Spider-Man’s movies, more than any other superhero this side of the DC/Marvel divide, are identified by their villains—how memorable they are, and often the tangible connection they have to the movie’s most memorable scenes.
The one with a tentacled Alfred Molina, and the train battle.
The one with a winged Michael Keaton, and the twist that bares its teeth en route to a high school dance.
The one with a cackling Willem Defoe, and that stupendously horrific metal mask.
In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the big bad is the big bowl-headed Mysterio—a fascinatingly zany, stoicly formulaic amalgam played by the consistently zany, never-formulaic Jake Gyllenhaal, who fills his armored suit with the unkillable ambition of a smartass whose plans seemingly depend on being little more than a smartass. Gyllenhaal’s presence is the movie’s cheeky wink in A-list actor form, never less than incredulous and never more than high-concept gag,
He’s amusing…I suppose? And in the grand tradition of live-action Spider-Man villains correlating largely to the quality of cinema they’re inhabiting, “Far From Home,” too, is amusing…I suppose. And just as much a smartass of a movie as its villain is.
Trading the time-hopping cataclysm of “Avengers: Endgame” for the subsequent teen romance and academic summer vacations of “Far From Home” is a slight of scope that only the MCU can present without question from us, its faithful vassals. But the MCU also presents Tom Holland’s second solo Spidey outing with cocky assurance, a too-massive leap in style and ambition over the simpler, isolated charms of 2017’s “Homecoming” that isn’t the apparent finale to the Infinity Saga so much as a retreading of this franchises’s worst tendency to play things safe, to prioritize universe-building over intrigue. For how much the Russo Brothers and “Endgame” showed that this franchise has matured over 11 years of movies, director Jon Watts proves it can also feel – despite the best efforts of the ever-charismatic Holland and Zendaya – narratively infantile. “Far From Home” very rarely chokes out the same air of charm and coherency that “Homecoming” breathes like wide-open air; instead it’s a smattering of cinematic ideologies constantly at odds with each other—much like Gyllenhaal’s strange performance that only feels stranger the more you absorb it in the context of his career.
After briefly recapping the implications of “Endgame” without ever really returning to them later on, aside from its infatuation with the legacy of a certain character rhyming with Rony Bark, “Far From Home” returns us to Peter Parker, back from the Snapture and thinking of ways to woo MJ (Zendaya, fully weaponizing the perfect no-fucks attitude she brought to “Homecoming”). He’s also preparing for a summer school trip across the Atlantic, as the world mourns the sacrifice of Iron Man (you’ll be reminded of his “Endgame” actions at every conceivable turn). Even superheroes need some time to sightsee, and Peter is more than willing to leave his Spidey suit at home, as if bringing it just in case would make the need to use it inevitable.
Holland’s uncanny ability to toe the line of teenage awkwardness with finesse remains a stupendously successful vehicle for the relative light-heartedness of Peter’s world, even as his high school exploits rarely succeed. Some doomed-from-the-start romantic plotting on Peter’s part is cutely juxtaposed by blooming infatuation in the eyes of his best friend Ned – reminding us all how quickly a chance encounter destroys our eagerness at being bachelors – and even between MCU mainstay Happy and Aunt May. In other words, his world is falling part, just not in a way even the Avengers can stall.
While Peter continues clinging to the idea of getting close to MJ as the only way he can keep one foot on ground treaded by teens with normal lives, a stretch of the movie that relies a bit too much on the (admittedly great) chemistry between Holland and Zendaya, the specter of duty looms everywhere, eventually manifesting itself as Nick Fury surprising Peter in his hotel room one night, reminding him that there’s a vacuum for a reliable superhero who calls Earth home (Thor and Captain Marvel will brb, apparently). Chalk it up to peer pressure, but Peter eventually teams up with the strange-but-powerful Mysterio, battling elemental monsters popping up around Europe – villains that are only aversions to the real threat – while trying to reconcile superhero duties with humanly pursuits.
The conflict is one steadfastly worn by the genre, and this iteration feels plucked from the Sam Raimi-directed “Spider-Man 2’s” bag of tricks. The 2004 movie realizes its themes with more grace, but the difference this time around is the pressure placed on Peter – mostly by Fury, an avatar to remind us that Earth will always need a guy in tights to idolize – to become the heir apparent to Iron Man, who the MCU doesn’t seem content, or perhaps even comfortable, moving on from anytime soon.
While in “Homecoming” Stark discouraged Peter from being overeager about taking on the evils that lied in wait in New York City’s shadows, in “Far From Home” – after the events of “Infinity War” and “Endgame” proved Peter could hold his own – he’s encouraging him from beyond the grave to take up the mantle. The motivation makes sense, although the MacGuffin the movie uses to present it is a jarring and suspect one: A set of sunglasses presented outfitted with, essentially, unmitigated access to Stark Industries’ arsenal of resources and weaponry.
