Spider-Man: Far From Home
Man, it feels like no time at all since Tony Stark’s funeral and Steve Rodgers going off into the time travel sunset with Peggy Carter. But the Marvel train, it just keeps on rolling, even if, after this point, the future looks a tad uncertain. Much like 2015’s Ant-Man was awkwardly placed to end “Phase Two”, so another bug-based superhero is around to close off “Phase Three” acting, in many ways, as the lead-in to what the MCU has to show us next.
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is as good a character as any to get this sorted. Alongside Chadwick Bozeman’s Black Panther, he’s probably the best of what Marvel now has to work with and, as Far From Home makes crystal clear, he is expected to be a new tent-pole. Having really knocked things out of the park with Homecoming two years, Jon Watts, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers are back for a second run with everyone’s friendly neighborhood superhero. It will be Holland’s fifth outing, and the tenth film featuring the character in just 17 years. Have we reached the exhaustion point, or will the director, writer and their cast manage to keep things amazing, spectacular and superior?
A few months after the the end of Thanos’ threat, Peter Parker (Holland) prepares for a class tour of Europe, hoping to leave his secret life as Spider-Man behind for a time, while also readying himself to declare feelings for classmate MJ (Zendaya). Such plans are put on ice after the intervention of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who needs Spider-Man to fight alongside the mysterious hero Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a battle against elemental beings from another universe.
Sometimes, even I can be surprised by the MCU. I went into Homecoming with not stellar expectations, and walked out incredibly impressed. I walked into Far From Home feeling a little fatigued with the superheroes, and walked out astonished. Not only might this be the best Spider-Man film ever made, not only might this be the best MCU film made to date, it may actually be in contention for film of the year. The people mentioned above have, very much so, do it again, and more.
Where to start? I suppose it must be with the titular web-slinger, and boy has Tom Holland made this role his own, equalling and then surpassing the work of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In the 130 minute run-time of Far From Home there is a lot that he and the writers are trying to get across with Peter Parker: his physical and mental exhaustion following the events of Endgame; the pressure he is feeling with the weight of the entire planet’s expectations; his desire for something normal and romantic with the girl he likes; and, perhaps most importantly, his sense of loss over the death of Stark, and how he is seeking to fill this mentor-shaped hole. It’s a lot to do, but this cast and crew manage to do it.
Holland really does excel. He’s still the snarky teenager, but he’s been imbued with this very real feeling of experience and fatigue, in scenes where he struggles with baying crowds (he panics when one terrified looking girl asks what he’ll do if the aliens come back) or when he is called upon to be an inspiring figure for the bereft. It says something about the strength of the lead’s performance that he is able to balance the need for Spidey quips and these quieter scenes when Spider-Man may well be looking for a “No More” moment, or at least a return to just being a guy dealing with neighborhood problems.
The script backs up everything Holland does: “I didn’t think I’d have to save the world this summer” he muses, disappointed, at one juncture, but with perfect sincerity. He wants to go back and be the kid who gleefully submitted when a random passer-by asked him to “Do a flip”, but the world has changed and there is no going back: without wanting to go into deeper spoiler territory, a moment near the conclusion where Holland’s Parker is stone-faced and determined when confronted with murder attempts and death is very telling. That evolution is well-drawn out and depicted.
The spine of Far From Home is the relationship with Zendaya’s MJ. I can see a lot of similarities between this love plot and (from my recent binge watch) Netflix’s Stranger Things (namely El and Mike) in that we have something almost unbearably sweet and innocent, lacking any overtly sexual overtones, but which instead is just that trembling, hesitant early teenage years kind of infatuation. The MCU has generally shied away from romance, but do it pretty well here.
Zendaya was great in Homecoming and is better here, letting a coy shyness into the otherwise tough and ballsy exterior. In other words, both she and Holland are actually acting like dumb-struck teenagers unable to properly enunciate romantic feelings, and that’s a perfect level for Far From Home to aim for. Even in her barbed snark – “And therefore I have value?” she deadpan responds to Peter’s compliment on her dress in once scene – she demonstrates that she is not the same “MJ” that was essentially rescue-bait for Sam Raimi, or the refrigerated Gwen Stacy of Marc Webb (that being said, Far From Home could be doing a bit more with female characters).
