‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ Review

Ed. Note: It is impossible to review Spider-Man: Far From Home without spoiling Avengers: Endgame. If you haven’t seen Endgame yet, congratulations. You are the only one.

Spider-Man: Far From Home faces an impossible task. It is a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming, the celebrated rebirth of the character, an immediate continuation of Avengers: Endgame, a massively successful and wildly entertaining capstone on a decade of filmmaking, and the first Spider-Man film to attempt to follow Into The Spider-Verse, the Academy Award-winning film that most agree is a high water mark in the superhero genre. And to be honest, you can tell director Jon Watts and writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers were struggling under the weight of those behemoths. Still, in spite of the weight of the baton it was handed, Far From Home carries it with relative ease, delivering a light, yet entertaining, summer escape from the dismal heat.

In the aftermath of “The Blip,” the five-year gap in which half of humanity was wiped from existence and suddenly returned, the world is slowly readjusting to the New World Order. Those who Blipped reenter society at the same age they were all those years ago, while the rest of the world goes on with the lives they had built in the meantime. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is among those trying to readjust. Having gone to space to battle Thanos, been wiped from existence, and then joined the battle for the fate of the world where he watched his mentor, Tony Stark, die, Peter’s looking at life through a new perspective. He’s ready to temporarily hang up his Spider-Suit, hop on a plane with his classmates on a trip to Europe, and hopefully tell Michelle “MJ” Jones (Zendaya) how he feels about her. However, his plans are continuously sidetracked by a series of irritations: classmate Flash (Tony Revolori) continues to torment him, former neighborhood brat-turned-five-year-older hunk Brad Davis (Remy Hii) also vies for MJ’s affection, and to top it all off, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) won’t stop pestering him about stepping up to become the new Iron Man. However, as Element-based monsters summoned to Earth in The Blip wreak havoc on Peter’s class trip, Spider-Man will have to step up to become the hero Tony always knew he could be, along with the help of a new superhero on the scene, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).

The reason Marvel’s Spider-Man films work as well as they do is because Marvel and director Jon Watts understand why the character is as popular as he is: first and foremost, he’s funny. Far From Home is, throughout its first half and sporadically in its second, a very funny film. There are actual jokes here that work, whether in terms of the film’s context to the greater MCU, as a high school film, or just as bits of comedy throughout. There’s a funny joke involving The Netherlands, a recurring bit about Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan trying to get with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and the continued antics of spoiled rich kid Flash Thompson (more on him in a minute). Now, in terms of the humor, I am a little disappointed the film tones down on Spider-Man’s famous quippiness – the most sarcastic Holland gets here is a quick reference to his nether regions as the “old web shooter.” However, in a film that so blatantly mocks the fans that protested Peter’s lack of Spider-Sense in previous films by renaming it the “Peter Tingle,” I’m not sure how mad I can truly be. What also makes Spider-Man a wholly unique superhero in this universe is that it’s earnestly grounded. Because he’s operating on a much smaller scale than, say, Iron Man, Captain America, or Captain Marvel, the Spider-Man movies try to scale back the tensions and dramas to great effect. Most of the stakes surround balancing high school drama with modest threats to citywide security (weapons dealers, moderate-sized villains who focus on destruction in small-scale areas, and so on), fully fleshed-out villains with three-dimensional schemes and great actors playing them, and most importantly: secret identities. The fact that Peter, unlike every other hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still has a secret identity adds a rich layer to the film. It adds drama as Peter must keep nosy people like Brad and MJ from figuring out why he disappears all the time. It causes tension when villains try to use the people Peter loves as pawns in their plot. And it creates comedy as Peter must find ways to hide his identity when he doesn’t have his costume – an early scene involving a comedia dell’arte mask is pretty laugh-out-loud funny. Spider-Man works as a film, and as a series, by balancing these small stakes with legitimate laughs, giving the film a light, breezy film that contrasts the rest of the series’ self-seriousness.

Of course, because Marvel films aren’t even fully functioning films, and are in fact episodes of a massive TV show that a big corporation somehow got into a movie theater (I clearly have some thoughts on this series, even though I enjoy them well enough), the question remains: “How Does This Film Fit Into The Marvel Universe, Especially Considering Endgame?” And honestly? Pretty well; especially in the way it uses these new developments as thematic plot points. Essentially, after Marvel painted themselves into a corner with the ballsy decision to fast forward the entire series five years into the future, they embraced a fascinating new motto: “The Blip: Just Don’t Think About It.” Knowing they could never satisfyingly explain the traumas, conundrums, and complications mixed into their decision, Marvel – and, by extension, Spider-Man: Far From Home – has decided to double down and ignore most, if not all of this with the saying, “Yeah, it’s pretty weird now.” Most of this is explained, brilliantly, through a high school news report by two chagrined students. One of the best parts of the film is the very opening, where a cheesy, childlike “In Memorium” (spelled incorrectly to great effect) plays for all the characters who died in Endgame and the Infinity War. And that really nails the interesting thing about the Spider-Man movies: because this is all seen through the eyes of children, the film smartly explores how modern millennial and Gen-Z children would be affected growing up in a world filled with superheroes and cataclysmic worldwide events. Thor is now studied in physics classrooms as opposed to English and mythology, kids believe they can defeat baddies by throwing shields, and so on. Meanwhile, sad teachers complain that their wives used The Blip as a way to escape their marriage. Far From Home manages to use its basic concept and role in the universe as a way of exploring the craziness of the world around its characters, and for the most part, it works. And if you’re left wondering, “Really? All my favorite characters got blipped away, so that all the major students remain the same age? Isn’t that a little convenient?” then guess what? F*ck you.

