With great power there must come great responsibility, and Jon Watts has both. The director of the low-budget independent films Clown and Cop Car was given the director’s chair on Spider-Man: Homecoming, one of the most anticipated superhero movies in years, and the film that finally explores the iconic superhero’s place in a world already populated by other costumed crimefighters. It’s the film that many Spider-Man fans have been waiting their whole lives to see, and it was Jon Watts’s responsibility to get it done right.
By all accounts, he succeeded. Spider-Man: Homecoming is celebrated by critics and blowing up the box office, and its making those tidal waves because of a series of tricky creative decisions. The new Spider-Man films doesn’t take place in the same continuity as the previous live-action Spider-Man franchises, but its content is at least partly dictated by what other filmmakers have already done with the character. And even though this is Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s not his first appearance, and so everything that happens in Spider-Man: Homecoming has to rely on the events of Captain America: Civil War as an inciting incident.
Making Spider-Man: Homecoming was a complex endeavor, so I was particularly eager to interview Jon Watts again, and finally be able to talk to him about the task of bringing a new version of Spider-Man to life. Along the way we delved into what makes the character tick, what makes his villains unique, what could lie ahead for Peter Parker and his supporting cast (including, potentially, Uncle Ben) and in a particularly SPOILERY section, how he plans to deal with the film’s final moments in future installments.
Crave: It’s good to talk to you again. I talked to you right after Cop Car came out and you couldn’t say a damn word about this, but now I’ve got you here!
Jon Watts: I know! I know, finally!
What’s that like to finally be able to talk about the movie you’ve been making for… what, two, three years now?
It’s such a relief. It’s like I’ve been in the CIA or something and I’ve been living this secret, clandestine life, and now I can finally talk about what I’ve been doing! Did you see the movie?
I did see the movie!
So also there’s a twist in the movie, so I still have this pit in my stomach where I don’t want to reveal any of that stuff. Only once the movie is out will I actually be able to relax.
Well, let’s talk about the foundation of the film. We’ve had four live-action Spider-Man franchises if you count the 1970s show…
Yes, which I do.
Good! But every filmmaker, every storyteller has a different idea about who Spider-Man is and what makes him tick. So I’m curious, who is Spider-Man to you and what makes this version different from all the other live-action versions we’ve seen?
You know, when I started the movie the first thing I did was just go back and read the books and start from the beginning, to try to wrap my head around what is the essence of Spider-Man. What is it that made him so impactful and popular, just immediately? Something that struck me that I wasn’t expecting was the plot where he goes and tries to join the Fantastic Four. It’s one of the very first things that he does. And then he finds out that they don’t pay, and he needs money, so he’s like “Forget it then” and he gets into an argument with Johnny Storm and leaves.
There’s something about that that I really latched onto, that really helped ground the perspective for me, for this movie, which is – and it’s such an obscure thing that it’s funny to be talking about it – but Spider-Man was always meant to give a regular guy’s perspective on this crazy world of superheroes. And he’s just a regular kid. He has normal problems. That’s what makes him the best superhero. He’s totally relatable.
And now for me to be able to take him and bring him back into the Marvel Universe, I get to do what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko originally intended, which is show the world through the eyes of this regular guy. Does that make sense? It’s kind of a long, rambly answer, but…
It’s a good answer. It brings up something kind of interesting. By putting Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe you’re telling Spider-Man, the story, against a larger backdrop. Were you concerned about getting caught up in the MCU, and finding the right balance with just telling a story about this kid?
What was helpful actually was that the story that I wanted to tell was about a kid who really wants to be a part of this bigger world, but the bigger world is like, “You’re not ready.” So I never found myself letting that overshadow the story because the story is about a kid who wants to be something bigger and realizing that what that is is not exactly what he thought it was in the first place. So I was sort of freed from the Marvel Universe, in a way, by telling a story about a kid who’s essentially on the outside looking in.
It’s a weird structure that you were handed after Captain America: Civil War. If you think about it, the idea of a kid who wants to be an Avenger, the first inclination would be to have it end with him becoming an Avenger. Here he became an Avenger and then got kicked out.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I’m so grateful that they set it up so efficiently, to be able to jump past the origin story just get right into it. It made me think about the implications of what just happened. You know, it was like… wait a second, Tony Stark plucked this kid out of obscurity, took him on this insane adventure, and now he’s just dropping him back off? What is that kid thinking? What is going through his head? That, to me, I thought was really funny, and a really good jumping off point for any coming of age movie, if that makes sense.
When we think of Spider-Man as a coming of age story we tend to think about his origin, which is iconic and dramatic and very formative for him. We don’t see it here. I know that’s by design…
Were you concerned that by not including the death of Uncle Ben, or even really talking about it in great detail, that some of that pathos might get lost in translation?
Well, I thought that a challenge here would be to tell a different kind of story. My big M.O. was to try and show people things that they haven’t seen before, and that’s definitely something that we’ve seen before. And you’re absolutely right that that’s part of the pathos of the character, and it makes me wonder what actually are the circumstances surrounding what happened? Because we don’t get into any specifics, and my hope is that the idea of “with great power comes great responsibility” is such a big idea, that I want to be able to explore that in truly great detail.
