No Cookie-Cutter One-Liners – Spider-Man: Homecoming
Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley on what sets their Spider-Man apart from others, why lowering the stakes actually increases the stakes, and developing the right voice for a project.
Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up in the aftermath of Spider-Man’s Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Captain America: Civil War.
New York City high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) expects to continue his adventures with Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the Avengers as Spider-Man, yet Tony Stark and his right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) keep Peter at arm’s length, and encourage him instead to focus on low-level threats in his Queens hometown.
However, Peter discovers that Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvager driven out of business by Tony Stark, is operating a sophisticated alien tech black market as the Vulture, placing dangerous weapons in the hands of New York’s criminals. So Peter sets out to prove himself as Spider-Man by taking down the Vulture, while also juggling the growing pains experienced by all teens – especially his unrequited crush on high school senior Liz (Laura Harrier).
With Spider-Man: Homecoming being the second reboot of Sony’s Spider-Man series – and the first set in the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe – screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley were faced with the challenge of creating a Spider-Man story that was familiar to audiences, but was still an original take on the character.
The duo drew on their sitcom experience – they met while Goldstein was a writer on the short-lived TV series The Geena Davis Show, which Daley starred on – to create a network of strong characters around Peter Parker. They also drew on their comedy screenwriting experience on films like Horrible Bosses and Vacation to create a more humorous take on the web-slinger compared to previous film versions that put more focus on the character’s tragic origins.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Goldstein and Daley about creating their own take on Spider-Man, taking him out of Manhattan, and adapting their type of comedy for different genres of film.
What are your personal favorite versions of Spider-Man?
Goldstein: I grew up watching reruns of the 1960s cartoon.
I watch it now with my son and it’s pretty terrible [Laughs].
But other than the comics it was my first introduction to Spider-Man, and it really stuck with me because it’s so cheesy.
Daley: I grew up with the comic books, and I was a teenager during the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man era. I was a huge fan of those, and I thought Sam Raimi did a fantastic job. It was a real challenge for us to not tread the same ground that he had with his version.
We knew that just because there are so many versions of this franchise that exist that ours had to be different, and had to have a very distinct voice that set it apart from all the others.
Let’s get that obvious question out of the way – being that this is the third cinematic iteration of Spider-Man, what did you consciously try to do differently to set your version apart?
Goldstein: We went in with a take that was diametrically opposed to the Spider-Man movies that had come before. Instead of a movie that focused on the drama and weight of the tragedy that leads to the origin of Spider-Man, we would lean into the high school movie aspects of it.
We really let the adolescent issues that Peter Parker faces breathe, to imagine what it would be like to be a real kid who gets superpowers.
Daley: We think that aspect of the character is what sets him apart from any other superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s a kid that doesn’t have his shit together, is immature, and is very often using his powers for his own personal gain – at least in the beginning.
We liked the element of a learning opportunity, for him to not only learn to be responsible with his abilities, but to also learn how to survive the atmosphere of high school.
Speaking of that high school angle, a name that has been tossed around in reference to the film’s storytelling is John Hughes. Can you talk about his influence on the screenplay?
Daley: We’re huge John Hughes fans. A movie that we wrote and directed, Vacation, is a reboot of one of his beloved movies. We are very familiar with his work.
What he did so well was find the relatability in his characters. Even characters that you wouldn’t think you would relate to, like the jock in The Breakfast Club, ends up having a whole backstory where he is just trying to fit in. He’s as desperate as the nerdy kid.
We think there’s something very cool about being able to see the world through the eyes of someone like Peter Parker who we can truly relate to – unlike Captain America or any DC Comics superheroes, where you don’t really know what’s going on in their heads.
Goldstein: Another thing I would say that John Hughes did so well was to embrace the reality of what it means to be a kid, and not shy away from it or sugarcoat it. I think that’s why his movies resonate so well with each generation. That’s what we tried to with Peter Parker’s world – put him in a real high school, have it be a real coming-of-age story, and just add spider powers to it.
One aspect I enjoyed was seeing you take Spider-Man out of Manhattan – we see him in the suburbs, on a golf course, the Staten Island Ferry, Coney Island, and even Washington D.C. Why did you decide to put Spider-Man in so many different locations?
Daley: We were tired of seeing Spider-Man swinging through the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and thought of environments for him to be in where he isn’t as able to use his powers.
For example, one of the first things that we pitched when we joined the team was the idea of seeing Spider-Man attached to a plane 10,000 feet up in the air, where he had absolutely no safety net. If you have a character that you’re so familiar with, and you’re familiar with the sort of areas he’s been in, why not turn it on its head and make it something different that people haven’t seen before?
