'Homecoming' director Jon Watts knows how Spider-Man feels

With great power comes great responsibility -- especially if you're in charge of a big-budget Marvel blockbuster.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
6 min read

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" involves a young man taking on great power and great responsibility. But we're not talking about Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man -- we're talking about director Jon Watts, whose big-budget Marvel debut is only his third feature film. 

"I had no problem relating to Peter Parker," Watts said, laughing, when we met to discuss the new movie in London this week. "He feels like he might be in way over his head but is desperate to prove himself. I mean, no similarities!"

Watts was hot off the acclaim for his low-budget 2015 thriller "Cop Car" starring Kevin Bacon when he was given the chance to pitch Marvel on his vision for Spider-Man. It's a huge gig, as this marks the long-awaited moment the friendly neighbourhood wallcrawler finally takes centre stage alongside other heroes of Marvel's cinematic universe -- including Iron Man himself.

Luckily Marvel movie supremo Kevin Feige has a history of giving fresh up-and-coming writers and directors a shot, like Edgar Wright ("Ant-Man"), Taika Waititi ("Thor: Ragnarok") and Ryan Coogler ("Black Panther"). With "Homecoming" about to swing into theatres, we asked the affable -- and surprisingly relaxed -- Watts about working with Iron Man, going back to the original comics and planning blockbuster action with toy action figures.

BTS;Crew;Jacob Batalon;Jon Watts - (Director);Laura Harrier;Tom Holland;Tony Revolori;Zendaya
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BTS;Crew;Jacob Batalon;Jon Watts - (Director);Laura Harrier;Tom Holland;Tony Revolori;Zendaya

Director Jon Watts takes charge of "Spider-Man" Homecoming".

Chuck Zlotnick

Q: It's pretty cool that fresh voices get a crack at doing something fun with big blockbusters. What did you think you could bring to Spider-Man's story?
Watts: This arrived at a really interesting time in my life, because I had been wanting to make a coming-of-age movie. I'd been writing my own coming-of-age story, and I got to take a lot of that energy and a lot of those moments and themes that I wanted to explore in a much smaller film, and then apply them to "Spider-Man: Homecoming". So in a way I got to do what I wanted to do anyway, but on a much, much bigger scale. 

We've seen the origin story of Spider-Man in previous movies, but in "Homecoming" he's already well-known enough to be on Tony Stark's radar.
Watts: Yeah, he's already been at it for a while. We're just jumping past the origin story and getting right into the fun of it, and dealing with the implications of 'with great power comes great responsibility'. That's a longer journey and there's a lot more complexity to that.

We think we know the origin of Spider-Man. But with the early days of this Spider-Man still unseen, is there anything we don't know about this version of the friendly neighbourhood wallcrawler, played by Tom Holland?
Watts: A lot, I hope. The movie's full of surprises...

We first met this version of Spider-Man in "Captain America: Civil War", directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. How did you go about establishing your creative vision?
Watts: I felt like I was set up really beautifully by the Russo brothers in "Civil War". They've given me this extremely rich premise that Peter Parker, who was probably eight years old when Tony Stark told the world he was Iron Man, he was probably watching that, eating a big bowl of cereal or something. And he's now been snatched up out of obscurity from his apartment in Queens, taken to Germany, had this insane adventure in "Civil War" and now brought back and just plopped back into his regular life. He can't tell anyone about what he did, and thinks he's basically already an Avenger. That is such a great jumping-off point for a movie. I didn't have any problem taking that and just running with it.

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How does the youthful Peter Parker offer a fresh perspective on the Marvel universe?
Watts: Even before this opportunity came up I would watch Marvel movies, or any big epic superhero movies, and I would always think about what the regular people in those worlds are doing. Even in "Guardians of the Galaxy" I remember you see this big crowd shot and I was like, what does that guy do? Where does he live? What's his day-to-day life like? I've always thought that would be a fascinating thing to explore in one of these movies. Because Peter Parker is sort of the ground-level superhero in this universe, that was an opportunity for me to do something I'd always wanted to do and show what regular life is like in a fantastic world like the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe].

Were you a fan of the comics? Did Marvel point you to any particular comics or eras?
Watts: The very first thing I did when I officially, formally got the job was I started reading the books from the beginning. For me it was important to go back to the origin and start at the very beginning. I didn't want the movies to be the jumping off point -- I wanted the original books to be the most direct inspiration for me. That was really satisfying to read, just read so many comics. [Laughs] It's a tough job.

Jacob Batalon;Photographer select;Tom Holland
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Jacob Batalon;Photographer select;Tom Holland

Jon Watts got to make the coming-of-age movie he'd been planning -- with extra superpowers.

Chuck Zlotnick

A Marvel movie is a huge production, and part of a much bigger narrative and corporate structure. As one of six writers on the movie, what's that collaboration like?
Watts: It's a very collaborative atmosphere. My MO for the whole production and preproduction and writing and everything was that the best idea should win. It doesn't matter whose idea it is, or where it came from, or when it arrived in the process. The best idea is the best idea no matter what. So I was selfishly stealing as many good ideas as I could and just trying to get them all into the movie.

The film features not only the longest-serving star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr., but also Jon Favreau, who set the template for the MCU when he directed the first "Iron Man". What was it like having those two Marvel heavy hitters on set?
Watts: It was great. It just feels like you're shooting a documentary with Iron Man. [Downey Jr.] shows up and he just embodies Tony Stark in this way that is just a joy to capture. Having John Favreau there is like getting the gang back together. And for a director there's no one better to direct than another director.

Jon Favreau;Robert Downey Jr;Tom Holland
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Jon Favreau;Robert Downey Jr;Tom Holland

Marvel veterans Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. take newcomer Tom Holland under their wing.

Chuck Zlotnick

Is it true you used action figures to figure out some of the action sequences?
Watts: It's such a big scale that you use every tool you can. There's very detailed pre-viz [digital previsualisation, like an animated storyboard]. But at other times it's simpler to communicate with everyone when you just have a little Vulture action figure and a little Spider-Man action figure to show the basic blocking. We used everything from a sketch on the back of a napkin to an extremely detailed 3D model.

How did your experience making satirical online videos for the Onion prepare you for this?
Watts: The Onion is an amazing place to work because it's a bunch of really smart, collaborative writers who aren't afraid to try crazy things. That gets you prepared for almost anything because comedy's really hard. And you can apply everything that you learn directing comedy to every other facet of film production, because timing and precision and really sharp writing [are important]. And it taught me to be really collaborative too. 

So was there anything that you pushed for that was too crazy for Marvel?
Watts: No. I was always waiting for that moment where somebody was going to say that's too much, that's too far, and it never happened. I got to do basically everything I wanted to do.

What's next? Do you want to go and do something small, or are you in Spider-Man world for a while?
Watts: For me it's one movie at a time and making sure it comes out right. So you can ask me on July 6th.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" opens July 6 in Australia, and on July 7 in the US and UK.

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