And if this is the jumping off point for more movies and more stories to tell, I think there’s – I hope I’m not sounding too cryptic [laughs] – I hope there’s potentially to really achieve that level of pathos in a way that we haven’t seen before.
You talked about the circumstances surrounding the death of Uncle Ben and the origin of Spider-Man, and I hear a lot of people saying that they’ve seen the origin before, but to it feels like every time we see that origin it defines the character differently. The Sam Raimi version was all about guilt and shame, and I feel like the Marc Webb version was more about his parents than it was about Uncle Ben.
What are your thoughts? We have SpiderMan fully formed. What makes him tick? What is his philosophy right now?
Well, I don’t think he is fully formed. I think that’s [a] big part of setting this in high school and having it be the very beginning of the formation of Spider-Man. I don’t feel like he’s fully formed even necessarily by the end of this movie. I wanted to think about those things that become the first half of the movie, in the other tellings of the story, and try to see which parts we can take and really slow and expand and spend more time with.
That was in my head as a sort of overall thought for how to structure this, as opposed to just sort of rushing through an origin story and then rushing through a training sequence and then getting to the plot. I think that there’s a lot in those first two ideas to be explored in much greater detail, if that makes sense.
It does. I think so. I want to talk to you about your choice of villains. Spider-Man has two key types of villains. There are megalomaniacal mad scientists and the working class bank robbers.
Now we’re in the second mold. I see that we’re in the working class Spider-Man story, but what made you want to highlight the Vulture, specifically?
He’s the first supervillain that Spider-Man fights in the comics. I thought it would be nice to really go back to the early days in that way. And you know, I had this idea where if we’re going to use Spider-Man to tell the story of the ground-level, regular guy becoming a superhero, I wanted to tell the story of a ground-level, regular guy becoming a villain. When you start thinking about who the Vulture is and what he represents… even the name, “The Vulture,” the idea of scavenging all these parts that have trickled down from all the crazy events that have happened in the other movies… the idea of someone scavenging all those parts to build themselves up from scratch, I thought was pretty interesting.
What about the Shocker? I feel like the Shocker never gets much respect. In every Spider-Man video game I’ve ever played he’s the joke villain you fight in the tutorial. Why do you think that is?
[Laughs.] I know exactly what Shocker video game moment I think you’re talking about. It’s funny, and it was fun to play with that idea of… are you actually that supervillain? Are you The Shocker, or are you just defined by the piece of technology that you’re wearing? Could anyone be the Shocker?
And you think that’s what makes the character interesting, that they can spread? You could have a Shocker in every Spider-Man film from here on out…?
[Laughs.] Well, I wanted to be true to the world of these guys who are scavenging all these parts. That Shocker gauntlet is a modified version of something else that has existed in the Marvel world. So rather than having it be a bunch of supervillains teaming up to take on Spider-Man, I wanted to just come up with a different to build villains from the ground up. This is just sort of a different take on that.
What about the Prowler? You introduced Donald Glover as the Prowler. Is that just a fun character Donald Glover could play, or is that a character you would actually want to explore in more detail at some point?
Aaron Davis is a really cool character in the comics, and I think there is a lot more to explore with him, potentially. But in terms of where we’re going to go in the future, right now it’s sort of like anything is possible. He is a cool character in the comics. And Herman Schultz [The Shocker], in the comics. Herman Schultz is a really fascinating character in the comics and I think there’s a lot more that can be done with a lot of these characters, you know? I really want to just start from scratch and create a world in which these people can develop and grow organically.
A lot of people are making big deal about how Spider-Man has web-shooters now, and isn’t that great, but one thing I’ve noticed you don’t really mention in the film is whether or not he has a Spider-Sense.
Does he have a Spider-Sense, or does that superpower create too many suspense problems?
I mean, I feel like we’ve seen Spider-Sense in the previous movies, but it is such a big part of who Spider-Man is. I thought if anything that could be something – you know, like I was saying for the other ideas – that could be explored in greater detail and maybe that’s something that develops over time. Nothing is locked in of course at this point, but I thought could be something that is, again, part of his larger story, in a longer arc for him.
~ SPOILER ALERT ~
It’s cool to have a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in which a secret identity is even a factor.
But at the end of the film – and I know you might be hesitant to talk about this, but I can hold off and release this part of the interview after the film comes out – it seems like you’re going to play with that even more. Do you feel like Spider-Man’s secret identity is going to be important moving forward, or is that something that’s more interesting to move past, because it’s more interesting to just talk about it?
No, I think you’re absolutely right. He is one of the only… like, him and Ant-Man right now are the only two characters, I think, in the Marvel Universe that do have a secret identity, and I think that’s a great dramatic conceit to always be able to play with. So I wouldn’t do what happens in the Civil War comics where he tells the whole world that he’s Spider-Man, but – and if you are holding this until after the movie comes out…
Like, the fact that Aunt May now knows is absolutely a total can of worms that we just opened up, and are going to have to figure out a way to deal with it.
