ATLANTA — Spider-Man is dealing with a situation he’s never had before on the big screen: remembering the corsage for his homecoming date. It’s a muggy August night and Tom Holland, the new Spidey who made his debut in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, is sitting in a rusty burgundy Volvo with Marisa Tomei in front of a cushy home. It’s a major scene being filmed for Spider-Man: Homecoming (in theaters Thursday night), and Holland’s Peter Parker is being dropped off by his Aunt May (Tomei) for his first date with longtime crush Liz (Laura Harrier).
This is a 15-year-old kid who has stolen Cap’s iconic shield and pretty much single-handedly took down Giant-Man, so sliding a flower on a girl’s wrist shouldn’t be that nerve-wracking, right? But Homecoming is breaking from the five previous Spidey movies by focusing more on the travails of being a teenager than battling the supervillain du jour. (Though Holland’s fresh-faced web slinger has one of those, too.)
“It’s game day. What’s the plan?” Tomei says, beginning May Parker’s pep talk. “OK,” Peter responds with a sigh. “I’m going to open the door for her. And tell her she looks nice. But not too much because then it’s creepy.”May wants to make sure he has everything. “Lipstick, gum, condoms,” she says, pausing. “That used to be my list.” And when Peter wonders aloud if he should put his hands on Liz’s hips when a slow tune comes on, she quips, “Yeah, if you’re ballroom dancing.”
After struggling to open the door, Peter turns to wave at his aunt and runs into the front of the car, almost eating asphalt.
For a teen like this Spide r-Man, whether he’s in those familiar red-and-blue tights or not, “everything is the end of the world, so I wanted to bring that to a character where things might actually be the end of the world,” says director and co-writer Jon Watts (Cop Car).
“Fighting a super-villain is just as intense as working up the courage to talk to a girl. That was my experience, at least when I was that age, and I wanted to make sure it felt like that for everyone.”
Holland’s younger take on Marvel Comics’ signature character was a highlight for fans in Civil War, as it brought the dude with the homemade web shooters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited him for Team Iron Man in last year’s blockbuster and continues to be a mentor of sorts in Homecoming, giving the kid from Queens a gadget-filled supersuit but imploring him to be a “friendly neighborhood” Spider-Man rather than a world-saving Avenger.
But Peter has a hard time transitioning back to school life. The sophomore at Midtown School of Science & Technology makes web fluid in chemistry class, drops out of marching band so he can patrol New York City after school, and flakes on his friends like best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) because of his secret “Stark internship.” As if he didn’t have enough problems juggling his personal and heroic lives, he discovers Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), aka the Vulture, and his salvage team are selling leftover alien artifacts and advanced weaponry to other criminals.
“Spider-Man is not Peter Parker, we’ve made quite a clear divide between the two,” says Holland, 21. “I feel like Peter’s confidence only comes out when he is Spider-Man and that’s something we’ve played with quite a lot.”
The Brit is the third actor in 16 years to don the Spidey mantle: Tobey Maguire starred in three Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies (between 2002 and 2007), while Andrew Garfield had the role in Marc Webb’s two Amazing Spider-Man films (2012 and 2014).
Each of them have been “fantastic,” but Holland “just inhabits the character in a whole other way,” says producer Amy Pascal, the former Sony Pictures chairman who oversaw the previous Spider-Man solo films. “He was in high school in those movies, too, but they were really about wanting the recognition for being Spider-Man and not being able to have it. This movie, we get into something else.”
When Watts started on this teen-friendly iteration of Spider-Man, he re-read the original comic books. The filmmaker was drawn especially to 1963’s Amazing Spider-Man No. 1, in which Spidey has decided to be a hero and immediately tries to join the Fantastic Four.
“They’re like, ‘No, get out of here, you weirdo,’ ” Watts says. “Those sort of things that made him exciting and fresh and relevant at the time strangely enough do the same now: In the Marvel (movie) universe, there are no kids, there’s no one with a secret identity, there’s no one who has homework he has to turn in and will get in trouble if he stays out past curfew.”
For Batalon, exploring an environment where the superhero isn’t really seen as such is a welcome change for the overall Marvel saga.
