In discussing the subject, Holland was quick to highlight the famously outspoken young star’s resilient nature.
“She has such a large following on Instagram, and the majority of those people are all for her and love her,” said Holland. “I feel like our generation of people are moving on past that, this whole ‘You can’t cast someone who’s not of the right race for a character’ and stuff. I really think that we’re breaking through and changing that. And [Zendaya] is perfect for it. Z is so powerful and she’s so strong-willed that it’s not gonna shake her at all.”
Yet another controversy arose during the casting process when it was announced that 50-year-old Marisa Tomei would be playing Aunt May, a character traditionally depicted on page and screen as grandmotherly. Incredibly, some angry fans claimed that Tomei was “too hot” to play the character – arguably a first in Hollywood – while others decried the casting decision as an ageist move on the part of the studios.
But the change makes sense when you consider the inherent illogic of a so-called aunt who is somehow twice the age of Peter’s parents. Much like the character’s portrayal in Marvel’s Ultimate comic book universe, in Homecoming May is more “big sister” than grandma, and in her own way a more rebellious spirit than her geeky nephew. As Carroll put it: “She’s a little bit more rock and roll, and he’s a little more Home Robotics Club.”
Indeed, in Homecoming Peter is depicted as a geek, which tracks with the traditional depiction of the character as a brainy science whiz. And we’ll get to see more of that big brain put to good use in this new installment – albeit with a big assist from Tony Stark, who in Civil War gifted Peter with the high-tech suit and webshooters he constructed for the big standoff in Germany.
In the new film, we’ll become privy to all the bells and whistles the suit has to offer, which includes, among many other things, a heater, an airbag, and a setting that allows the hero to shoot off different types of webbing. Perhaps most notably, Peter gets his very own J.A.R.V.I.S. “It starts talking to him and he’s like, ‘Oh, this is weird,’’ said Carroll. “And he starts asking it stuff.” Hijinks ensue.
One of the most welcome aspects of Spidey 3.0’s setup in Captain America: Civil War was that it never felt bogged down in exposition, and blessedly, Homecoming in on track to continue that trend. “We have not changed his origin story per se,” said Carroll. “But we just felt that showing it in any more depth locked us in with a structure of a movie that’s been made a couple times… as soon as you start it [that way], it just feels familiar.”
In other words, when audiences watch Spider-Man: Homecoming in theaters, the goal is to make them forget all Spider-Man movies that have come before. Whether cynical moviegoers will make room for yet another reboot in the first place remains to be seen, but given how successful Marvel has been at nurturing fan goodwill over the past decade – and how well-received Holland’s iteration of the hero was in Civil War – it’s safe to assume the film will be a massive hit. Heck, even a misfire like Batman v Superman made over $870 million worldwide.
Still, the pressure to do right by the webslinger is no doubt higher than it’s been for any other single character in the MCU. “Don’t screw it up,” Watts recalled thinking to himself while visiting the set of Civil War. Indeed, it would be hugely disappointing for all involved if Marvel’s first standalone crack at the brand’s most popular and enduring superhero winds up being a dud. And with so many great Marvel superhero epics of the past to live up to, something extra special is needed to ensure that Spider-Man can rise out of the Avengers’ formidable shadow.