How Spidey Got His Spin Back: Writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley on Bringing ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe
Spider-Man has been one of Hollywood’s most important franchises of the last 15 years, with each installment consistently ranked among the most anticipated summer movies. Since the dawn of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe in 2008, however, the rallying cry of fans has been loud and clear: bring Marvel’s most popular character into the Avengers’ fold.
Thanks to a landmark deal struck between Sony and Disney (the former still owns the character’s film rights), that wish has been granted. It began with last year’s introduction to actor Tom Holland as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War. This summer, everyone’s favorite web slinger takes an even deeper dive into the MCU—albeit with some tutelage and support from Tony Stark/Iron Man—with his first solo film.
For a character that’s already been the focus of two on-screen origin stories, the challenge of creating a new vision of Spider-Man differentiates the character from other heroes Marvel has brought to the screen. Excited by the prospect of giving audiences a new window into Peter Parker’s development, writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley took on that challenge as the latest creative team to join Marvel’s ranks on Spider-Man: Homecoming. The writing duo recently spoke with us about the July 7 release and what inspired their approach to Spidey’s newest story, which will mark the 16th chapter of the MCU.
You had already worked together on a handful of films before Spider-Man. How did you two meet and what makes that relationship tick?
Goldstein: We met fifteen years ago when John was an actor and I was a TV writer on a short-lived, but wonderfully brilliant, sitcom called The Geena Davis Show on ABC. We found that we had the same sensibility. John was basically a kid at the time and he was making stuff that reminded me of the short films I was making when I was in high school. So we started off by coming up with a TV pilot idea that John was going to star in, but we didn’t end up selling it. A few years went by and we had an idea for a movie, which we wrote together and wound up selling to New Line. That got our foot in the door. That script — The $40,000 Man — was on the Black List, where they put favorite unproduced scripts of the year. It got us a lot of attention and we’ve been working together since.
Daley: Since that time, I continued working as an actor and had been doing different TV shows until about two years ago. I left the show I was on, Bones, to co-direct Vacation with Jonathan. He had been a doing a bunch of TV stuff in the interim as well. So we had our own careers while we were writing together, and once we got into directing we eschewed all of that and committed to a partnership.
You guys wrote Horrible Bosses together, and then went on to Vacation. What transpired to bring you into the Marvel universe?
Daley: That’s a good question. We were in post on Vacation at the time, and we had always wanted to break into writing action movies, which can be difficult when you’re known as comedy guys. But Marvel was the place to do it because they’re known for finding people you wouldn’t normally expect to direct or write their movies. For instance, Jon Favreau hadn’t done any strictly “action” movies before he did Iron Man. James Gunn hadn’t really done anything big before Guardians of the Galaxy. So it was fortuitous for us to have the opportunity to work with them. Our manager pitched us to write and direct Spider-Man, and we had about one weekend to put together a rough story and directing pitch, which we did. From that, we ended up getting the writing job. It was a really interesting, different process working with them, because they’re so protective—understandably—of their brand. So we spent a month or two in a room with the producers, director, Amy Pascal, and Rachel O’Connor, her producing partner, figuring out how to make this different enough from the Spider-Man movies people were familiar with in the past.
Goldstein: I think it wasn’t random that we were hired to do it. I think there was a real intention on the part of Marvel to make this a Spider-Man movie that felt like a real high school movie for the first time, where it wasn’t 30-year old dudes playing Peter Parker but an actual kid in an environment that felt like a real school with real kid problems. The thing that we brought to it was the sense that just because you get superpowers, you don’t become a grown-up and it doesn’t solve all your problems. In some ways, it exacerbates them, and I think that’s what we put in our pitch and they responded to.
I imagine that gave you a chance to freshen up this character in a lot of ways.
Daley: For sure. What we kept pitching it as, and what I know Kevin Feige [president of Marvel Studios] was looking for, was a John Hughes movie. It’s a real kid with high school problems, and he doesn’t become an adult in the second act. In fact, he’s very much the same geeky high school kid at the end of the movie as he is in the beginning, but he’s just learned a little bit in the process.
It’s interesting that you mention John Hughes. What other films or writers have informed this movie, as well as your own writing styles, and what do each of you bring to the table when you work together?
Goldstein: In terms of comedic sensibility, for me, it’s probably a combination of Woody Allen and Monty Python. The combination of the smart and the ridiculous—to me, that’s always been the sweet spot for comedy. And I think, instinctively, if there’s a cliché, we tried to turn it on its head. Especially with superhero movies, there are so many things that have been done so many times; the audience is going to be ahead of it. We try to play with their expectations and take it and turn it in a way that you haven’t seen before.
Are there any examples you can give without violating the numerous nondisclosure agreements I’m sure you have with Marvel?