“No one knows who Peter Parker is. People just know who Spider-Man is,” says Batalon, 20. “When you get that in the mix of growing up and finding yourself, that’s more of a relatable tone than being Captain America and having the country’s weight on your shoulders.”
Holland thinks it was a bold move by Watts and he’s glad the director stuck with that vision.
“I was a little worried at the beginning of the movie that we’d start with this whole kiddie thing and slowly it would become an action movie, but it hasn’t.”
Watching Peter struggle through life and wrestle with the “old Parker luck,” a running joke from the comics where for every small win there was a crushing setback, is the earliest Spider-Man trope. If the filmmakers were going to do something completely different — though still pay homage to what’s come before — some things had to change.
First, they nixed the radioactive spider that bit Peter and gave him his abilities, as well as the influential death of his Uncle Ben — both aspects of his famous origin story are simply mentioned in passing.
“We always say, ‘Don’t take prior knowledge for granted,’ ” says Homecoming producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “However, if you’re going to take any prior knowledge for granted, it’s with great power comes great responsibility and he’s had a tragedy in his life.”
And Peter’s actual school life has had a makeover. Midtown is a school where everybody’s highly intelligent, and intellectual rivalry has replaced the athlete/nerd dynamic that ’60s Peter faced. “It would make it seem stylized if there was a bunch of jocks in letterman jackets pushing scrawny Peter Parker around for working on his chemistry projects,” says Watts.
The director took white supporting characters from the comics and cast their Homecoming counterparts with diversity and what teenagers are really like today in mind. Ned is a talented science student who accidentally finds out Peter is Spider-Man, says Batalon, a Filipino-American newcomer. “He’s like, ‘Oh my God, this makes me super cool, too, because I’m his best friend!’ It’s like he’s privileged now.”
Liz (played by Harrier, 27) is a driven, type-A personality and leader of Peter’s academic decathlon team who’s the object of affection for most of Midtown’s male student body. “She’s not really that typical high-school crush girl you see in movies who’s like the cheerleader and is pretty and just sits there and looks nice,” Harrier says. “That’s really boring and overdone. What makes Liz interesting is she’s very clear about her goals and, yeah, boys are cool and I guess Peter’s over there and he’s kind of cute, (but) that’s not the main focus.”
Another teen who regularly puts Peter in his place, though more through acerbic attitude, is Michelle, a composite of characters in the Spider-verse played by 20-year-old Zendaya. “In a school full of kids who are on the robotics team and doing science projects for fun, she’s always walking around with a paperback book,” says co-producer Eric Hauserman Carroll, noting that although she has a small role in Homecoming, fans will get to know her better in future films.
Peter’s elderly Aunt May from the comics also received an update, beginning with a cameo in Civil War: She’s now an attractive middle-aged woman, still overprotective but needling Peter to have more of a social life. “She’s a bit of a confidante and hopefully gets him out of his neuroses, trying to let him grow up and have fun,” says Tomei.
On the other side, Keaton’s villainous Vulture is a father doing what he can to protect his family at all costs. Wearing a wing suit created by “mad nerd scientists,” the former Batman was most impressed by the constant Spidey know-how of those on the set. “Anything you don’t know about the lore, it’s covered. Somebody has an answer for it real fast,” he says, laughing.
Even Downey’s Stark, the face of Marvel’s film franchise, takes on a new parental role in Homecoming as Peter’s reluctant father figure.
“He maybe didn’t completely understand the repercussions of his decision to pluck Peter out of Queens and take him on that adventure in Civil War,” Watts says. “I don’t think he realized that there would be a follow-up series of unrelenting text messages about what to do next.”
Spider-Man joining his fellow heroes has been a long time in coming, mostly through the efforts of Pascal and Feige working out the partnership between Sony and Disney-owned Marvel. Carroll likens it to “the one toy up on the top shelf that Dad said we should never play with, and all of a sudden he’s like, ‘Sure, play with Spider-Man.’ ”
A year ago, there was already talk of which bad guys to use next and filmmakers would often query Holland about what he’d like to see in his future solo movies. It helps that their star is also their target audience.
“We have a blank canvas with all these comics, which are basically the cheat sheets,” Holland says. “They ask me a lot, ‘What do you think about this scene?’ and ‘Who would you love to see in this movie?’ It’s a cool place to be.”