LONG READ: Tom Holland is the Spider-Man for a new generation of fans

2017-07-04 07:54

Los Angeles - In an all-new story that reintroduces audiences to one of history’s most popular and enduring comic book characters, Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up where the events of Captain America: Civil War left off, and finds Peter Parker returning to the comparatively mundane teenage problems after battling alongside, and against, some of Earth’s mightiest heroes.

Spider-Man is forced to contend with the struggles of adolescence alongside the repercussions of his, ahem, extracurricular activities. Desperate to win the approval of his newfound mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter tries to live up to the legacy of the heroes he’s grown up watching on TV, only to find that his ambitions outpace his ability to control his powers, even as new foes like The Vulture (Michael Keaton) force him to test their limits. 

Long before being recruited as Iron Man’s ringer, Spider-Man has been a fixture on the silver screen – since 2002, when Sony Pictures first brought the iconic web-slinging superhero to life. Three films and more than $2.5bn worldwide later, their work paved the way not only for other filmmakers to tell stories about the world’s favorite wall crawler, but for other superheroes from the Marvel Universe to have bigger and bigger adventures of their own – and eventually, all together.

15 years later, with a spectacularly successful test run under their belts with Captain America: Civil War, Sony and Marvel have teamed up to bring Spider-Man back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with Spider-Man: Homecoming, an adventure that catapults the character into the midst of a world where he’s one of dozens of super-powered individuals, while re-introducing him as the teenager from the comics whose troubles linger long after he’s taken off his red and blue costume.

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Central to the success of this new interpretation of the character was the actor who could convincingly play young Peter Parker, the brainy kid who became Marvel’s biggest little hero. Former stage actor Tom Holland not only had the right look for the role but the right disposition as he and director Jon Watts (Cop Car) undertook the challenge of introducing the character for a new generation of fans. “My main thing was to not do something that had been done before,” Holland explained of his approach to the role. “So I dove into the research about finding new and unique things we hadn’t seen with Spider-Man and especially Peter Parker.”

Working on Civil War, Holland explained, felt a little bit like a dry run for Homecoming, in that it gave him a clear sense of the tone and attitude of the character before he was thrust into his own story. “A lot of the work for Civil War had been done in the direction they wanted to take Spider-Man. For me, the complicated thing was elaborating on that decision. It was like a dirt track and I tried to make it into a motorway. And I was lucky in a sense that I was given such good guidance and such a good team of people to guide me in the right way through the process. So I was never on my own, which I was very grateful for.”

Holland said that Marvel was a spectacular collaborator with Sony and Watts in helping define what this version of the character would be. “I don’t think Marvel ever thought they’d be given this opportunity. And that’s why I think they really have thrown everything at this movie,” he said. “I think what (Marvel Studios President) Kevin Feige has done so well is the last three years he’s made Ant-Man, Dr. Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy; all three movies have been huge successes and they’ve all been so different in genre. And it was important for Jon and me to do the same,” he said. 

Re-imagining Spider-Man successfully would require a close collaboration between the actor who played the title role and the director who shepherded the character to the screen. Holland said that Watts has an incredibly clear, passionate vision for what he wanted this film to be, and the two fell into lockstep right away. “Jon was very strong with pushing for what he wanted – to make a movie about a kid experiencing teenage life as a superhero,” he said. “Jon painted a very, very vivid picture of what he wanted and I was lucky enough and he was lucky enough for me to just go that’s what I want, that’s exactly how I thought the character should be!” 

“Jon and I had a very collaborative experience working with each other because he’s very open to ideas,” he continued. “He allows me to improvise and make mistakes, which for an actor is the most valuable thing. If you’re in an environment where you feel free to make mistakes that’s where I think my best work comes from. And Jon was very good at making that environment for me.”

A breakout star

Watts, who screened dozens of comedies and movies for his cast to help them prepare for Homecoming, was similarly effusive about his young star, who he said reminded him of many of the breakout stars of yesteryear. “Tom has that Marty McFly spirit in a way that’s amazing, or like Tom Cruise in Risky Business – just that twinkle in his eye,” Watts said. “But he’s still a kid and he’s ready for bigger and better things but he still has to get to his chemistry class on time. So we had a lot of fun with that and found a lot of humor in those moments and that’s something that we would work on together.” 

Holland admits he took a lot of inspiration from those movies, Back to the Future in particular. “Marty McFly, that’s my Spider-Man,” he said. “He is so full of life, so innocent, so goofy, so cool in the most uncool way possible. That was exactly what I wanted to bring to the screen,” he continued. “I watched that movie 10-15 times over the course of shooting Spider-Man. So he was definitely my main influence.”

Watts, who with Homecoming graduated from the independent world to the spectacle of studio filmmaking, said that Holland’s talent and consummate professionalism made that a smooth and easy transition. “He’s so amazing and charming and talented but he’s also such a precise technical actor, and you don’t ever encounter a 20-year-old kid like that,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s training, I don’t know if it’s just natural, but it was amazing. He could hit his marks perfectly. He could just do slight tweaks to his performance to dial it up and dial it down. And it was amazing. I love complicated camera moves and long tracking shots and things like that, so to be able to do that with an actor who can hit all those marks is like a dream come true. It makes it so much easier for me.”

