Jon Watts on ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ and Whether His Spider-Man Has an Uncle Ben
Directing a Spider-Man movie can be tough on a filmmaker. The original Spidey trilogy turned Sam Raimi from a beloved cult director into an A-list filmmaker, until Spider-Man 3 scuttled the series. The Amazing Spider-Man franchise got the best of Marc Webb, who parlayed 500 Days of Summer into a gig helming the rebooted adventures of Peter Parker, only to see his version stall out after just two movies.
Now it’s Jon Watts’ turn. Like Webb, Watts leapt directly into the world of superheroes from a well-respected indie. In 2015, Watts made Cop Car, about a pair of boys who steal a police car and run afoul of a cruel sheriff. Watts’ Spider-Man is, like his last feature, a story about naive kids learning harsh life lessons through their conflicts with corrupt or disillusioned adults; his Peter Parker (Tom Holland) wants to win the approval of armored Avengery Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) while battling a ruthless small businessman (Michael Keaton) who salvages (or steals) alien technology to sell to the highest bidder. Unlike Cop Car, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a thoroughly fun, light-hearted adventure, with an exuberant Holland leading an outstanding teen cast that includes Tony Revolori, Zendaya, Jacob Batalan, and Laura Harrier.
It will be up to audiences to decide whether Watts’ career gets a boost from Spider-Man: Homecoming but from my perspective, he did a very good job with a very tough assignment. During our brief interview at the Homecoming junket in New York, I asked him about how he first fell in love with his web-slinging hero, learned why some of the best shots in the film’s trailer didn’t make the final cut, and learned something surprising: The director of the new Spider-Man movie doesn’t know whether his Peter Parker had an Uncle Ben.
What’s your personal connection with Spider-Man? Is it a lifelong obsession?
I wouldn’t say I was a massive comic fan growing up, just because I now know people that really are, and I would never claim to be in that same category. I had a funny introduction to Spider-Man when I was a kid. They used to make these Marvel Try-Out Books? Do you remember those?
Yes, I do.
My mom bought me one at, like, a 99-cent store long after the competition had ended.
Right. They were expired.
Yeah, it was an expired Try-Out Book. But as a kid, I loved it. It had the panels to ink, and the panels to pencil. And I would obsessively draw Spider-Man over and over again; just really practicing the lines, never really thinking it would lead to getting a job drawing a comic. There was something about it that I just loved. I carried it with me everywhere.
I just recently tracked one down and what was so funny is in my mind it’s like [stretches arms all the way out] this big but that’s because when I had it, I was like [pulls arms closer] this big, and it’s actually like [pulls arms even closer] this big.
So now that you’ve spent a lot of time with the character, what do you think makes him resonate so widely across generations, genders, races? Everyone loves Spider-Man.
Yeah. I think it’s because he’s a regular guy. There’s just something about him you can relate to. Things don’t ever work out perfectly for him. He still deals with all the same problems that everyone deals with. I think that’s the fundamental reason.
Re-reading all the books from the beginning, I came to a new realization about why he was so popular originally: He gave a different perspective on this world that they were building. He was introduced in the ‘60s, when they had already built a crazy spectacular Marvel Universe. He was introduced to give a regular person’s perspective on it. And that ties in really nicely with what I get to do with this movie, which is reintroduce him to the Marvel Universe. In addition to everything else, I think that’s one of the big reasons he popped way back when.
Did you get to play a role creating in Spider-Man’s scenes in Civil War that introduced your version of the character?
Yeah — but not massively. Basically Tom Holland and I got hired on the same day. And the first thing I did was I got to read the script for Civil War and I talked with [Civil War directors] Joe and Anthony [Russo] for a really long time. And I gave them all of my own personal materials about “This is what Peter’s bedroom should look like, this is what his wardrobe should look like.” Just anything like that to make sure we were all on the same page so that my movie transitions seamlessly with theirs.
Your movie is very faithful to the spirit of the character, I think.
But you also change things. There are characters’ backstories and connections that are different; there’s beloved characters we don’t see at all. How do you decide what elements are immutable and what things are changeable?
That’s a good question. There’s no hard and fast rules. It’s just this fun, mysterious process where you try things out. You’re like “We could do this? Mm, it just doesn’t feel right.” It’s all about about making sure it still feels like it’s true to the spirit of the comics.
And even that is such a complicated thing, because there’s so many comics and so many versions of Spider-Man, and so many things have already been explored. As weird an idea that you can get, it was probably tried at some point in the comics. That’s what I found. It’s very humbling because you realize “Oh, I am not going to be able to think up anything that they haven’t tried in some capacity before.” So I always leaned heavily on the comics. Outside of that, it is just a feeling thing.
There are two really cool shots in the trailers that I didn’t see in the movie.
Ooo, which ones?
There’s the shot of Spider-Man and Iron Man swooping by.
And there’s a shot of the Vulture coming down through what looks like a hotel atrium.
Yeah. That is a hotel atrium.
Were those cut from the finished movie or were those shots made just for the trailer?
The hotel atrium shot was originally created for Comic-Con, for like a sizzle reel before we had really shot anything; we had shot like two weeks of footage or something. That was never meant to be in the movie. But I did use that angle for Vulture’s reveal at the beginning of the movie; Vulture’s hovering, swooping towards the camera like that. I used that shot, it’s just no longer in an Atlanta hotel atrium.
And then shot of [Spider-Man and Iron Man] together in Queens, that was never in the movie.
Is it a thing where someone says “We need a shot of them together for the trailer” and then someone makes it? How does it work?
I think what happened was in the very first trailer they wanted a shot of Spider-Man and Iron Man flying together. And they were going to use something from the Staten Island Ferry [scene], but it just didn’t look that great — the background plate, because the Staten Island terminal is a very simple building. It almost looks like an unrendered 3D object. So I think I was like “Let’s just put them in Queens. Let’s use that as a backdrop.” Because we couldn’t just create a whole new shot, so let’s just use one of these shots of the subway; put them in there.”
I feel a little weird that there’s a shot in the trailer that’s not in the movie at all, but it’s a cool shot. It’s funny, I forgot that we did that.
At the press conference, people seemed to be strongly implying you’re directing Homecoming 2. Is that officially happening?
No, nothing’s officially happening. I hope it happens.
Because there was that question from someone in the audience about shooting more of the sequel in Queens, and [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige turned to you and asked if you could do that and you were like “Sure!” So I wanted to ask.
When Kevin said that, I should have said “Am I doing the next movie?”
You should have, that would have been the right time to do it.
I didn’t realize that he was setting me up.
Okay, so it’s still TBD at this point, but you would like to direct it.
Oh, totally. This is really fun.
Do you have ideas already mapped out for the sequel?
Nothing concrete, and that’s going to be the funniest moment. We raise so many questions in this movie, and open up so many cans of worms that now it’s like “Now what are we going to do? We have to figure this out.”
Speaking of cans of worms you guys opened, I’m going to ask you something I also asked to Kevin Feige and see if you have the same answer: Does this Spider-Man have an Uncle Ben? Or did he have an Uncle Ben?
Uh, yeah. I think so. I mean, again, we don’t get into such depth in this movie. It’s not something we really talked about that much.
Hm, all right.
Yeah, I’m curious. Yeah, there’s nothing specifically referencing him.
He’s certainly not mentioned by name.
I would think you would know, you made the movie!
I know, you would think.