However, what’s perhaps most brilliant about what the film does with its post-Endgame universe is the weight it now puts on Peter Parker as a character. When we last saw Peter, he was Tony Stark’s protégé, and if Peter got in over his head, Iron Man was there to bail him out. However, with Tony Stark now dead, Peter not only is completely on his own, but must deal with the fact that he must step into a role that has very real consequences even if you do everything right. It’s a fascinating contrast between what we saw in Homecoming and what we’re seeing now: where Peter once was busting at the seams to become an Avenger, he now knows what the stakes are (having died himself and witnessed his hero perish permanently) and wants to go back to being a kid. The film also asks about what Spider-Man’s role in the world is beyond just Peter Parker. With the core Avengers team now dead or retired, there’s no real sense of who will be there to save them should something of this scale happen again. Some in the media ask if he’s in charge now – a great burden to place on the shoulders of a cocky, yet unsure seventeen-year-old. And through it all, Robert Downey Jr.’s face is plastered on walls and billboards, as if looking down from the heavens to demand Peter step up and fill his shoes. This is a film about finally growing up and finally accepting the mantle of responsibility, and no moment more perfectly represents that than when Peter dons Tony’s glasses and blasts some AC/DC (whom he mistakenly believes to be Led Zeppelin). It’s a fitting tribute that ties into the themes of the film pretty well.

Now, as smart as the themes surrounding growing up and heroism may be, the film isn’t wholly prepared to handle the weighty thematic material it tries to tackle. The film also delves into the waters of fake news and what to believe in a consistently crazy world, and while there’s some interesting stuff in there, it’s never executed exactly right. Now, as comic book readers are already aware, it should not be a spoiler to say that Mysterio, who in the comics is a villain obsessed with movie stunts and illusions, is in fact a con artist using drone technology to trick the world. There’s something smart in that inherent concept – by portraying Mysterio as the leader of a team of disgruntled Stark employees dealing with the aftermath of the company’s collapse, there’s an interesting story about businesses twisting narratives to their own gain. And furthermore, in the era of fake news and fabricated Internet stories, Mysterio is the perfect villain for the big screen. His big “show-stopper” is the declaration, “People need to believe. And nowadays, they’ll believe anything.” However, just saying you’re a film about fake news and modern day reality isn’t the same as being a film about it. Despite constant references to “It was on the news, so it must be true,” and jokes about “I read it on the Internet!” Far From Home never actually bothers to explore these concepts. Unlike, say, Black Panther exploring racial tensions and isolationism, The Winter Soldier exploring the slippery slope of authoritarianism, or Captain Marvel serving as a metaphor for a woman realizing her own capabilities, Far From Home has nothing to do with fake news. It is merely a theme thrown out to claim the film has some brains. Now, I don’t want to completely bash this film’s attempts to relate to the world of 2019. There’s a hilarious recurring bit where Flash Thompson is portrayed as this version of Earth’s Jake Paul. And a surprise appearance of a character recast as a controversial commentator who shall not be named is an inspired bit of satire about the world Gen-Z has inherited. But at the end of the day, Jon Watts is no Ryan Coogler. His attempts to tackle real-world issues and fears fall flat without a true angle with which to approach them. Coogler believed in his themes and his story wholeheartedly, and he used the superhero medium to explore them richly and succinctly. Watts, meanwhile, has essentially added extra layers on top of his story and hoped they would substitute for substance – like placing a $20 on top of a stack of $1s and claiming you’re rich.