Are you interested in picking up exactly where that leaves off, and just seeing his incredibly awkward explanation?
[Laughs.] That would be so great, to have the movie just start literally where this one ends? Like, it’s just un-paused? Unfortunately I have – I mean, I say “unfortunately” like it’s a bad thing – like, Infinity War comes in between these two movies, so that might be a little weird.
~ SPOILER ALERT ~
When it comes down to future films, it sounds like you’re really interested in making more.
Is that official? Or you can’t talk about that yet?
I don’t think it’s official yet, no, but I would definitely like to.
What is your dream for the character, besides exploring his themes? What’s something you want to get to that maybe we haven’t seen from a Spider-Man yet, somewhere down the line, if you get to keep making the films?
Oh man, that’s such a big question. I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it as an end goal so much as that it would potentially shape too much the direction that we’re going on the way there. I really like exploring these ideas – like what you’re talking about, about Uncle Ben and the pathos – and I like exploring them a little bit more slowly, and the idea that Spider-Man… just getting bit by a Spider-Man doesn’t mean you’re automatically an amazing fighter, can do perfect acrobatics. I’m really enjoying watching this character grow. It feels like a Harry Potter kind of situation, where I feel like I’m with him and I just want to see where it goes.
They’ve already announced that in future films, Spider-Man will interact with other Marvel superheroes.
Do you feel that sets up a dynamic where Spider-Man will sort of intern under other superheroes and learn from them? Or do you feel that needs to take a variety of different forms?
I mean, I think that’s certainly a possibility. I really like the idea of Spider-Man and Captain America spending some time together, or him being too nervous when he’s around Black Widow to even say anything. You know, the idea of putting Spider-Man next to these iconic heroes is always fun. But yeah, I’m not quite sure where we’re going to go next.
Divorced from what the actual plan is, I’m just curious, as a Spider-Man fan – which clearly you are – who is the greatest Spider-Man villain, just in general?
Who is the greatest Spider-Man villain?
And why. To you, who is the number one villain?
[Thinks.] That’s a really good one. I really like the idea that comes with some of the Venom storylines. The idea of this darker side of you being drawn out, and the shadow version of yourself, but we don’t want to bring Venom back because we’ve already seen him in the other movies. But… yeah, I don’t know. Even though Spider-Man has this amazing rogues gallery, to me the stories are always really driven by his personal side. The biggest enemy for Peter is his own potential feeling of worthlessness and low self-esteem and frustration. So that, to me, is what draws me back to the comics more than anything else.
I’ll cut it off here because I know I’m pushing my time…
No, no, no… you’re a big Spider-Man fan too, right?
Totally. He’s actually my favorite fictional character, period.
You know we don’t specifically mention Uncle Ben in the movie.
I noticed that.
Why? I’m curious why it doesn’t come up. He’s explaining himself to Ned, and he’s talking about Aunt May. Why doesn’t it come up with a little bit more detail?
The only thing he says is, “Like, after everything that happened.” You know? It’s one thing to stay from the origin story because we’ve seen it again, but that is also such a heavy story and it carries so much with it. But you’re right, it is an essential part of the Spider-Man origin, and that pathos. So I am, I hope, as curious as you as to where we might go with it.
I feel like such an obligation when I talk to someone who’s a real fan, to talk about what do you think about… what is the deepest meaning of Spider-Man to you? What is the essential core of Spider-Man?
To me the essential core of Spider-Man is that he is a superhero who does the right thing because he’s terrified not to.
[Laughs.] That’s interesting.
I feel like he’s an intensely neurotic superhero. He carries so much guilt over the death of Uncle Ben. Like, Batman doesn’t really blame himself so much for the death of his parents but Spider-Man very specifically blames himself.
I feel like that’s a unique thing that drives him, and I feel like if he gets over that, he kind of ceases to be Spider-Man for me.
Right. Right, and when that gets resolved in the other movies it weirdly feels like it’s over. That’s the thing that drives him.
I feel like in Amazing Spider-Man it got cut off halfway, where he never actually confronted the mugger and came to that moment of self-realization, of “Oh god, this is all my fault.” I felt that that changed the interpretation of the character a bit.
Yeah, yeah, but then when he forgives the Sandman, when he finds out that he was the one responsible in Spider-Man 3, that feels like… does that feel to you like the culmination of that arc?
A little too much, yeah. I feel like that might have been a miscalculation, for me.
Does it make you feel like it’s over, in a way?
It allows that trilogy to end. It seems like they planned for more and they got cut off, so now that that is the last one, it’s kind of the only closure we’ve got. That’s my thought.
What’s interesting to me is when I think about, if you really stretch out these timelines, between getting bit by a spider and Uncle Ben dying… how much time really passed?
It’s a good question. The Ultimate Spider-Man comic books stretched it out quite a while, actually.
Whereas in the original story it seemed like it happened over the course of, what? A week or two?
[Laughs.] Yeah. It’s a really fun thing to play with and it is a lot of responsibility. I want to make sure we are able to capture that, that essence of Spider-Man. So I love talking to someone that is a true fan.
Well again, you have the great power, so you have the great responsibility.
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Top Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images & Sony Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.