The mentor shaped hole is to be filled by Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, a perfectly played con-man who, to the shock of nobody even tangentially aware of Spider-Man rogue gallery, turns out to be the actual villain of the piece. And what a villain. With a gloriously well-thought out thesis statement of “Nowadays, people will believe anything”, Far From Home’s Mysterio becomes the MCU’s most obvious, potent and exceptionally well-written expose of the Trump era, revelling in superpowers of deception, illusion, image manipulation and, well, fake news.
I can’t say enough good things about Mysterio. Gyllenhall is generally great, perhaps channeling some of the energy from his near-brush with playing the titular character under Sam Raimi. He essentially plays two roles here, as both the little-bit-too-sincere Quentin Beck, who happens to be the perfect friend Peter needs at that moment, and the villainous con-man with a ever-growing hint of insanity.
His underhanded and manipulative interactions with Peter, where he presents himself as the perfect successor to Stark, and as the understanding friend that Parker needs, are the best example of such writing since Hans from Frozen’s sycophantic “Love Is An Open Door”. Later, when the turn comes, he’s able to introduce this feeling of barely hidden megalomania. While the exposition scene where he and his crew’s scheme is outlined in painstaking detail is probably the film’s weakest, everything after that is gold. Mysterio presents himself as the superhero who want’s to make Earth great again, and we will all see what he wants us to see.
In Far From Home, the ability to shoot lasers out of your hands is secondary to being able to control the narrative, and the film makes a point of repeatedly presenting the weakness of the media in the modern age. The best example, played for laughs but imbued with seriousness, might be an off the cuff description of a black-suited Peter as the “Night Monkey” that suddenly becomes an internationally reported story. Various conglomerates are more than happy to present Mysterio as the hero we need right now, and there’s something so fascinating, so intriguing, about a villain who gets what he wants in such a manner, in fabricating “an Avengers-level threat” when the stakes are actually significantly lower on the global catastrophe scale. The MCU has largely turned around its traditional villain issues as of late, and Mysterio is just the latest example.
At every point, Watts and his writers are at pains to tie everything in together with that central theme, of warped perceptions and crafting delusions. Even in its off-hand comedic moments it is doing this, such as when Parker’s teacher “as a man of science” posits that “witches” are responsible for various events in the world recently, a joke that absolutely elicits a laugh when delivered in its deadpan way, but which takes on a slightly queasier meaning when you consider Beck’s aforementioned compass of “People will believe anything”.
Every scene, beat and moment is in some tied to this theme, whether it is being done for purely dramatic reasons (a scene where Peter starts to question the very reality around him is heart-breaking) or as part of Far From Home’s inherently quippy make-up. It’s exceedingly rare that I see a film that is so on-point with all this, that deftly avoids the possibility of becoming tone deaf, by turning it’s various drama or comedic tones towards this single goal.
Perhaps the best example of this is the film’s treatment of one Tony Stark, whose image and memory can be seen everywhere, almost like he is haunting Peter (taken to an effectively creepy extreme in one of Mysterio’s holographic mindbends). At first I considered this obsession with Iron Man to be a weak-point in the film, a deification it could do without, until I realised that even the negative aspects of what is occurring – Mysterio, his crew, the overly-powerful technology that Parker is handed without being really ready for it – also stems entirely from Stark’s past actions.
In other words, Stark being an insufferable, elitist asshole who constantly belittled those whom he considered inferior to him is still, even after Stark’s death, coming back to bite those he left behind. In Far From Home, Peter Parker is faced with the opportunity to take on the mantle of a Tony Stark who is being elevated to sainthood by the public at large, even though they don’t fully realise all the problems he caused. Perception and reality are being played with even then.