Honestly, the Spider-Man films are much more interesting when they are focused on young love and high school shenanigans. While I found Homecoming to be a lot more fun, there’s a much stronger sense of John Hughes running through the veins of Far From Home. The recurring joke about Happy and Aunt May works both for its humor and as an updated take on the “Mom’s got a dorky new boyfriend” angle of several high school comedies.” And the film also accurately portrays the terrifying comedy of what would really happen if you gave advanced/nuclear tech to a dumb, horny teenage boy – classmates would almost immediately be neutralized, intentionally or not (as a friend of mine recently stated, “Kids just don’t have empathy”). However, where the film works its best magic is in the nerdy, honest relationship that blossoms between Holland’s Peter Parker and Zendaya’s conspiracy theorist goth MJ. Young love is rarely portrayed well in film and television, so I’m rather impressed in how well Far From Home manages to tackle it. The two have appropriately awkward chemistry, and I love the little details the writers sprinkle in throughout – like Peter trying to impress her by buying her a Black Dahlia necklace – her favorite flower, inspired by her favorite murder. And when the two inevitably get together (again, not a spoiler because you know it’s gonna happen), they share the nerdiest, most honest kiss you will ever see in either a high school or superhero movie. Spider-Man may be the only superhero movie where the stuff happening outside the action is more exciting than what’s happening during the action. Oh, and there’s a subplot involving best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice) that is one of my favorite running jokes in the film, and accurately captures high school relationships.

As for the filmmaking, I’ve gotta admit the film is a little more scattershot than its predecessor, mostly jumping from joke to joke, beat to beat at such a rapid pace, it never has time to fully breathe. You’ll be entertained for sure, but it just won’t stick with you the same way Homecoming, Black Panther, or Endgame do. I’m guessing that Watts struggled to figure out how to one-up the tension and action after he set the bar high on his first film and then watched Spider-Verse set the bar higher. None of the action sequences feel anywhere near as interesting as either film, although a Dream Sequence set inside Mysterio’s drones is absolutely joyous to watch. And musically, I was happy to hear tracks like The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” be used to brilliant effect, but I’m a little disappointed in the score – it seems Michael Giacchino and, most likely, Kevin Feige, traded in the classic “Spider-Man” score for some sort of middling generic blockbuster beat, and it is nowhere near as memorable or as exciting as what we heard in Homecoming. Still, I don’t want to rag on the production team too hard – Watts still made a coherent enough film, and new writers McKenna and Sommers really stepped up their game to make the film as entertaining as possible.

And now for the acting, which is always a joy to write about. For whatever reason, the Spider-Man movies have always managed to put together the most entertaining casts of all the Marvel films, and Far From Home is no different. Holland is perfectly admirable as Peter Parker, portraying the hero as a ripped Anthony Michael Hall. It’s an entertaining portrayal, and still one of the best we’ve see on the big screen. Meanwhile, Zendaya is perfect as conspiracy theorist MJ – she relishes the opportunity to play this role, and she eats it ALIVE. Samuel L. Jackson continues to play himself as Nick Fury, and while it’s not as impressive an outing as Captain Marvel, it’s still fun to hear him call Peter Parker a b*tch. Peter’s fellow students are always a blast, from Tony Revolori’s hilarious take on Flash Thompson to Jacob Batalon’s dorky, yet lovable Ned, from Jorge Lendeborg Jr.’s perfect take on Jason Ionello to Angourie Rice as a Tracy Flick-esque Betty Brandt. Actually, I want to give the film a special shout-out for giving the ever-talented Rice more to do than her limited role in Homecoming. It’s a smart move. As for the adult role models, Marisa Tomei is still wonderful as Hot Aunt May (the film’s words, not mine), Jon Favreau’s awkward Happy Hogan, dorky Martin Starr as the depressing chaperone on the school trip, and a scene-stealing J.B. Smoove as a witch-obsessed second chaperone. The only performance I’m not really keen on is Cobie Smulders, who feels out of place in this universe, and is particularly off as Maria Hill this time around. Which brings me to the film’s secret weapon: Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio with the mix of over and under acting he brings to his strangest roles, like Okja and Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s the kind of acting where your first question is, “Is this good?” before you realize that you don’t care and wholeheartedly commit. However, if you like Gyllenhaal in the first half, you’ll love him after he’s outed as the bad guy – Gyllenhaal commits to playing an obsessive villain with great zeal. You can tell he’s worked with some doozies of directors by the way he portrays second-half Mysterio as an over-the-top director. It’s a fascinating, funny, weird performance, and it’s the kind of role I’ve come to love from the talented actor. Oh, and one more thing: make sure you stick around for the end credits. One of the best performances in the film comes during the midcredit sequence, and while I can’t say too much about it, it is a character you want to see, played by exactly who you want to play him, performed exactly how you want in 2019.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is what we’ve come to expect from Marvel films, in all the exciting and disappointing ways. You’re going to be entertained for two hours. You’ll laugh a lot. And it’ll all build up to post-credit reveals that will make the most ardent fanboys happy. But you’re not going to be challenged. You won’t feel fully satisfied. You won’t be thrilled by new worlds like Black Panther, dazzled like Guardians of the Galaxy, nostalgic like Homecoming/Spider-Verse, or fulfilled like Endgame. You’ll just think, “That was enjoyable,” and move on with your life. But don’t assume that any of this is a diss, dear reader. Sometimes, that’s all your looking for in a summer blockbuster.

B-

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