Daley: I’m thinking about any potential lawsuit that could come from anything we say.
Goldstein: Probably something from the trailer since that’s out there.
Daley: The notion of his best friend finding out that he’s Spider-Man. We wanted there to be a sounding board for Peter, someone who’s equally geeky and sort of loser-y that he can express his delight and frustration to, and the notion of how cool it would be to have a best friend who is a superhero and to not have to deal with any of the repercussions but to be the devil on their shoulder telling them, “Oh, you should use your powers for this game!” It was fun to have there be an entirely immature, non-superhero character there pushing him.
Goldstein: What else is undermining expectations, John?
Daley: We can’t say anything! Let’s be honest, it’s so tricky. If it were any other movie or any other studio, we could give you examples. If you saw the documents we had to sign, you’d be just as scared as we are.
Goldstein: Just to walk into Marvel, you have to sign a document.
And you only had one weekend to crack the story?
Daley: Yeah, we went into it late in the game. Our manager, John Huddle with Fourth Wall Management, got us a meeting with them. He sent them a script that we did that had not yet been produced, called The Bus Driver, which was a more grounded and darker movie than a lot of the ones we had done before. It was a kind of calling card for us to show that we could branch out from the genre that we were most known for. And they said, “All right, we’ll meet with them on Monday,” and this was like Thursday night when we heard about it. So we had Friday through Sunday to basically crack an entirely new Spider-Man movie, one that did not feel derivative and checked all the boxes they were looking for. And what’s funny is so much of what we put together in that initial pitch is still in the movie.
Goldstein: Yeah, most of the big set pieces that you’ve seen in the trailer—like the Washington Monument and even the selection of [the villain] Vulture—that was all stuff that came from that first weekend’s conversation.
Was either of you Spider-Man or Marvel fans before you took on the job?
Daley: For sure. I grew up when Marvel was having quite a resurgence in cartoons and trading cards. That was my generation. I read a lot of comics, and Marvel was certainly my favorite. I know Jonathan was around back with Stan Lee.
Goldstein: I’m old enough that I actually went to high school with Stan Lee.
Daley: He was a grade above Stan.
Goldstein: I am old enough to remember the ’70s cartoon of Spider-Man, which was pretty terrible, but I loved it. It originated the fantastic theme music, which the composer (Michael Giacchino) has redone for the movie. But I was a big comic book geek as a kid. I would do anything to make enough money to buy more comic books. I remember spending an entire day raking up the leaves on this old lady’s lawn because her grown son had comic books. I discovered about two minutes into the job that the leaves were just a thin cover for all the dog shit that covered the lawn. So I spent a day bagging dog shit for five crappy comic books.
Daley: Was it worth it?
Goldstein: No, it was horrible, but I couldn’t walk away. At that point, I was committed.
I can understand where you’re coming from because Spider-Man was one of the first comic book characters I took interest in as a kid. Sam Raimi’s first two films came out when I was a teenager and were something of an awakening to what superhero movies could be at that time.
Daley: Absolutely. He’s the most approachable and most relatable of all the superheroes because he wasn’t born with it, he didn’t choose to become a superhero, and he’s a kid. He’s still learning about girls and the social structure of high school, so it’s a really fun world to explore. I think that’s why there’s such an appeal to that particular character.
Goldstein: There’s also an analogy between his discovering his powers and a boy going through puberty, discovering all these new abilities. We tried to play into that a bit in the script.
Daley: Instead of shooting webs, you grow armpit hair. They’re basically the same thing.
Was it always part of the plan to bring in Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man when you were breaking the story?
Daley: We always liked the idea of Robert Downey Jr. being this sort of strange father figure who Peter was trying to impress and gain the respect of. It falls in line with so many coming-of-age movies where there is a father figure who, no matter what you do, you can’t quite impress enough to be happy.
Goldstein: The groundwork for that was laid in Captain America: Civil War, which preceded this, where we see Tony Stark basically choose Peter Parker once he learns of his powers. So we were continuing that story line. But I think that connection works really well. It’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Everything is tied together. They didn’t want Spider-Man to be off on his own, and this is a way of incorporating him into that family of the Avengers.
The deal between Marvel and Sony is unique—even unprecedented in modern cinema. When you were in the writers’ room, from your perspective, what was the collaboration like between them?
Goldstein: There was a bit of a difference in that Sony was a big part of it, but on the day-to-day front it was a lot more Marvel. We would meet with the Sony people and talk about the big picture. But in terms of developing it, Sony was less involved. It is the first genuine Marvel Spider-Man movie, and that’s exciting because Marvel has proven they’re pretty good at these.
They definitely have. Besides Spider-Man, what other superhero characters did you grow up on or call back to when you were going into this project?