At 20, Holland is the youngest actor to play Spider-Man on screen – he was an actual teen when he was playing the high school age character. More than merely being able to identify with the character, Holland said he feels like the choice to age down Parker makes is easier for audiences to identify with what the character is going through – when he’s not in costume, anyway. “Making him younger, I think, was a very smart decision on Marvel’s behalf because it just makes it more relatable. Not only to an older generation, but to a younger generation, because it’s nice to be able to go and see a movie and see someone as incredible as Spider-Man go through the same things that they’re going through. But then it also appeals to an older audience because everyone went to school.”

Holland said that Watts insisted on adding that element into the script. “It was very important to Jon when he found out about that to make it apparent that while he’s Spider-Man, his main priority is to make sure that he’s doing well at school,” he said. “There’s one moment in the movie where he gets a little cocky and he’s like oh, I don’t need school anymore. But he’s then very quickly reminded that high school is probably the most important years of your life.”

As far back as the comic books, Peter has always been a bit of a social outcast because of his intelligence and nerdy interests. But as one of hundreds of academically gifted kids at a school designed to nurture those interests, Peter’s social status once again had to be a little different than audiences had seen in the past. “It’s a very interesting dynamic and it’s something that is different to any of the movies we’ve seen before because he’s definitely not an uncool kid but he’s not the cool kid either,” Holland said.

“He has a good group of friends and they’re all very quirky and very different in their own unique ways which is so great. And it’s a fun side to Peter Parker because you see him enjoying himself rather than being bullied and miserable all the time. Yeah, Flash picks on him and stuff, but he beats Flash in the classroom – and that’s why Flash picks on him, because Flash is jealous of him. So it’s a very interesting way of seeing a character.”

A new experience for fans

As universal as the character’s struggles may be, cinematically speaking, few can relate to the awkwardness of being an outsider in a seemingly ordinary world better than Spider-Man himself, not the least of which because, until last year, he spun his web in a separate galaxy than any of the other superheroes who thrilled audiences with their exploits. But Holland said that returning Spider-Man to the Marvel fold not only puts him in great company with Iron Man and many other heroes, but creates an opportunity to explore the character in a way that fans haven’t experienced before on film. 

Holland notes that it’s a movie less about a superhero but more about the struggles of being a teenager, which fans can relate to.  “I think that’s something that superhero movies haven’t necessarily touched on where his life outside of the suit is more important than his life in the suit. And I think it’s just an interesting dynamic to this genre that we’ve seen so much.”

Speaking of the suit, Peter got some delightful upgrades in his suit in Civil War thanks to Tony Stark, the eccentric billionaire inventor who regularly saves the world as Iron Man. Those encounters paved the way for Stark to become an unlikely mentor for the budding superhero, who is decidedly more secretive about who he is underneath the mask.

Holland indicated that an interesting relationship develops between Peter, Tony, and Tony’s long-suffering valet Happy Hogan as young Spider-Man yearns for guidance he can’t get anywhere else about how to handle being a superhero. “Throughout the movie, Peter is constantly trying to get in touch with Tony and is always having to settle for Happy, and Happy doesn’t have time for Peter because he’s also trying to always get in touch with Tony. So it’s like two brothers battling for attention from the big guy.”

“It’s very funny because you see this 40-year-old man jealous of this little kid and this little kid jealous of this 40-year-old man,” he observed. “Tony is more of a father figure to Peter because he is the person Peter goes to for advice – though sometimes Tony Stark isn’t necessarily the best person to get advice from. But most of the time it’s pretty sound, and it’s a relationship I really hope we get to explore more in the future.”

Holland says that Peter’s need for that advice forms a unique crux for the film, because he is, at the same time, just a kid, and a kid with enormous, still developing superpowers. “I think what’s funny is Tony giving Peter advice which is really good advice, and Peter not taking it but also prevailing - but in doing that, he made a lot of mistakes along the way,” he said. “So it’s really a massive learning curve he experiences in this movie. And by the end of the movie Peter Parker definitely is not the finished article and still has a lot to learn.”

Although Marvel’s superheroes have welcomed Spider-Man back into their world with open arms, that doesn’t mean, however, that Homecoming is trying to capitalise on the ongoing latticework of mythology created in their films. Holland said that their priority is telling Peter’s story, reflected in that larger world, rather than the other way around. “It’s as much of a movie for Spider-Man as it is for Peter Parker. It’s a homecoming for the character,” he said. He’s now where he belongs. He always should have been in the MCU. Peter Parker grows up a lot in this movie and he makes a decision at the very end of the movie which might make him the most mature superhero we’ve seen.”

“Our movie is definitely solely a Spider-Man movie which is just betwixt in this crazy universe which other superheroes existed,” Holland said. “He doesn’t know where he fits in in the world because the beginning of the movie he’s fighting petty crimes after fighting Ant-Man in Berlin. The whole movie is about him figuring out his place in New York and his place in the universe and hopefully his place in the Avengers. So I genuinely don’t know what the future holds for Spider-Man, but I do hope it’s as exciting as this movie.”

(Photos: AP)

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