News of Spider-Man joining the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe set superhero fans all atwitter. Enthusiast excitement wasn’t wasted as MCU guru Kevin Feige put Peter Parker straight to work in Captain America: Civil War – scouring the talent pools before casting Tom Holland as the titular web-slinger. Holland’s first outing, although brief, proved a successful introduction of the new character and paved the road to Spider-Man: Homecoming.
In addition to hiring a fresh-faced actor to portray the new web-head, Marvel put its Sony-conjoined Spider-franchise in the hands of a relatively unseasoned director, Jon Watts. Based on the strength of his taut Kevin Bacon-lead thriller, Cop Car, the studio charged Watts with assembling and directing their major league reboot of the beloved character.
Likely due in part to the publicity around his name, Watts’ first studio film, the Eli Roth-produced horror film, Clown, has since gotten a limited studio release. The darkly comedic shocker deals with the horrors of a man trapped inside a malevolent clown suit. While the genre and tone of the film are wildly divergent from that of Spider-Man, Clown does offer insight into the director’s stylistic capabilities - and what we can expect from the upcoming Spider-reboot.
Fresh Fish for the MCU
Admittedly, Jon Watts isn’t quite the usual directorial talent recruited by Kevin Feige and company for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Typically, they gravitate towards established directors like Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, or Shane Black. Oh, sure, the MCU grabs a few up-and-coming auteurs like James Gunn (who also got his start in low-budget horror) and Ryan Coogler, but for the most part, The House of Ideas picks directors with greater directorial experience of either the mainstream and/or indie film variety.
Watts began his directorial career working on the Onion’s short-lived satirical program, Onion News Network (ONN). After producing and directing a handful of episodes, he conceived and concocted a joke trailer with Waverly Films (known for their “Stickman Exodus” animated shorts) cohort Christopher D. Ford. Together, they shot a featurette about a killer clown suit. As a nod to their stylistic influences (and as a joke), Watts and Ford tagged the film as an Eli Roth production. It was a successful tactic, as the indie-horror auteur was impressed by the filmmakers’ chutzpah and style; thus Roth decided to produce the film under his imprint.
While Clown finally got the opportunity to screen before limited theatrical audiences recently, it was Watts’ second outing that caught Marvel studio head Keven Feige’s eye. Cop Car, Watts’ follow up, made waves at Sundance last year and was released to overall positive critical marks. As with Eli Roth, Marvel clearly liked the cut of the young director's jib. Watts’ John Dahl-esque chiller may have nabbed him the Spidey gig, but it’s the creepy crawly moments from Clown which can give fans insight into what he brings to Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Horror Directors Know Spiders
What is it about horror filmmakers and spiders? Maybe it's the primal fear of what’s creeping around when the lights are out. It could also have something to do with the fact that, many horror directors are also fright film buffs – and if you’ve watched William Shatner ham it up in Kingdom of the Spiders, you can survive just about anything. Of course, there’s nothing scary about our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. But the character’s self-deprecating sense of humor and elaborate action sequences certainly demand a willingness to experiment with form and style - something horror auteurs excel at by default.
Arguably best iteration of Spider-Man was the first Sam Raimi film (or its sequel, depending upon whom you ask). Spending time in the trenches cutting cheapo fright flicks forces directors to improvise and innovate like nothing else (check out a behind-the-scenes account of The Evil Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre for further proof). The tactics Raimi learned making zero-budgeters translated well to the screen when Spidey came a-crawling. Raimi’s innovative camera work and ability to balance lighthearted humor with serious subject matter gave the film the right blend of action and heart.
In the same respect, Jon Watts created Clown as a low-budget quickie/Eli Roth gag. Even with the modern terror luminary’s involvement, the film’s budget never left the seven digits (roughly $1.5 million). Hollywood tends to be extra stingy these days on fright features because they usually don’t have the wallet-stuffing power of a superhero film or an A list Oscar-buzzer.
Contrast Raimi and Watts with The Amazing Spider-Man’s Marc Webb. Webb came from the world of music videos and cut his cinematic teeth on the Fox Searchlight rom-com (500) Days of Summer. Both Amazing Spider-Man pics were solid but didn’t quite measure up to Raimi’s original series. Of course, with Spider-Man: Homecoming, Watts is dealing with both the action of a Marvel flick and the drama of a John Hughes movie, so he'd be wise to take a page from both Raimi and Webb. Fortunately, he’s no slouch with characterization either.
Characters in Transition
Clown explores the transition of a young father Kent McCoy (Andy Powers) into a monster, thanks to an old costume with a very dark history. Not only is the McCoy going through very disturbing changes, but the family is dealing with changes of its own. Their child, Jack (Christian Distefano), is adjusting to school life and faces bullying. In addition, his wife Meg (Laura Allen) is also terrified of losing her husband with a new baby on the way.
Watts’ second feature, the Kevin Bacon vehicle Cop Car, actually had more to do with the two pre-teen delinquents (played by James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) than it did with Bacon’s sleazy, creep-stached Sheriff Kretzer. In the film, the two youths run away from home before stumbling across the errant police cruiser. The main tension in the sparse yet visually lush thriller – which takes a page from Coen Brothers shockers and John Dahl’s '90s catalogue – is the delicate balance between the kids' youthful naiveté and the impending menace of Kretzer.