It’s meant to be a vote of confidence from a benevolent superhero, and sure, we can accept it as such in the moment. But once Peter stumbles his way through using the glasses for the first time, very nearly decimating one of his own peers using a drone launched from a Stark satellite in orbit, it’s impossible not to wonder what one of the Avengers’s brightest minds was thinking with his final act. Peter’s trepidation and wavering confidence at filling Stark’s shoes is a major plot-driver in “Far From Home,” but the way it manifests is far from logical. Stark viewing Peter as a son and giving him the time of day as a mentor to an overeager Padawan, as he did in “Homecoming”? Sure. But granting him the full might to his company’s array of destructive weapons, when other heroes have fully accepted their mantle? Tony may not have been that dumb, but Peter’s predictable actions in “Far From Home” – resembling parody more than character flaw – show that he certainly didn’t think hard about his decision.
The major issues in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” are rooted in this quandary, where the movie refuses to reckon with natural outcomes of major choices and reveals – much of them manifested by the movie’s own accord. So little of the screenplay, contributed by “Homecoming” alums Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, takes itself seriously that it leaves us at a loss for how to react emotionally. “Far From Home” meets the baseline test for what passes as superhero entertainment in 2019, sure. But while most MCU entries function in spite of their dumbing down the audience, Watts’s movie almost relies on it, making sure we see its smirk before it pulls the wool over our eyes with another fight scene or Spidey quip.
That’s to say: The movie – at, frustratingly, so many points – presents an interest in deconstructing big-time ideas in a meaningful way. It never does. And if you’re of the belief that with great box office success comes great responsibility – and, to an extent, I am – “Far From Home” is one of the MCU’s starkest examples of a near-complete disregard for engaging in conversations of sociopolitical implications that outweigh what we ever tangibly expect to see in these films. The movie scoots its chair near the table of discourse, in ways as explicit as Stark satellite being controlled by a 16-year-old kid, and flies backward the moment it’s been noticed.
It’s strange. It’s momentum-killing. It’s something I’m not expecting to see in these movies, and I always ended up disappointed once the movie retroactively agreed.
Watts is going over his head in trying to balance small-time worry with high-flying consequences – an awkward tension most likely a result of studio interference, if we know any better – and they never really harmonize. Holland is excellent, but Peter doesn’t grow in “Far From Home” so much as take the next natural step in the evolution of his mythos. The movie very rarely exhibits the charismatic fury that makes its hero a legend, and its villain does so to an even lesser extent.
I’m not quite sure if Gyllenhaal was hired to bring yet another A-list talent to the MCU more than he represents a tongue-in-cheek casting; an actor with a recent run of memorably wild performances (see: “Okja,” “Nightcrawler,” “Velvet Buzzsaw”) that the movie is not only aware of, but hopes we are aware of and anchor our distrust of Mysterio in. Watts, McKenna and Sommers seem to be motivated by the latter, and if that’s true, the inevitable revelation about Quentin Beck is confounding in its presentation, callous in its attitude and subatomic in its consequences, which amount to a retread of Vulture’s motivations in the last go-round, only on a corporate scale.
Don’t forget about the little guy, the overshadowed insubordinate—it’s a big idea, explicitly presented! And “Far From Home,” it seems, resents it. Ironic when Marvel Studios belongs to a parent company whose CEO makes 1,000 times more than its employees.
In a way, Mysterio is the MCU machine personified: a display of gorgeous illusion overshadowing real motives not revealed until the end. The main difference is we’ve been conditioned to know those final twists are coming when the credits roll; Mysterio is working for his own mythmaking gain.
OK, so perhaps he and Disney aren’t different in that vein.
The character’s abilities allow Watts to ferry us through some truly psychedelic trips – including one all-too-brief sequence reminiscent of “Doctor Strange’s” reality-bending sojourns – but a major reason these bits of visual imagination and eccentricity stand out is because the rest of “Far From Home” is so devoid of it. By the time the final confrontation rolls around, I actually wished Spider-Man was punching a hoard of nameless, faceless goons instead of the inexplicably droll enemies-to-web-up-and-throw-around the movie chooses to throw at him.
The most disappointing, cinematically inept thing about “Far From Home” is how much its post-credits scenes – the first, in particular – makes the whole affair feel like an incredibly long con, one that would make Michael Bay jealous. In my screening, the return of a certain character and complete 180 about the way live-action cinema has identified with Spider-Man yielded the most enthusiastic response in a movie – nothing else came close, really – and I’m not sure that’s a great sign for the state of cinema. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the MCU existing in a social media age, maybe it’s because, for the first time since 2008, there’s next-to-no indication about the next grand chapter of this story other than, yes, Virginia, there will be a next grand chapter. But it makes me worried to think that moviegoers are content with two hours of minimally invigorating foreplay for 60 seconds of catharsis. Spidey may be far from home in his latest adventure, but the movie is still there—sitting back, playing it safe, declining to take risks and investing in its audience to the extent of a cash-throwing punchline.
“Spider-Man: Far From Home” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, some language and brief suggestive comments.
Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marisa Tomei
Directed by Jon Watts