Goldstein: The Flash was a big one for me. I collected a lot of Superman comics.
Daley: I loved Batman. I loved the fact that he didn’t have any powers and was super rich, so he was able to create.
Goldstein: He was *only* super rich.
Daley: He bought powers, basically. But honestly, what is the most appealing to me about the world of superheroes in general is that wish fulfillment element. We really got to play with that in this movie because it’s seen through the eyes of a kid. In some ways, it reminds me of what they did a really good job on with the movie Chronicle, where it was about being totally reckless and irresponsible with these powers, where you’re not using them the way that a responsible adult would. I think Peter is similar in that way. What we did was basically put ourselves in his shoes and think, “Okay, what would the high school version of me do in these situations? Well, try to become popular and get the girl!” In a lot of the other Spider-Man movies, that was the sub-plot element. In this one, it’s very much the focus of Peter Parker – at least at the top of it.
Was Michael Keaton’s Vulture an antagonist that Marvel had already decided on, or did you have input into that?
Daley: No, it was an open market basically for who the villain would be. We were given a list of potential choices. What we liked about the Vulture is that he doesn’t actually have superpowers. He’s sort of like if Batman went rogue and used his technology for the worst.
Goldstein: Yeah, everybody liked the idea of bringing Spider-Man down to the ground level of the Marvel universe so it wasn’t like this super-powered villain who, frankly, Peter Parker would have no chance against. We wanted to start the movie, since this is a new series, with someone a little more blue collar in his villainy.
It seems like that’s exactly what the franchise has needed. As much as people enjoy the previous movies, it’s intriguing to see different versions of a character. That’s another reason superheroes work on so many levels because there are different iterations for people to embrace.
Did you work with Kevin Feige directly? How involved in the process was he when you came on board?
Daley: Yeah, surprisingly, he was there a lot considering how many movie franchises he was juggling at the time. He has really good instincts and, in many ways, he’s an “anti-studio head.” He seems like a normal guy who knows what the people want in a way that isn’t out of touch.
Goldstein: He has a real instinct for what people want to see in a new Spider-Man movie, what kinds of moments need to be in there. Not just marketing moments, but story-wise and character-wise, what’s going to really make this movie special.
[Note: The remainder of the interview was included following this story’s original publication.]
You two recently directed Game Night, coming out next year. Can you talk about that or any other projects you have coming up?
John: That’s the one that we’ve really got our attention on because we’re in post-production right now. We’re in the middle of editing, so we’ll be focused primarily on that for the next few months.
Jonathan: We’re actually meeting with our agent today to talk about next potential projects and what we might want to do next, whether it’s writing or writing to direct the next movie.
John: We have a TV project as well that we’re working on with Fox, but right now 90 percent of our time is spent on Game Night.
Jonathan: Yeah, we were in Atlanta for the last three months – up until three weeks ago – prepping and shooting that movie.
Did you film entirely in Atlanta?
Jonathan: We did.
John: That’s right.
I’m from Nashville, which isn’t terribly far from Atlanta, so it’s been great to see that city become something of a second home for film production.
Jonathan: Yeah, we did our last movie Vacation there as well.
John: You can’t beat those tax breaks!
Jonathan: And the friendly people. Obviously!
Jonathan: And the food is good.
Lastly, you guys have been on several high profile films in a relatively short amount of time since you started working together. In terms of what’s helped make you happy or successful as professional artists, what kind of advice can you give to others hoping to “break in”?
Daley: The one piece of advice I can give is to not ever be too precious or proud about your work, and to really test it out on as many people as you can, whose opinion you respect, because it seems like the biggest road block that people face when they’re trying to get whatever project they’re working on off the ground is themselves. Any kind of criticism is met with a sort of entitled scoff, and I think that is such a crutch for people. Just don’t be too proud, and it’s such a cliché, but don’t ever give up. If it’s something you want to pursue, then you have to treat it like it’s the only thing in the world worth doing.
Goldstein: Similar advice from me. I came from a whole other career. I was a lawyer in New York and I hated it, so I quit, moved to L.A. and started writing for TV comedies. Luckily, I was able to break in and keep doing it. But you really have to devote yourself to it, like John was saying. You can’t do it in a half-assed way. Had I not moved to L.A., I don’t know that I would have been able to break in. You have to be where the work is and commit to it. That’s a scary thing to do because you’re often giving up something that’s more secure – and there are few jobs less secure than this one. But if you believe in yourself and you’ve got talent, I really believe the town will find you. If you don’t have talent, it’ll ignore you and eventually you’ll find what you’re meant to do. But I do think it’s a town that – if you’re really good – you’ll break through if you stick with it.
Spider-Man: Homecoming opens in theaters July 7.