By the same token, Spider-Man: Homecoming also explores the theme of young adults dealing with growing pangs. Our favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is going through a lot more than puberty, though. He’s already discovered his powers, but with the help of Tony Stark, is beginning to finally understand them. Even though the reboot won’t rehash the Uncle Ben/“great power” aspects of the story, Spidey will be finding out the true depth of his abilities. He’ll also transitioning from an upstart teen to a young adult – one who just happens to save the world from time to time.
If there’s one thing Jon Watts’ earlier films tell us about his directorial skills, it’s his ability to pull strong performances from young actors. He even lampooned his own kids-in-danger movie pedigree in a recent interview. All jokes aside, as Marvel prepares to take Spidey back to high school, Watts’ experience with juvenile thespians – especially his ability to help them define their characters – gives both Clown and Cop Car an added realism. Both of his earlier films should prepare him to get the most from his talented young cast, while allowing him to focus on the plot and dynamic action.
Keeping Pace with Marvel
Some aspects of Clown are truly horrific, while others are a little cringe-worthy. However, even in his freshman effort, Watts was able to create a sense of growing dread as Kent McCoy goes from confused man to reluctant predator. One of the biggest takeaways from its recent theatrical release is that Watts, even when a little off-center, knows how to pace a film and crank up the tension.
As Marvel aficionados understand, watching an MCU offering is all about pacing. The best entries, such as Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier all have a rapid tempo while maintaining their commitment to each character. On the other hand, most of the solo vehicles began as introductory tales, requiring expository story elements.
At this point, everyone and their sweet old grammy knows who Spidey is. We only really need to understand what this version of Spider-Man brings to the table, and how his entry will impact the shared universe. Since the new Spider-Man film won’t rehash the obligatory backstory, Watts can focus all his efforts on developing Peter Parker in this iteration, and streamlining him into the MCU. The trick with Homecoming, especially in the whiz-bang superhero world, is to avoid unnecessary exposition that slows down the film.
If his earlier films are any indications, Watts shouldn’t have a problem here. He was able to incorporate aspects of his characters in a relatively seamless fashion in Clown and Cop Car. We learned traits and quirks fairly organically as the story progresses, rather than being spoon-fed them via expository means (aside from the obligatory “lets explain the demon’s origin” moment which just about every horror film falls prey to, often by necessity). If Watts can transition this storytelling trait – given a solid script from the writing duo of John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (Vacation) – Spider-Man could combine the best elements of his early works and the MCU.
What Clown Promises, Spider-Man Can Deliver
The challenge of making a film, whether a low-budget horror romp or a cash-flush superhero flick, is creating two hours of onscreen magic that transports audiences into another realm. Where Clown falls short certainly isn’t in its characterization or its dramatic tension. It's all about tone. At first, it seems to be heading in a horror-comedy direction, before doubling back and plunging its characters into a twisted world.
Watts’ intention is clear, though. Clown is an attempt to turn a tongue-in-cheek trailer, made as a half-serious joke, into a dramatic horror film. While his approach is uneven at times, the areas where he succeeds such as pacing and dynamic action, are strong. Given more time and more experience, Watts and his writer might have found a better balance between body horror, pedophilia parallels, and dark comedy moments – or chosen to make a straight horror film or maintain the gallows humor throughout instead.
With Clown and Cop Car, Watts displays a keen eye for visual dynamics. The themes he explores in his first film especially – transition and body-horror – are also prevalent to a lesser (and less-horrifying) extent in Spider-Man. In addition to his budding directorial skills, Watts will have the vast resources of Disney, Marvel, and Sony at his beck and call.
Doing Spidey Justice
If there’s anything Marvel will require of the latest Spider-Man, it’s a fleshed-out, charmingly raw Peter Parker. Anyone directing a Spider-Man film needs to understand the character’s quirks and nuances, especially his quick-witted asides. Fortunately for the MCU, Watts clearly has a great sense of humor, which comes out during the more absurd moments in Clown and Cop Car.
Character evolution will also be a key element in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a teenage story and as a normal boy to superhero story. Fortunately, transitioning is also something Watts is clearly comfortable with. Still, Spidey will test Watts’ ability to create an immersive world - something he was mostly successful with in Clown and more so in Cop Car. Like his young star, Tom Holland, he’ll be coming into his own with Homecoming, In much the same way, he’ll also be losing pieces of himself to Spider-Man and the studio’s overarching plan.
Despite his concise filmography, Watts’ early works hint at a talent which merely requires the confidence brought by experience. With the guiding hands of Kevin Feige and Marvel behind him, Watts should help the Spider-Man franchise make a smooth transition into the MCU. If he can tap into the humor which cuts through Spider-Man’s hormonally imbalanced angst. the film-going world and the MCU will be seeing a good deal more of Jon Watts and Spider-Man.
Of course, if Watts and Marvel can’t find the right rhythm, it may be time to clean the webs off the drawing board once again. Hopefully, with the right amount of time and mentoring (if necessary), Watts' Spider-Man movie will swing into the MCU in a big way.
Doctor Strange opens in U.S. theaters on November 4, 2016, followed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.