Goldstein: We literally started with a laundry list of all the things that you’ve seen in the other five movies and tried to make sure we didn’t do those again.
The villain in this movie is the Vulture, as opposed to one of Spider-Man’s more familiar or more powerful foes. Was that also a choice to do something differently?
Goldstein: We made a decision early on that we wanted the stakes of this movie to be in some ways smaller, more contained, and more down-to-earth – no pun intended – than the previous movies. The Vulture felt like someone who was a little less of a supervillain. His ambitions are not so grandiose, and he’s not looking to take over the world.
He’s also someone that Peter Parker in his sort-of fledgling state could potentially take on and beat. If our Spider-Man went up against Doctor Octopus or Green Goblin, he’d probably have his ass kicked. This felt like someone he could reckon with.
Daley: Also, we’re dealing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the Avengers exist. If the stakes were so high that Spider-Man was in over his head, then it makes sense that the Avengers would come and save the day. We wanted it to be lower stakes, so we understand why Spider-Man is on his own in this.
In many ways, in lowering the stakes you’re in fact increasing the stakes. Because what you’re doing is putting it in a world that we can relate to a little more. That makes it all the more dangerous, and you really start to wonder if he’s going to make it out of it.
Referencing the Avengers, in many ways Tony Stark is the character who serves as the glue that holds this whole universe together. Can you talk about writing him?
Daley: In some ways it was the easiest character to write for, because he had been established in so many films before. Robert Downey Jr. has such a unique and fun voice that it was just a pleasure being able to imagine him saying the lines that we were writing.
Goldstein: He’s also a natural father figure for Peter, in that it was set up in Captain America: Civil War that it was Tony Stark who asks Peter to come fight in Germany alongside him. He’s the one who gives Peter his suit. The groundwork was already there and we just picked up the thread.
Did you know from the beginning you could use Stark in the screenplay, or did you find out while you were writing?
Goldstein: We were given a packet of characters and settings that we could glean from, but we didn’t really have any marching orders as to what to truly include in the movie.
We did love the idea of having Tony be there as this mentor, and sort of an estranged father figure. If this weren’t a superhero movie he would be a dad like Ethan Hawke’s character in Boyhood, where the son looks up to him but never fully gets his attention or praise.
You have written a range of comedies, from R-rated movies like Horrible Bosses, to animated comedies such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. And now Spider-Man: Homecoming has a teen comedy vibe. How do you ensure you develop the right comedy voice for a particular project?
Goldstein: We approach everything we do with the same kind of attitude, which is, “What can we do that hasn’t been done before? How can we subvert expectations?” With Spider-Man, it was about what action sequences we haven’t seen, and how we could turn them on their head.
Daley: In terms of comedy, we have our own comedic voice which very often goes into the realm of the absurd. One of the cool things about Marvel is that they don’t shy away from that. When you’re seeing the world through the eyes of a fun, funny kid, you can really embrace that voice, and not give him the cookie-cutter one-liners that you’re so accustomed to hearing from Peter Parker.
You first got recognized as a writing team with the so-far unproduced screenplay The $40,000 Man, which is such a great concept. Is there any pulse left in that project?
Goldstein: It comes out of its coma every so often when a new actor comes along and they decide, “This person would be great for it!” We meet with that person, they pay us to rewrite it for that person, and then it never quite comes to fruition [Laughs].
It’s very difficult because it is so dependent on getting the right actor to play that part, and they don’t come along that often. Originally it was going to be Jim Carrey, and that didn’t come together. It’s a hard one, because it’s so broad.
Daley: I think the appetite has to be there for those sort of broad comedies. But I do believe that it is cyclical and if people are sick of broad comedies now they may not be in another five years. Who knows?
Next up you two have Game Night, which you rewrote and directed. Can you talk about that film?
Goldstein: We’re actually editing it right now. We finished shooting it about a month ago. It stars Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, and Jeffrey Wright.
Daley: It’s a very fun cast, and a cool blend of comedic and dramatic actors.
What we’re trying to do with that movie is find a fun balance between the genres of thriller and comedy. It isn’t your typical mainstream comedy, because we wanted to inject real-life life or death stakes, where you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next in the story or if anyone is going to make it out alive.
There is a much greater focus on the look of the film and the specific tone, so it was in many ways more of a challenge than Vacation was to direct, and to keep those two genres alive throughout.
Featured image: Tom Holland as Peter Parker / Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man™: Homecoming. ©2017 CTMG, Inc.