It behooves me to take a moment to focus on the film’s approach to humour more directly, which is fantastic. I said in my thoughts on Homecoming that Spider-Man was one of the few Marvel heroes where the emphasis on comedy was both appropriate and fitting, and that remains the case here. There is care to balance the funny with the serious, such as when the return of the missing billions is first played for laughs, with a marching band appearing in the middle of a basketball game and previously weedy children now being movie-star handsome studs; later, Peter addresses a charity dedicated to helping those left homeless by the entire affair). But when Far From Home wants to be funny, it is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
There’s the delusions of the American teenager, when Jacob Batalon, back in his scene-stealing role as Peter’s friend Ned, insists that Europeans will love Americans; there’s the hilarious irony of Flash Thompson (the ever-excellent Tony Revolori) praising Spider-Man before casually insulting Peter; the amazing pair of Martin Starr and J.B Smoove as the chaperoning teachers, who are ever-suffering from the strains of the job and various supernatural events (Starr laments that his wife faked being part of “the snap” to leave him for another man, though the funeral they held “was pretty real”); Peter’s slapstick-esque efforts to create the perfect moment to declare his feelings for MJ, that ends up with him mistakenly ordering a drone strike on his own tour bus; Peter agonises over the hints that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are an item; later, in one of many call-backs to Iron Man, he expresses enthusiasm for “Back In Black”: “I love Led Zeppelin!”.
More than that, I think that the humour actually grounds the film in the reality of modern day coming-of-age, which is a thing that comes with heapings of memes, hashtags and trending topics to be joked about. There’s something genuinely believable about people responding to fire monsters and drone armadas on London Bridge with zingers when they are of that age and generation. Thinking about it, I would actually compare it to the early seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (and, if I can use the same comparative source twice, Stranger Things), where extraordinary events are placed side by side with more worldly issues, which the teenaged mindset might place them on the same level of importance.
Visually it is another engaging vibrant looking production that benefits from its choice of setting, Far From Home jumping between a succession of well-scouted European cities. While we inevitably end up in the already familiar landscape of London (it is, perhaps, a bad sign that the MCU is re-using non-New York locations) it’s good to see this studio branch out, and it’s interesting to see Spider-Man in such places, utilising new forms of architecture and masonry to zip around.
The combination of the locations and the nature of the villain means that Jon Watts can get into mindmelting territory, and Far From Home benefits from a number of great action sequences, parceled out superbly. The various “Elementals” only get better when you realise they are just advanced smoke and mirrors, and Mysterio’s holographic nightmare-scapes result in a mid-point sequence where Parker is catapulted through a gauntlet of make-believe distortions. It’s a frightening mishmash of Nightmare On Elm Street, Inception and Twin Peaks, and serves as a refreshingly unique arena for a MCU hero. The big finale in London is a nice mix of this and more traditional action, and Far From Home never really disappoints on that score.
Michael Giacchino returns for the score, and, as he did in Homecoming, proves that things are not entirely stale on the auditory front for the MCU. Aside from that still wonderful main theme, he brings life and dynamism to various motifs, in a way that matches and exceeds the work of Danny Elfman for Sam Raimi, and even Hans Zimmer for Marc Webb. When most MCU scores are humdrum affairs, Giacchino’s stands out even more, and work like this gives credence to thoughts that he may be the best film composer working today.
Working back to my opening thoughts, and with the benefit of now having gotten them down in writing, I do believe that this is the best Spider-Man film ever made, a little ahead of Spider-Man 2 and Homecoming. It is certainly in the conversation for being the best MCU film yet, in the same echelon as Iron Man, The First Avenger, The Avengers and Black Panther. There are still five and a bit months to go, but it will certainly be in contention for my film of the year, and will assume a provisional pole.
It’s easy to see why. The individual elements are exemplary for the genre: the cast, the script, the awareness of tone, the themes, the visual presentation. But more than that, Watts brings them all together to form a real master-piece of superhero cinema, an excellent Spidey film, an excellent addition to the ever-growing canon of Marvel Studios and one that leaves off with just the right amount of growth, change and tantalising plot threads for the future. If it is the MCU plan to move away from somewhat overcooked epics like Endgame so they can instead focus on these kinds of adventures, then I can feel the fatigue falling away. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Releasing).